Catholic Charities helps immigrant children with increased fear, stress

A woman holds onto her children during a special Mass in Los Angeles honoring immigrants in 2014. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Vida-Nueva.com)

By Katie Scott
Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — The crushing, life-altering event can occur during the most mundane circumstances — as parents pay a traffic ticket or drop kids off at school.

“It’s happening every day in Portland, in Eugene, everywhere in the state,” said Vanessa Briseno, director of Oregon Catholic Charities’ Pope Francis Center.

Arrests of immigrants in the U.S. illegally are increasing nationwide, and the result is more children are losing — or fearing they will lose — a parent through detention or deportation.

On July 22, the Trump administration released a new policy allowing immigration officials to quickly arrest and deport undocumented immigrants without going before a judge. More than 20,000 people could immediately be subject to the expanded fast-track removal process.

The expansion is the latest in ongoing efforts by the administration to keep migrants from entering the country illegally or remove them after they enter. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported more than 256,000 immigrants, an increase of 13% over the previous year.

Some years of the Obama administration, the numbers were even higher, though convicted criminals and those who’d entered the country multiple times were targeted. Under the current administration, agents are instructed to detain and remove anyone living in the country illegally, including individuals without criminal histories. Many of these individuals are parents and caretakers.

When it’s a parent who’s deported, the impact on children is traumatic and has emotional, developmental and physical repercussions, said Lucrecia Suarez, manager of the Intercultural Counseling Center at Catholic Charities. Even a baby’s development “can be altered by the toxic and chronic stress the remaining parent, and the entire family, has to overcome with such a loss,” she said.

Catholic Charities is attempting to help support these children through a range of services. “We don’t know what the outcome will always be for the families,” said John Herrera, director of the agency’s Immigration Legal Services. “But we can do our best to provide support and use existing laws to keep parents with their children. Through it all, we are working to fulfill the Gospel.”

“It’s heart-wrenching to think about what parents are needing to do” to prepare for a possible separation, said Vanessa Briseno, director of Oregon Catholic Charities’ Pope Francis Center, pictured in this 2018 photo. Catholic Charities steps in with mental health support and legal aid for immigrants as deportations and detentions increase, with a growing number of children experiencing high levels of fear and stress. (CNS photo/courtesy Oregon Catholic Charities) .

Current policies have created “a blanket of fear over the entire immigrant community,” perhaps most significantly over children, said Michael Bennett, a lifelong Catholic and a Portland immigration judge for nearly three decades.

In Oregon, an estimated 62,000 young people, many U.S. citizens, have at least one immigrant parent who is without documents, based on U.S. Census Bureau data from 2013. Nationally, nearly 6 million U.S. citizen children live with a family member who does not have legal status, according to 2010-14 census figures. Children in these families are living with relentless stress, Briseno told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

Although the well-publicized, large-scale raids of immigrant families haven’t materialized in the state, there has been “a steady increase in ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) pickups,” said Kat Kelley of Catholic Charities. When a raid does occur, “it’s almost as bad as it can get for children,” according to Bennett, now retired and a member of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Seaside. “It’s not quite like a death in the family but almost.”

“The psychological effect of all this on children, on families, is huge,” added Kelley. “We are going to see a public health fallout over this for decades.”

Suarez, who with Catholic Charities colleagues is attempting to mitigate that fallout, said fear and stress associated with family separation manifests itself in different ways physically and mentally for children depending on their ages.

At the counseling center, support for children focuses on the entire family. Counselors and case managers begin by helping parents in practical ways, such as with children who don’t want to attend school or are unable to sleep. “Then, during the grieving process of loss,” she said, “we offer sustained ways to stay connected to a deported family member and to preserve hope.”

Some argue that the children of these immigrants suffer because of their parents’ actions.

“One of the questions we most often hear is: ‘Why don’t these people follow the legal channels to get here?'” said Briseno, of the Pope Francis Center, which provides information about social justice initiatives. “Once undocumented people are here, the next response usually is, ‘They should just go home and get in line.'”

But “there is no line,” Briseno said. This is especially true for those who have left their countries overnight due to severe threats. “What we are seeing today are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents who are fleeing their home countries with children at their side because the threat of violence, death, starvation is all too real for them.”

Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, an associate professor of theology and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, who has written extensively on migration, argued that borders are not absolute.

Many involved in this U.S. immigration debate have legitimate concerns about an influx of immigrants, he said, and the Catholic Church accepts the necessity of national borders. But “there is also a way of seeing deeper questions about law and our relationship with others,” the priest said.

Matt Cato, director of the Portland Archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, said that if society were to truly “appreciate the significance of children’s emotional ties throughout the first years of life, it would no longer tolerate children growing up fearful of losing a parent.”

Catholic Charities is using legal expertise to try to preserve these ties, protect the vulnerable and keep families intact.

Nationwide and in Oregon, legal services for families facing separation are extremely limited. That’s partially because retaining a private immigration attorney can cost thousands of dollars and is too expensive for the average immigrant family in the state, according to Herrera, head of Immigration Legal Services.

The Center for Removal Defense was established by Portland’s Catholic Charities in 2017 to provide “equal access to justice and representation for undocumented migrants in our community,” Herrera said. He added that a number of center clients are from mixed-status families — those composed of at least one U.S. citizen.

According to data analyzed by the American Immigration Council, immigrants with access to legal counsel while in custody are four times more likely to be released from detention than their unrepresented counterparts.

The center’s full-time lawyer and legal assistant have argued more than 220 asylum cases. Currently they are tackling about 40.

Over the past two years, “we’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of individuals and families who seek our services,” said Briseno. They’ve had to turn away almost 200 cases because they lacked sufficient resources to help.

Along with the center’s legal aid, Catholic Charities offers parents guardianship workshops, where attorneys go through paperwork ensuring that if one or both parents are detained or deported, their children will not enter the foster care system. A child’s older siblings or a neighbor, for example, is given authority to make decisions on behalf of the parent.

“It’s heart-wrenching to think about what parents are needing to do,” said Briseno, adding that Catholic Charities also belongs to a partnership that aims to keep kids out of foster care by providing trained host families.

And the agency helps immigrant families come up with a plan for children if their parents “don’t come home one day,” said Kelley. It includes a list of what numbers to call, where important papers are kept and where children should go.

“We encourage families to have the plan taped to the door or bathroom so it’s visible in a crisis,” Kelley said.

One of the tragedies of separation for families is that even if reunited, “damage has been done,” said Bennett. “You don’t get that time back with your kids.”

Still, Suarez believes there’s hope for children to heal from the trauma. “Every child is different, but you can see a resilience in each of them that they learned from their parents,” she said.

“That these families have survived up to this point shows how resilient they are.”

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Scott is special projects reporter at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

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