Hippo Reads is proud to be working with Oxford University Press to highlight unmissable excerpts from recent and upcoming titles. Today’s post is reprinted from Forgotten Citizens by Luis Zayas with permission from Oxford University Press, USA, © 2015, Luis Zayas.

Social isolation and the chronic psychological strain of living in the diffused light of unauthorized status take their toll on citizen-children and their mixed-status families. Up to this point, I have focused on comprehending the varied motives for taking the bold steps to immigrate in spite of many dangers and examining the life of immigrants, in the shadows. To continue to the next steps in the sequence toward deportation, I now discuss what happens when undocumented parent are arrested by police officers and detained by the immigration system. Arrest is the dreaded event, the one that undocumented immigrants and their children anticipate wearily every day of their lives. This is a close look at the first steps in the process toward potential or eventual deportation.

Apprehension

Once in the United States, the moment most feared by the undocumented immigrant is a direct encounter with law enforcement agencies. That meeting can be with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP), both under the umbrella of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), or it can be with local law enforcement. An arrest can occur while living and traveling domestically, or during ICE raids on workplaces or communities. Or the arrest can happen because of an encounter with CBP, the agency responsible for security and apprehension activities on the borders and other points of entry into the country, such as shipping ports, airports, and border checkpoints. In other circumstances, a run-in with local police and state law enforcement bureaus can initiate the process. If the local and state police are working in cooperation with ICE or CBP, the person apprehended can be funneled into the immigration enforcement system. Anytime an immigrant is unable to show proof of legal status, he or she is subject to being arrested. Most apprehensions begin with a routine practice of law enforcement: a traffic stop. The majority of these are a result of minor driving offenses such as a broken taillight or making a lane change without signaling, though it can be a more serious event such as a traffic accident or suspicion of intoxication. During these routine or investigative stops, police officers will ask the driver for identification. In some municipalities, failure to carry a license may only result in a ticket, whereas other towns and cities adhere to policies that require automatic arrest and booking of an individual who cannot produce a valid state license. As of 2014, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and the District of Columbia allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain a valid state driver’s license,2 largely reducing the incidence of immigrant arrests that result from routine traffic stops. In other states, however, arrests and detention can be a frequent occurrence. The law enforcement agency that does the “booking” of the person arrested at the local level takes the individual’s fingerprints, triggering an automatic crosscheck with the fingerprints in ICE databases. If it is determined that the individual is unlawfully present, ICE will request that a “hold” be placed on the immigrant.

In local municipalities, the rigor of immigration enforcement may also depend on the individual municipality’s policies. As of 2014, there were 37 law enforcement agencies in 18 states that had signed “287(g) Agreements,” or partnerships with ICE that allow local law enforcement to effectively carry out federal enforcement activities. The agreement derives its name from Section 287(g) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that authorizes the ICE director to train local agencies on enforcement activities (ICE, 2014a). There are usually two models of the agreement: the task-force model and the jail-enforcement model. For task force agreements, local officers are allowed to inquire about the immigration status of any individual they believe to be present in the country without papers, and can arrest individuals based on suspicion alone. Under the jail enforcement system, local officers can investigate the immigration status of any arrested person and independently flag an individual for detention if the officer feels they are deportable (American Immigration Council, 2012).

Despite its inception in 1996, the 287(g) mechanism was not aggressively implemented until 2009 when the Obama administration embraced the agreements to increase local enforcement and arrests, which raised concerns about racial profiling. Participating counties in Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina have been defendants in lawsuits alleging unconstitutional profiling of Hispanics leading to significant increases in Hispanic arrests across the board. In Alamance County, North Carolina, the U.S Department of Justice found that Hispanic drivers were more likely to be pulled over than non-Hispanic drivers by a ratio of 10 to 1 (American Immigration Council, 2012). Jurisdictions with these agreements routinely receive complaints from citizen and noncitizen members alike about targeting activities such as disproportional arrests for Hispanics, checkpoints set up in Hispanic neighborhoods, and discrimination between ticketing Hispanic and non-Hispanic drivers for identical violations. In a study of the effects of immigration enforcement on immigrants in seven US counties, Randy Capps and his colleagues found that many immigrants were moving from towns and counties where 287(g) agreements were being energetically enforced to municipalities where 287(g) had not been implemented. In a reflection of this internal migration, public schools in communities not implementing 287(g) saw a rise in student enrollment, whereas schools in the counties where 287(g) was in effect saw a corresponding exodus of students. “Secure Communities” is another federal immigration enforcement strategy that partners with local law enforcement. Under this program, any local jurisdiction that scans fingerprints to cross check with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) databases will automatically have the prints forwarded to ICE.

Detention

If ICE determines that an individual detained by local law enforcement is undocumented, it will issue a “detainer” directly to the enforcement agency to request that it hold the individual for 48 hours, the maximum amount of time that an agency can detain someone without filing charges (ICE, 2014b). At that point, ICE must retrieve the detainee from the local facility or the law enforcement agency is obligated to release the individual. Although local law enforcement is not legally required to honor ICE detainer requests, many do. As of 2013, the Secure Communities strategy seems to be everywhere and continues to funnel individuals from localities to ICE for deportation. Municipalities around the country (e.g., in California, Illinois, Texas, and others) are fighting back.

Some individuals with immigration allegations may not immediately be transferred to ICE for processing. For cases in which local law enforcement files criminal charges, the immigrant must pay the criminal bond or serve the required jail time if convicted before being released to ICE custody. ICE may also become involved in cases even where the individual has proper documentation. Depending on criminal convictions, the Immigration and Nationality Act allows ICE to detain and deport individuals who are legal permanent residents if the criminal conviction is sufficiently serious. The only nondeportable individuals are US-born citizens. (Under extreme circumstances, naturalized citizens can be stripped of their citizenship and removed from the country.)

These are just some of a wide range of methods that can bring an unauthorized immigrant into ICE custody though, of course, every situation is unique. Once in ICE custody, officers generally process the immigrant at a local ICE office and run an additional background check to determine whether the individual has any criminal record or has been deported in the past. Based on the unique circumstances of the person in custody, the officer may elect to release the individual on bond or on his or her own recognizance, or may continue to detain the immigrant without bond until termination of the case (Morton, 2011). Save for circumstances that result in mandatory detention, such as the Garcia case in Chapter 1, in which the father had been stopped several times for immigration violations, ICE officers are largely given discretion in making this determination.

While waiting out these unexpected separations, children may be forced to remain with relatives or local child welfare for a span of days or months (Capps et al., 2007). In a 2007 report, the US Government Accountability Office (USGAO) observed that ICE officers can exercise the most discretion in deciding how to handle an unauthorized alien in the early processes of discovery and arrest (USGAO, 2007). At this point, an ICE officer can make the decision to release the immigrant on humanitarian grounds (e.g., caring for a young child; having a serious illness; being sole provider or guardian of a family). According to the GAO report, if the detained immigrant is the sole caretaker of children, ICE officers are required to take steps to ensure that the child or children are not left unattended. The GAO report, which was highly critical of ICE procedures, went on to state that ICE officers and attorneys have much less discretion once the process of apprehension and removal process is underway. After this initial period, when the detainee is transferred into the ICE detention system, the arresting officers can no longer exercise discretion; it’s simply out of their hands.

It is at this point that concerns for the detainee’s immediate well-being escalate, like those cited by the GAO report. Detainees can be subject to intentional or unintentional neglect, abuse, or even traumatization, as they are being held and processed or transferred from one detention facility to another. Moved further away from their families and lawyers, detainees lose the ability to care for their dependents as their own risk of exposure to trauma rises. Immigrants’ length of time in detention depends on a number of factors, including their eligibility for relief, past criminal and/or immigration history, and familial financial resources. Most detainees facing deportation should have three options: (1) the individual can apply for asylum, withholding of removal, or relief under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;6 (2) he or she can ask to see an immigration judge to request relief from deportation; or (3) the individual may agree to “premerits” voluntary departure (i.e., the individual acknowledges that he or she is in the country unlawfully and agrees to be returned or return to his or her country of origin in lieu of removal proceedings and at his or her own expense).

Asylum is a type of relief that is limited for most unauthorized immigrants. In order to apply for asylum, an immigrant must present a “credible fear of persecution or torture” and have been present in the United States for less than one year. Immigrants who meet these criteria may file an asylum claim while in detention as a defense to removal. If the immigration judge grants asylum, the individual will be released from detention. Alternatively, asylum seekers may qualify for “parole” in order to leave the detention facility while awaiting the results of an asylum hearing. ICE officers generally have discretion in determining whether an asylum-seeker may be paroled, and generally take into account whether the individual is a flight risk or a threat to society. As with other cases, the individual may be required to pay a bond before being able to leave detention (Nolo, 2014). Ultimately, as most asylum applications are unsuccessful, many immigrants who elect to apply eventually end up facing removal orders. Withholding of removal and relief under the Convention Against Torture are similar forms of relief, based on credible fears of persecution and/or torture, but available for persons who are applying outside of the one-year deadline after entry into the United States.

For immigrants without an asylum claim, there may be avenues for relief from deportation that do not require the challenge of proving a “credible fear.” If the immigrant is eligible and can afford an attorney, or is detained in a facility that is served by a pro-bono service agency, he or she may apply for relief from deportation. Generally, this lengthy process involves at least two hearings in immigration court, and can span a year or even more. In this scenario, the length of detention depends on the bond determination, specifically whether the individual is a “mandatory detainee” or receives an immigration bond. In all cases, ICE has the discretion to set a bond for a detained individual. In some cases, the bond amount set by ICE may be reviewed by an immigration judge, who can raise, lower, or agree with the bond amount set. For individuals with certain convictions, including misdemeanor controlled substance offenses, aggravated felony or firearm offenses, an immigration judge has no authority to review the custody decision of ICE. These “mandatory detainees” must remain in detention until the conclusion of their cases in court. For all other cases, the officer can assign a bond to the detainee paid in cash or money order. Depending on the individual’s history, this bond can increase to the tens of thousands of dollars or more. Particularly at these higher prices, tight financial resources often prevent families from paying the bond of the detainee in a timely fashion, if at all. In the end, as we will see in Chapter 7, a successful application for relief from deportation requires a combination of resources that not all families enjoy. Lack of access to legal counsel, the cost of bonds, and the prolonged detention associated with a court case can make this option less desirable to parents who are anxious to return to their children

For individuals in mandatory detention who select the voluntary departure option, and those who face removal after their pursuit of options 2 and 3, the length of detention depends, in part, on the time that deportation and repatriation will take. For instance, in regions of high immigration enforcement in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has buses departing for nearby countries such as Mexico, which shares a border. A Mexican national, for example, may wait just a few days before being deported. Sometimes the person is given enough time to notify a family member to bring a suitcase or duffle bag of belongings to the ICE office for the deportee. This may be possible in locations in the interior of the United States, rather than in a border state, and when individuals show they have family and other roots in the community. But it is also the case that some deportees are not told the location they will be deported to or when until the day they are loaded on a bus and brought to a point of entry on the border. The drop-off location may not be near their original point of entry or near their families. If the individual’s country of origin is less common than Mexico or Central America, the amount of time in detention can be much longer. ICE may wait to physically deport the individual until there are enough other detainees who will be sent to the same country to minimize travel costs. The transportation of deportees to more distant countries usually is done by Judicial Prisoner and Alien Transportation System.

For someone who has been deported before, the detention and removal process provides fewer options and the consequences are more significant. Upon apprehension, a deportation history, even one that occurred many years back, will usually trigger a “reinstatement of removal,” in which ICE simply uses the existing deportation order to remove the individual once again. This approach bypasses the step of the immigrant electing to submit to deportation, apply for asylum, or see an immigration judge. In addition to reinstating the previous removal order, the government may also choose to prosecute a criminal case against the immigrant. In this scenario, the undocumented immigrant will remain in detention until the end of his or her criminal case, at which point the judge may order a sentence to be served prior to deportation. Re-entry after deportation can carry a hefty penalty depending on the person’s criminal history or other aggravating factors. Federal law allows a sentence of up to 20 years in a federal prison. Only after serving this time will the individual be automatically deported to his or her home country. In 2011, the two most frequently prosecuted offenses in the federal judicial system were unauthorized entry and re-entry, exceeding such offenses as murder, robbery, or financial fraud. As a result, there has been a huge growth in the numbers of immigrants from Latin America in prison. These individuals make up more than 50 percent of all those sentenced to federal prison.

ICE contracts out the operation of detention facilities for persons charged with immigration violations, including difficult-to-place groups such as unaccompanied minors. Many of these contracts are held by corporations in the private prison industry. These facilities house detainees for prolonged periods of time. Under the “detention bed mandate,” a 2009 directive from Congress, ICE is required to fill approximately 34,000 beds per day in detention facilities, ramping up the pressure to provide enforcement results in the form of “body counts.” Since ICE does not own the facilities, it pays the private prison companies to meet this quota, to the tune of $120 to $160 per detainee per day. The financial return encourages jail operators to have, and fill, as many beds for ICE detainees as possible, and may provide the prison companies additional incentive to keep immigrants detained. Most of the 34,000 plus detainees are noncriminal offenders and many detainees are mothers with children or pregnant women. The fact that these populations are unlikely to flee or pose a physical threat to the community makes the profit motive for private immigration jails particularly barbaric.

If an arrest or extended detention of a parent leaves a child without a caretaker, local authorities may place the child with an available relative or guardian. Depending on the length of detention and availability of relatives, the child may be placed with foster parents to wait out separation. Depending upon the state, after 15–18 months of separation, family courts may begin the process of terminating parental rights and allow for adoption of the child. Detainees with children must often decide whether their child will accompany them in deportation or remain in the United States with a guardian. However, once their sons and daughters enter the child welfare system, the parent’s ability to decide between these options decreases considerably and their participation in the decision becomes a costly venture.

Detained parents who are in ICE custody while their children’s dependency cases are before family court are especially vulnerable to permanently losing their parental rights. Detained parents are unable to comply with family unification plans, and ICE officers will not transport immigrants to family-court custody hearings (Wessler, 2011). Likewise, child welfare agencies typically lack training on immigration policies and procedures, and consequently will not make allowances for parents in immigration detention (Dettlaff, 2012). In most instances, immigration agencies and child protective services operate independently and without coordination. Still, both systems routinely assess incorrectly what the child’s best interests are. In Chapter 10, I describe the plight of many parents and children who have been ensnared in the conundrum that characterizes the disorganized links between the child-welfare system and our immigration enforcement system. It is often the case that child protection workers subscribe to the bias that children are generally better off in the United States with a foster family than in a foreign country they may have never known even if they will be there in the care of their parent. Given some of the harsh conditions abroad that motivate individuals to emigrate, caseworkers may feel the best interest of the child is to keep them in the United States, even if his or her parent is deported, according to a report by journalist Seth Wessler (2011). Wessler estimates that in 2011 approximately 5,100 children in foster care had detained or deported immigrant parents. Indeed, Wessler notes, without changes in how the immigration, child welfare, and judicial systems coordinate their activities, the number of children of immigrants in foster care could rise to 15,000 children by 2016.

Increased immigration enforcement and detention has resulted in an increase in fragmented families. Because of the variability in how much time an immigrant will spend in detention, families may be forced to wait months or longer to be reunited with the detainee. Parents may be held incommunicado involuntarily because telephones are not easily available or because the parents are moved around from one detention center to another, maybe even one that’s farther away from the family’s home. Research demonstrates the toxic effects that arrests and long absences from parents can have on children. Psychologist Christina Jose-Kampfner (1995), for instance, reported on 30 children who had witnessed the arrests of their mothers. While the mothers in Kampfer’s study were not arrested for reasons of immigration violations, the findings are illustrative. The women’s children showed high levels of anxiety and depression associated with the trauma of seeing their mothers arrested and then experiencing long separations from their incarcerated mothers. Likewise, attorney and criminologist Phyllis J. Baunach (1985) studied mothers incarcerated in women’s prisons in Kentucky and Washington State and their children. Baunach reports that 70 percent of the children of the incarcerated mothers exhibited a range of psychological symptoms including aggression, hostility, and withdrawal.

The Consequences to Marciela and Maya

Even when they sit still, behave, and keep quiet, children cannot protect their parents from being discovered and arrested. When the dreaded day comes that the undocumented parent comes into contact with the police or ICE, the emotionally charged event and the separation that ensues can be extremely painful and damaging to young children, particularly those who have a limited understanding of why their parents are suddenly no longer present. Such is the case of Maricela and Maya, two sisters who suffer the emotional and psychological aftermaths of their parents’ arrests and detentions.

The e-mail asking me to conduct an evaluation of the sisters, whose parents had pending deportation orders, came in early December 2010 from Rachel Groneck, an immigration attorney practicing in St. Louis, Missouri. Rachel was in pursuit of cancellations of removal for both parents, Carlota and Jaime, and wanted me to explore the potential psychological effects that (a) Carlota’s possible removal to Mexico would have on Maricela, 8 years, 10 months old, and Maya, 5 years, 5 months old, and (b) the effects on the girls if they were to relocate to Mexico with the parents if one or both of them were forced to leave the United States. Of the two cases, Carlota’s was first in line for a hearing, primarily because of her complicated history of having been removed from the country once before. Thankfully, Jaime’s case was not yet scheduled but would take place sometime after Carlota’s hearing. This gave Rachel time to prepare a solid case for the mother that would, if successful, benefit the father’s case, or so we hoped. The parents were wise to place their trust in Rachel, a deeply ethical and hardworking attorney who leaves nothing to chance in representing her clients. She is an attorney I always felt proud to work with on cases. She is representative of the many honest and dedicated immigration attorneys I have collaborated with: committed to justice for immigrants who deserve a fair chance to show how their deportation would constitute an exceptional and extremely unusual hardship for their citizen-children. After gathering some brief information from Rachel on the case and asking for copies of any educational and medical records on the girls that she might have, including a report from the child protective service of the county in which the family resided, I contacted the family. I reached Carlota on her mobile and she agreed to an appointment in my office on a Saturday morning when the girls would be out of school and Jaime off from work.

The family arrived promptly for the scheduled appointment a couple of weeks later, accompanied by an older male relative who had driven them to my office from their home in De Soto, Missouri. The meeting was an opportunity for me to get to know the family; ask lots of background questions; and to observe the family’s interactions, the parents’ relationship, each parent’s behavior, and the girls’ interaction with each other. It served also as a chance for them to get acquainted with me and ease into a trusting rapport. The girls were nicely dressed in festive clothes. A bit shy, as would be expected in meeting a stranger, they whispered questions or comments to their parents. Carlota and Jaime were relatively timid as well, and the interaction I saw between Carlota and Jaime, and Carlota and her daughters gave me the impression that theirs was a matriarchal family. The elder gentleman sat in a waiting area on another floor of the building.

After exchanging some pleasantries and introductions with parents and daughters, I asked the girls to wait in a conference room next to my office and gave them paper, pencils, and crayons to keep them occupied. They agreed and I returned to be alone with the parents to learn about their biographies, marital history, the girls’ developmental histories, and other things about the family’s life. I had the parents sign consents permitting me to contact the girls’ teachers. During the time I was with Carlota and Jaime, Maya returned at least three times in the course of the first half hour to check in on her parents, once ostensibly because she had to go to the bathroom, causing an interruption while Carlota took her to the lady’s room. When I asked Maya why she came back each time, she simply smiled without answering. She seemed to need to be reassured that her parents were nearby and still there. Each time Maya came to the door, Carlota would remind her “todavía estamos aquí” (we are still here). It was the first hint of Maya’s anxiety about being away from her parents for too long. Later that day, when I set aside the time to meet with her alone, Maya refused and became visibly distressed, but did not cry, more clues of her insecurity. I decided to speak with Maya only while her parents were present. I stressed to them that I wanted Maya to respond to my questions, and asked them not to intervene, even if they felt like they wanted to jump in to help her. Maya’s hesitance to relax continued even later, though to a lesser degree, when I made two visits to their home to complete my evaluation.

Carlota, 39, is a full-time homemaker who immigrated from Michoacán, Mexico about 13 years before. She had been removed from the United States at the border when she tried to enter the first time. It was after re-entering the country unnoticed that she met Jaime in the United States through family networks and was soon pregnant with Maricela. Also from Michoacán, Jaime, 31, had immigrated a year after Carlota. He works for a barrel manufacturer and has an impeccable work record. The family lives on one income and shares a home with Carlota’s brother, his wife, and their two pre-adolescent daughters. Like many Latin American immigrant couples I have met and served over the years, Jaime and Carlota are not legally married, preferring to hold off until they can have a formal church wedding, an event more important to them than a city hall marriage license. The family manages well on just Jaime’s wages, allowing Carlota to remain home with the girls. She accompanies the girls to school and participates in many school activities, including plenty of time spent in the school library with the girls’ after school. In time I came to recognize that Carlota is taking advantage of these opportunities to improve her own literacy while supporting her daughters’ educational progress. In the family system, it is clear that Carlota is the leader of the family, the more ambitious of the two parents, and the one who makes many of the family’s major decisions.

The family moved to De Soto, Missouri a few years before, initially renting a house that only they occupied, a home that they have since left for all the unhappy memories it holds. Within a month of moving into the house, Carlota shared that she and her husband began to hear comments, mostly ethnic slurs and insults, from the men at the fire station next door to the house. Weeks later, Carlota waited for Jaime to get home from work so that she could get some things from the corner grocery to complete the family’s dinner. The parents made the unfortunate decision of leaving the two girls—then ages 7 and 3-and-a-half years—alone for what they told me were “two minutes,” but probably more, so that Jaime could drive Carlota to the store and back as soon as possible. In the parents’ brief absence, Maricela tried to toast some bread, which became lodged in the toaster and burned. Smoke started coming from the toaster. She became frightened and did not know what to do.

This is where the account I got from Maricela gets murky and her parents do not fully know what happened. Maricela told me that a woman knocked at the door of the house—a woman in a uniform of some kind but not a police officer Maricela told me, maybe a firefighter—who asked if everything was all right. In her fright about the burning toast, Maricela told the woman that the toast was burning and that her parents were out, and that her sister was scared. There was some smoke, Maricela told me, but it did not seem to be filling the house or billowing greatly. The unidentified woman took care of the toaster and stayed with the girls and soon thereafter fire trucks and police arrived. In our meeting, Carlota hypothesized that the men at the firehouse who had been jeering at them for months may have waited to act vengefully against her and Jaime. I was not able to verify the woman’s identity or Carlota’s theory. Eyewitness testimony about events and people in moments of crisis are notoriously poor renditions of the actual events. Fortunately, these facts were not essential to my evaluation of the girls.

Carlota and Jaime told me that upon their return from the store, they found several police cars and an emergency medical ambulance in their driveway and surrounding the home. With their limited English, the parents could not explain adequately why they had left the girls. The local police notified child protective services, and handcuffed and arrested the parents before they could even enter the house. The girls were taken out of the house in the arms of police to an ambulance and as they were being carried both girls got glimpses of Carlota and Jaime being placed in the back seats of the police cars. Maya told Maricela later that she saw the handcuffs on her parents’ arms but Maricela does not recall seeing the handcuffs. Each parent was placed in a separate patrol car. It was a scene that would return as a significant and traumatic event for both girls during my interviews. Maricela and Maya were taken to the police station where a caseworker from the local child-protective service interviewed them. A maternal uncle and his wife with legal status who lived in a nearby town were called and officers released the girls into their custody within hours. Jaime and Carlota were detained. For the days that followed, the supportive extended family called around to find out where Carlota and Jaime were being held. The better part of the rest of the time was spent consoling the sad, weeping Maricela and Maya. Four days into his detention at a local facility, Jaime was released without prior notice and sent home. When he arrived to stay with his wife’s family, the girls clung to him. Carlota was transferred to a detention center near St. Louis and was kept there for approximately a month. Because it was Carlota’s second immigration violation, ICE handled her differently than Jaime. For the month that she was detained, Carlota could not contact her children directly by telephone and there was no date set for her release; in fact, there was no indication of when or even if she would be released. During that long, agonizing month, the two girls slept in the same room as their father and were overwrought with whether he would come home from work every night. Their school performance declined. Jaime told me that every day the girls would ask him when their mother was returning, then cry themselves to sleep at the end of the day. The family was eventually able to hire Rachel Groneck, and at the end of the month, Carlota was released. Custody of the two children was transferred back to Jaime and Carlota from the uncle and aunt, after Carlota’s release, when the Department of Social Services made its determination that there was insufficient evidence that Carlota and Jaime had put their children in danger. However, both parents received immigration charges, and since Carlota’s case was considered a priority for removal, her case went forward first.

The first meeting ended after I interviewed the parents, and the interview with Maricela and Maya ended after I had gotten a good deal of information on the family and the girls to plan the next steps in my evaluation. We agreed that I would visit their home for the next meeting to chat some more with the two girls. I had gotten enough background information from the parents that it would no longer be necessary for them to be interviewed at length, except to answer some questions that might emerge in my conversations with Maricela and Maya. As they left my office that Saturday morning in December, Carlota pulled a bundle of four tamales from a paper bag. She had prepared them that morning and gave them to me as a token of their appreciation. I could see the heartfelt expression on her face.

Maricela’s Evaluation

On two Saturdays in 2011, one in January and the other about three weeks later in February, I visited De Soto, Missouri, a small town, population 6,400, about 45 miles outside of St. Louis, and the home of Maricela and Maya. In 2010 there were about 512 Hispanics living in De Soto, a town whose population is mostly white. The Saturday in January was cold and overcast and the drive seemed long partly because of my anticipation of the meeting and partly because of my concerns about getting lost. The Saturday in February was a sunny one, feeling more like an autumn day than one in winter, and now it felt like a familiar drive. It was a beautiful day to travel to parts in rural Missouri and see the charming farmlands. My wife joined me on the trip that day to see some small towns, look at local shops, visit the nearby Missouri wine country, and to explore new places. While I met with the girls, my wife drove around De Soto and visited the local library.

The family was waiting each time, greeting me with a warm friendliness. They lived in a very modest but clean and well-tended house in De Soto. The home was comfortable and nicely heated against the cold outdoors. Around the home were many Catholic figures, pictures and symbols, and at least one shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Maricela was 9 years old at the time of the evaluation. She was born in Sedalia, Missouri, where her parents first settled before they arrived in De Soto. Her sister, Maya, was 5-and-a-half. Although Maricela was born three weeks prematurely and weighed 5 pounds 4 ounces at birth, she had an unremarkable developmental and medical history. The only medical complication described by her parents is that she was diagnosed as having a “weak” eye and was assigned by her optometrist to wear a patch over the right eye in order to force the use and strengthening of the left eye muscles.

Maricela is a petite, sad-looking, soft-spoken child who appears her age. Offered the selection of languages to conduct our conversations, Maricela spoke English with me. Her short- and long-term memory was fine. She had no speech or thought impediments; was generally calm; and showed good concentration and attention. In spite of all these positive signs, her general affect was that of sadness. In the first meeting, as in the other two at her home, Maricela engaged very easily with me and seemed to enjoy the time spent together talking and completing the psychological measures that I administered.

Our conversation covered how much she enjoys playing house with her Barbie and Ken dolls and told me, “We make up stories, like we’re a family.” Maricela said she enjoyed her teacher and liked her because “she lets us not do too much work.” When asked, Maricela was able to name all of her teachers since Pre-K. One routine she had every day was walking her sister Maya to her classroom before she heads to her own. Maricela said that her family had dinner together every night. After school, she said she would take a shower, then do her homework around 4:30 every day. Maricela also helped Maya with her ABCs, and the two girls spoke English to one another and Spanish to their parents. When I asked Maricela why she and her sister spoke English when they talked and played, Maricela answered, “Because I grew [up] in Missouri.” Maricela initiated the conversation about her dog, Chubs, the family pet who stays outside.

“I have lived in this town all my life,” she told me. De Soto, Missouri had indeed been her home for her nine years and she attended a local elementary school from prekindergarten to the third grade. She had several friends and had no conduct problems in school. Her academic record had been very good but had deteriorated in the past year. In first and second grades she maintained grades in the A and B range but in the third-grade her grades had dropped to mostly Bs and Cs, a distinct decline from previous years due almost entirely to the traumatic circumstances of her parents’ arrests and their upcoming immigration hearings. She often accompanied her mother and sister to the school or local libraries where they spent time reading and looking at books.

Maricela’s teacher, Mrs. K confirmed in a phone conversation a month after the second home visit that Maricela was a normal third grader and her parents had been very responsive and cooperative with the school. She noted that Maricela’s parents took advantage of the library’s reading program and Mrs. K’s extra tutoring schedule. Due to the bad weather, Mrs. K. said the family had been absent recently since they walked to and from the school. What struck Mrs. K was Maricela’s sadness, and she became more alarmed when Maricela wrote at the top of one of her written assignments “I’m angry. I’m upset.” When Mrs. K asked Maricela about why she felt that way, Maricela said that she had been feeling this way since February but could not specify why since that time. Maricela told her that someone in the family had died in Mexico in late February but it was not clear who that person was. In fact, it was Carlota’s father who had died, a person Maricela had only heard about but never met. She may have been reflecting Carlota’s anguish at the loss of her father and her inability to be by his side.

When I asked Maricela if she understood why she was meeting with me these few times, Maricela’s face became sadder and tears quickly streamed from her eyes. Maricela said that she did not actually see when her parents were taken away since she was in the ambulance but, “My little sister saw them.” Maricela recalled crying with her sister when they were placed in the ambulance. To calm the girls, ambulance personnel told them stories, showed them things, and made them laugh. At the police station, Maricela said, the people were “nice to us.”

During her mother’s month-long detention, Maricela’s classmates would tell her that “they don’t give food in jail and your mom is not eating.” Jaime had commented that, after his release from detention, Maricela and Maya did not want him to be out of their sight. After Carlota’s release from detention, Maricela told her mother, “I’ll be a good girl and that won’t happen to you again.” She was still carrying the guilt that her attempt to toast the bread had brought upon the family the troubles they were in. Since their arrest and detention, Carlota and Jaime told me that both Maricela and Maya will tell their parents to “put on your seatbelts so the police don’t stop us” and the girls are often frightened when they see police cars on the road.

As part of the evaluation, I conducted a number of psychological tests. When I asked Maricela to draw pictures, she drew a woman with earrings and a necklace. Her drawing of a house provided a warm ambience, with smoke coming from a chimney, potted plants on the window, a child looking out of a bedroom window, a dog house, and a dog entrance in the front door of the house. As to what she would wish if she had only one wish, Maricela answered “that we could live in a house together and have money and play with other neighbors who have children.”

On a test of perceptual-motor integration, Maricela did well and showed no problems. However, on a test of childhood depression, her scores were in the clinical range as were her scores on an instrument that measures a child’s possible posttraumatic symptoms. When I gathered all the data, the trauma seemed to be related to her parents’ arrests and detention. Her answers to the psychological tests pointed to a very low self-worth and poor sense of self-efficacy: she felt ineffective as a person. In tests for behavioral adjustment, intellectual and school status, physical appearance and attributes, and freedom from anxiety, Maricela scored consistently in the low range. These scores indicated a child who perceived herself as having (a) behavioral difficulties in meeting the conduct standards set by her parents and others; (b) difficulties in school; (c) deficits in her physical appearance, body image, and physical strength; and (d) significant problems with moods, and anxiety about school and social functioning. On two other subtests—popularity, and happiness and satisfaction—Maricela scored in the average range, suggesting that by her own evaluation she had friends but not many. The positive scores on some tests were related primarily to the strength of her family bonds. However, it was the variability across measures and sometimes within the measures that raised concerns for me about her psychological functioning and her fragility.

When completing the objective measures, Maricela looked to me to encourage her or to answer questions about how she should complete the forms. Maricela’s answers to some of the scales she completed with my help gave me cause for clinical concern. To the statement “I am sure that terrible things will happen to me,” Maricela added that she feared “someone will come here and will take someone from my family away. That someone will die.” She said she “felt like this for a long time.” To the item “I do not like myself,” Maricela said that she felt that “people laugh at me.” Additionally, she reported she felt like crying every day and that she could never be as good as other kids. In fact, she thought of them as much smarter than her. To the item, “I am not sure if anybody loves me,” Maricela added, “I see people walking around and they look at me. I feel like they don’t like me.”

A questionnaire completed by the parents indicated that Maricela might have been suffering from posttraumatic stress symptoms. In response to an item asking if Maricela had thoughts about things that have happened, her parents reported that Maricela often cried when they drove past the home where the parents were arrested. They said that Maricela often appeared sad and depressed, a point reinforced in my conversation with Mrs. K, Maricela’s teacher. On an item about excessive worry, Carlota and Jaime reported that Maricela often said, “You don’t have money to buy things, so I won’t ask [for anything].” Maricela was afraid of causing her parents additional stress, costs, or discomfort, and guarded against making her feelings or needs known too often.

Altogether, the background history, clinical findings, interview impressions, and academic records reflected that Maricela was a child who was suffering a significant level of depression and trauma-related stress. As to her strengths, Maricela was a child who was well behaved and liked by her teachers. Her cognitive, perceptual, and motor abilities provided some sense of comfort, since there were no indications that Maricela was suffering from any more serious mental problems; her connection to reality was intact; there were no delusions or hallucinations, or other indications of severe mental illness. She seemed to have good interpersonal skills.

Although she had friends and got along with other children, there was a fragile sense of self-worth and her worth to others. My observation of the family’s neighborhood environment was that the family had very few ties to the immediate neighbors who did not share their ethnicity, culture, or language. Their source of social connections was other family members and church friends. The parents reported that until recently there was a family across the street with children Maricela’s age with whom she played and who visited each other’s homes. Since the neighbor’s departure, Maricela has been more isolated at home.

Maricela was in need of psychotherapy. I made a referral to Maricela’s school for school-based mental health services and reiterated this in my conversation with Maricela’s teacher. I determined that stability and predictability at home and in her immediate social and geographic environment, and a sound psychological intervention program would benefit her enormously. A major disruption in her life such as Carlota’s or Jaime’s removal to Mexico would have had untold negative effects on Maricela.

Maya’s Evaluation

Maya was born in a nearby hospital that served the De Soto community and she attended kindergarten at a local elementary school. She took a school bus daily with Maricela. The sisters relied on each other and shared a room at home. The two cousins who live with them are considerably older than Maya and seem to indulge her. After her parents’ arrest, Maya told her parents that she saw them in handcuffs from the ambulance. Carlota says that of the two girls, Maya had the most separation reaction while she was in detention, due to her very young age and perhaps due to having seen her mother in handcuffs. On the first night of her mother’s return home after the arrest, Maya insisted on sleeping with Carlota because she was afraid that her mother would leave again. Like Maricela, Maya warns her parents to “put on your seatbelts so the police don’t stop us” and is frightened to see police cars passing by. I interviewed Maya three times, once during an office visit and twice during home visits.

I observed Maya playing with her sister as two normal siblings. Maya did not speak to her mother directly in my presence but whispered to Carlota in Spanish. When I spoke with her, Maya answered in simply yes or no answers. Open-ended questions about her life, her dog, and dolls were also met with one-word answers. Throughout, she smiled and was compliant with my instructions and requests but seemed constantly wary of me, often looking to her parents for reassurance or permission. Maya identified everyone around her, spelled her name, stated her age, and counted to 40. Her behavior was appropriate, but a bit more reserved than other children her age in an examination situation, but I attributed this to her age with respect to cultural factors that teach children to be very deferential to adults, especially those in authority.

Though she couldn’t pronounce my name, Maya recognized me when I visited her home and came to greet me without hesitation but always with others present. Much of our interaction was characterized by an attentive Maya with an engaging smile, but speaking very few words. Her parents noted that Maya talked much more when she was among family but was shy around new adults. Maya was reported by teachers to be well-behaved and progressing well in her academic performance with no developmental delays. Maya’s drawing of a person was age appropriate with the general features of a person present and gender appropriate. Her attempt at drawing a house was more constricted. She stopped drawing the house and looked at me. When I asked if she could continue drawing the house, she shook her head indicating “no.” I urged her to try anyway, but again Maya refused. When I asked why she did not want to go on, she shrugged her shoulders. Because Maya was so young, she had trouble talking about the memory of her parents’ arrests and detention. Indeed, pursuing her memories and the meanings she had made of these events during an evaluation process was contraindicated by both her age and the potential for additional trauma.

For her age, Maya had an unusually high level of separation anxiety, a childhood disorder characterized by recurrent excessive distress when separated or anticipating separation from family or home, persistent worry about something bad happening to her parents or losing them, excessive worry of being alone or with others if her parents are not present, and fear that something bad will cause her to be separated from her parents. The history of the sudden separation from her parents under unusual circumstances—the appearance of numerous police, emergency medical personnel, and child protective workers; the arrest of her parents (which she witnessed) and their removal to a police station; loss of contact with father for about four days and with mother for a month—had led Maya to be hypervigilant of the world around her. She was shy around me and refused to be interviewed alone, showing some problems with attachment and separation anxiety. These behaviors are most often evident in children who have suffered a traumatic separation from parents or other significant person or place. It was not surprising considering Maya’s experiences. I became concerned that additional upheavals in her young life could cause significant damage to her fragile emotional condition in which she harbored a constant fear that she would lose her parents and other important figures in her life. If Maya’s emotional status had worsened, she would have needed a therapist to help her explore and work through these issues.

My assessment of Maya concluded that she suffered from a separation anxiety disorder. Although Maya did not show enough symptoms to diagnose her with a reactive attachment disorder (i.e., a marked disturbance in social relatedness characterized by a child’s persistent failure to initiate or respond in a developmentally appropriate fashion to most social interactions) or even posttraumatic stress disorder, I was concerned that any other event like those she suffered when separated from her parents could cause her to suffer additional psychological strife. The fact that she only showed separation anxiety and no other major symptoms was a tribute to her parents’ handling of the situation and the nurturance and stability they had provided at home and in school.

A Coda

A few months after Carlota’s case was heard and decided in her favor by the judge, I visited the family again to update my clinical evaluation and review recent records to prepare for the testimony I would have to give in Jaime’s hearing. Little had changed in Maya but she was doing better overall; her separation anxiety seemed to have lessened now that the family was enjoying a modicum of relief from Carlota’s legal permanent resident status. But Maricela was not doing as well. Her school report showed that her school performance had continued to decline since my previous evaluation. Now in the fourth grade, her grades in subjects such as language arts, reading, math, science, and social studies were in the B, B-, and C range, lower than before. Carlota told me that there had also been several F’s on homework and exams. Maricela, she said, had told her that she was worried about her father’s case and that “I don’t want to be without him.” Maricela was receiving additional attention after school to remediate her academic performance. Yet, despite my written request to the school in February 2011 to provide Maricela with psychological counseling services, none had been initiated. Maricela reported that she saw a “Mr. Smith” once in school and that he asked her questions, but there was no follow-up or communication with the parents about this session. In my assessment, Maricela’s scores showed that she suffered less depression and trauma in comparison to girls her age, and the only measure that had gotten worse was “feeling ineffective as a person.” This was indeed an improvement since my previous report and indicated that once the hurdle of Carlota’s legal status was settled, Maricela’s mood had improved. However, Maricela remained fearful of the “police and where she lived before.” Maricela may have felt better emotionally but her rebound in school was taking more time. The next hurdle in her family’s life was her father’s removal hearing.

Maricela knew that I came to see her again “because of my dad’s court [case].” When I inquired into her knowledge of her father’s situation, Maricela contended that “they’re going to check if he’s going to Mexico or not.” She went on to say, “If he wasn’t here, he couldn’t help us and it would be hard for my mother to take care of us [by herself]. We would need a babysitter while she went to work.” Her hopefulness about her father was palpable though when she said with a slight tone of happiness that “I think they’re going to let him stay here because they already did for my mom and it’s like the same thing.” As to how she was handling Jaime’s legal process, Maricela said she tried not to think about it or ask her parents about it. Still, her psychological health remained fragile. While she had improved in some areas since Carlota’s legal status was settled, this was counterweighted by her father’s uncertain future and her perception of what would happen to her, her mother, and her sister if her father were to be returned to Mexico. I had grave concern for Maricela’s future should her father be removed to Mexico. The options facing her would be to stay back with her mother and sister or join her father in Mexico, neither of which would benefit Maricela or her family.

We were all delighted when Carlota’s hearing concluded in a positive ruling. We were even more delighted nearly a year later when the government attorney agreed to cancel Jaime’s removal on the basis that Carlota’s case had provided sufficiently compelling evidence of “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.” Carlota and her family returned to De Soto where the girls are thriving academically, socially, and psychologically.

Ultimately, leaving the only country, community, school, and situation they have ever known would have untold negative effects on both Maya and Maricela’s psychological and emotional health. Maya and Maricela needed a stable home, community, and school life to protect them from further psychological harm. Removing them to a country and town and culture they had never known and for which they were ill-prepared to adapt, particularly under duress, would have caused undue stress and psychological damage to both girls, perhaps in different ways given their individual profiles, but harmful nevertheless.

Removal to Mexico would have sent Maya, Maricela, and their parents to Michoacán. Their parents’ hometown has about 10,000 inhabitants and is about three hours by car from the state capital of Morelia and six hours from the national capital of Mexico City. The towns in Michoacán typically do not have adequate pediatric or psychiatric services for children such as Maricela and Maya. Even in Mexico City, with its more abundant resources, pediatric and psychiatric services for children with emotional and behavior disorders are sorely lacking. In all respects, the family’s ancestral home in Michoacán was not the environment in which Jaime and Carlota wanted to raise their daughters. The place that they would have returned to would not have provided the standard of living, education, socialization, safety, and health care that Maricela and Maya knew. The move would jeopardize the stability their parents had worked to re-establish.

While Maricela and Maya remain in the United States with their parents, each year thousands of citizen-children are not so lucky. The conditions they face abroad may be equally harsh, or worse.

About The Author

Luis Zayas
Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas, Austin and the Robert Lee Sutherland Chair in Mental Health and Social Policy

Luis Zayas, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin and the Robert Lee Sutherland Chair in Mental Health and Social Policy. He is the author of Latinas Attempting Suicide: When Cultures, Families, and Daughters Collide.