Study Says Family Separations are Causing a Mental Health Crisis in the Rio Grande Valley

Texas, United States (TexasTribune) – In a self portrait that a 10-year-old girl pencil-sketched after her father was deported, her expression is solemn, eyes downcast and tears stream down her face.

“What I felt when [they] took my dad was the worst,” the girl wrote. “I felt like I was missing something, and that was part of my heart.”

Her testimony is one of dozens collected during a study on the impacts of stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, which has led to what the authors are calling a mental health crisis in the Rio Grande Valley because of forced family separations.

The study was released Wednesday by Human Impact Partners, a California-based research group, and the community organization La Unión del Pueblo Entero. From March through September, the groups surveyed 212 adults in the Valley whose families are directly impacted by changing immigration policies and rising anti-immigrant rhetoric nationally.

According to the study, an estimated 75,000 children in the Valley belong to a mixed-status family with at least one child who is a citizen or has protected status and at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant.

Around 1,800 children in the Valley had a parent deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017, leading to what the study’s authors say is increased levels of “toxic stress” in the community.

About 20 percent of the surveyed respondents said their child experienced post-traumatic stress disorder following a parent’s deportation. Symptoms ranged from increased anxiety, struggles in school, depression, constipation, trouble sleeping and fear of being alone.

“Their brains can’t stop thinking, ‘I’m in danger,’” said Teresa Brown, founder and director of the Attachment and Trauma Center of Houston. “They live with this helpless, terrorized feeling of everyone could possibly be the person who comes and causes my greatest fear to happen again.”

A 10-year-old girl's sketch of herself after her father was deported. “I felt like I was missing something, and that was part of my heart,
A 10-year-old girl’s sketch of herself after her father was deported. “I felt like I was missing something, and that was part of my heart,” the girl wrote. Hannah Wiley/The Texas Tribune

The study also focused on sanctuary city laws like SB 4, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed in May 2017. It gives local law enforcement officers the green light to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest, and punishes local department heads and elected officials if they do not cooperate with immigration enforcement agencies.

“[The study] has to be used to focus on what is dangerous to communities,” Martha Sanchez, community organizing coordinator for LUPE, said during a press conference about the study on Wednesday. “What we are going to do with this study is ask police departments to focus on what really causes terror on the community.”

Living on the border — which has seen a large influx of Border Patrol agents in the past 20 years — increases the risk of apprehensions for the Valley’s undocumented residents. The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector has some of the highest apprehension numbers in the country, with more than 137,000 in 2017.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who represents a portion of the Valley, said deporting otherwise law-abiding immigrants should not be a priority.

“To be deporting a mother or father who has lived here for 15 or 20 years, who is contributing to our economy, pays their taxes, has committed no crime, those families should not be deported,” he said.

Lety, an undocumented mother of three adult children and a grandmother to two toddlers, said she’s always been vigilant, but now she’s extra careful to stay inside her house most days and won’t leave home at night. She said she drives the speed limit to her job as a landscaper and checks her car’s headlights and taillights often to make sure they work — a minor traffic stop could lead to deportation.

Lety, 48, said that Trump’s border wall talk and support of increased deportations has injected fear into the immigrant community.

“He has made Latino and Hispanic people worried all the time,” she said.

And the fear is warranted as federal agents become more aggressive about finding and deporting people.

An undocumented woman named Lety crossed the Rio Grande 20 years ago, and has avoided going near the checkpoints ever since.
An undocumented woman named Lety crossed the Rio Grande 20 years ago, and has avoided going near the checkpoints ever since. “We all know what happens if you get close to the checkpoint,” she said. Hannah Wiley/The Texas Tribune

An Austin-based immigrant advocacy group, American Gateways, said a U.S.-born toddler lost several fingers in a bike chain in August and her undocumented parents needed to rush the 18-month-old to a surgeon in San Antonio — a trip that required passing through one of the three Border Patrol checkpoints in the Valley.

Griselda Barrera, director of the San Antonio office for American Gateways, said the group worked with Border Patrol agents in Harlingen to quickly get the girl and her mother through the Sarita checkpoint.

CBP agents followed the ambulance from Harlingen to San Antonio, Barrera said, then remained outside the girl’s hospital room and detained the mother after the child was discharged. Through an agreement with ICE, officials allowed the mother to return to the Valley, be fingerprinted and then quickly released.

Surgeons were unable to re-attach the girl’s fingers, and Barrera said the mother is now in removal proceedings, being represented by a lawyer secured by American Gateways.

In an emailed statement to the Tribune, a CBP spokesperson wrote that agents ensure individuals requiring emergency care “receive the care they need prior to any immigration enforcement action.”

“Additionally, Border Patrol frequently coordinates with hospitals and emergency medical transportation services prior to transport of patients to ensure quick access to medical care,” the spokesman said. “All individuals traveling through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint are subject to examination or inspection of immigration status.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C. organization that supports tighter immigration laws, said stricter enforcement is crucial for national security.

“Having a child here is not a shield against deportation,” Vaughan said. “If people are uncomfortable with that, that’s a consequence of their decision to come into the country illegally. “

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