I froze as I watched a clip of “Orange Is The New Black” actress Diane Guerrero recalling coming home after school at 14-years-old, only to discover that both her parents had been deported:
“I would always have this feeling…I was always scared that my parents were going to be gone…”
I flashed instantly to my childhood. Entering the first grade, I had such terrible separation anxiety that I would begin to cry just a few minutes after sitting down in class. I still remember my classmate next to me raising her hand and having to get the teacher’s attention. “Gabriel is crying.”
My teacher couldn’t figure it out. My dad was always working, so it would be up to my mom to come and get me. But with her limited English, you had a first-grader trying to translate a conversation between a teacher and parent about why said first-grader was crying. Nothing was ever resolved.
Finally one day, my mom ended up taking a family portrait of us — no bigger than the palm of my hand — and inserting it inside a small gold frame. She attached it to the zipper of my backpack and told me that when I was feeling sad, I should look at it.
I looked at that picture a lot. It felt comforting in my hand, and helped calm me down. I don’t remember crying a lot more after that.
Years later, I tried to figure out what had led me to become so anxious at school. We had just moved to a new town, but as a kid I always seemed to be able to make friends, so loneliness wasn’t the issue. I’d never had issues in other grades either. I loved going to school.
It took some more time for me to really figure it out. It wasn’t the going to school that made me upset. What scared me was the fear of going home and finding that everyone was gone.
I was one of the few kids at my new school to come from an immigrant family. Both my parents and two older sisters were born in Mexico. My younger sister and I were the first ones born here. In Oakland, I knew lots of kids who were ESL kids like me. Mexican, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese. We all had parents that were born somewhere else. We all came from somewhere else, and recently too. It was normal. But our new town and new school was so different. No one looked like me.
In retrospect, I really had no reason to fear that my family would be deported. My entire family was here legally, and barring some horrible crime on their part (unlikely, as my mother would smack me for even chewing gum in church), those green cards weren’t getting revoked. Yet there was always a nagging fear, a fear that one day I would come home and they would just all be gone.
I am a lucky one because in reality I had nothing to fear. But I can’t say the same for the estimated 5.5 million U.S. citizen children who have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant.
These kids live in constant fear. A 2013 Health Impact Study reported that “almost three-fourths of undocumented parents with children under the age of 18 reported that their children experienced symptoms of PTSD, including repetitive thoughts about stressful experiences, avoidance of certain activities, and hyper-alert behavior.”
“Nearly 30 percent of undocumented parents reported that their children were afraid all or most of the time.”
A second study found that children who have had one parent who has been deported “may also suffer from poverty, diminished access to food and health care, mental health and behavioral problems and limited educational opportunities.”
And then there’s the estimated 5,000 American citizen children who are in foster case because both of their parents have been deported. We like to say that as Americans we take care of our own. But when I think of those kids, I don’t think that’s really true. We’ve failed them. Our system has failed them.
Right now we are on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation victory. President Barack Obama may soon grant relief from deportation to millions, including the parents of children just like these. For children of the deported, this relief will have come too late. But for others, it will be life-changing.
The next few weeks will be critical. After a series of announcements and delays, there’s still a question of whether the President will even act. And if he does, will obstructionists intent on seeing nothing but mass deportations win out? I am determined to fight and win for families like mine.
But what I hope the most is that so many kids will never have to experience what so many others — and me, in my very limited sense — have had to go through. Maybe they can instead just know the magic of an ordinary day of school. Of waking up, of sitting at a desk, maybe even dozing off a little from the boredom. But then always coming home to a family.
And never, ever fear.