Students are afraid to fill out college applications and financial-aid forms. Volunteers fear driving to school. Counselors don’t have clear answers for students whose futures in the U.S. are uncertain, and parents are afraid to seek help from the police. In school districts with a high percentage of Hispanic families, wondering what the next day will bring has become the new normal.
Whether legitimate or a result of misinformation, the stress is manifesting itself in different ways.
“I’ve seen an increase in fear and anxiety since President Trump took office,” said Duane Bacchus, Kent School Services Network community coordinator for Godwin Heights High School.
Students who are Dreamers, among about 700,000 young people nationwide who arrived to the U.S. as children of undocumented parents and are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, wonder if they will be able to go to college or secure financial aid. They feel betrayed by the system, Bacchus said.
The Trump administration last fall rescinded the DACA policy, created under the Obama administration to protect Dreamers from deportation, prompting support for immigrant students from area superintendents. Unless Congress acts, following the recent failure of Senate proposals to continue it, the program officially ends March 5 and halts new applications. The government budget deal, signed by Trump Feb. 9, did not include a resolution for DACA.
“DACA made it worse because people took the risk and put their information out there and look what happened,” Bacchus said. “There’s a lot of frustration, anger, and a sense of ‘you’re not getting me again.’”
In the view of many families, he said, “Your rights and what will be afforded you as an (undocumented) immigrant will be up for grabs every four years, depending who is in power. It’s not doing anything to help anyone gain trust in the system at all.”
Loss of Hope
Nazhly Heredia, KSSN community coordinator at Lee Middle/High School, said she feels a sense of guilt because she and other staff members urged students to enroll in DACA when Obama was in office. Students now wonder if they should have remained in the shadows. “We pushed so hard for those kids to apply,” she said.
Heredia said she’s seen a loss of hope among Dreamers. Many do not remember life outside the U.S. One student told her he just plans to “wait to be sent back.”
“It came out of his mouth so naturally. That is what breaks my heart. I wish I had an answer for them.” Unfortunately, she said, there is no “‘This is what you’ve got to do and this is what you’re going to get.’”
Still, Heredia encourages DACA students to keep working to graduate and go to college. She urges them to stay out of trouble.
Bacchus and Lysette Castillo, a Godwin Heights parent and community liaison, also urge students to focus on education.
“I always tell them education is something that nobody can take away from you,” Castillo said. “There’s hope this time (things) will change and in the meantime you’ve taken the advantage of getting an education. But they are very discouraged.”
Increases in Calls, Activity
A couple, immigrants from Mexico who wish to remain anonymous, drove from their home in Muskegon on a snowy evening to attend a recent “Know Your Rights” meeting at Kelloggsville High School. The discussion focused on how to react in the event they are approached by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents.
The couple was among about a dozen Hispanic parents and community members, from within and outside the district, who attended the session for information on preparing their families for ICE enforcement. The couple was worried about their son, who plans to pursue a business major in college but is vulnerable to deportation if the government does not provide protection for Dreamers.
“My wife is worried all the time,” the father said, stressing that his children are his main concern.
At the session, Hillary Scholten, staff attorney for Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, and Chammas Jurado, an immigration attorney, presented information and passed out a booklet on rights and responsibilities.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in ICE activity in this area under the Trump administration,” Scholten said. Mlive reported these statistics concerning statewide deportations.
The Immigrant Rights office has seen a noticeable increase in calls and is overwhelmed with requests for speaking arrangements like the Kelloggsville session. The agency offers a hotline where people can consult with an attorney for counsel and, in some cases, representation. “The increase in people calling on behalf of a loved one being detained has been very stark,” Scholten said.
While her office doesn’t track data, Scholten said they are aware of a number of workplace raids. Most commonly, people are detained after an encounter with local law enforcement, such as a traffic stop.
There are certain places ICE considers sensitive locations, such as schools and day care centers, medical treatment facilities and places of worship. However, it’s unclear if agents will follow people from such locations. Scholten said there have been reports of agents doing so.
Courthouses are not considered a sensitive location, which Scholten said she believes undermines the justice process and makes people afraid to attend court hearings.
Under the Obama administration, there was a clear priority for enforcement to target violent criminals. Scholten said that is no longer the case.
Student Absenteeism Up
About 33 percent of Kelloggsville students are Hispanic. Guadalupe Diaz-Medina, the district’s hispanic community liaison, said she is seeing an uptick in student absenteeism among the families she works with. There is general fear concerning going out in public, and families have been affected by ICE deporting family members.
“The families are having a lot of stress in even bringing kids to school,” Diaz-Medina said, adding that she’s seen increase anxiety among all ages. “The whole family is affected.”
She sees students, some of them Dreamers, react too. Many become withdrawn. “They don’t want to talk about the situation because of the fear.”
She said keeping students out of school is counterintuitive because once a student misses too much school they are referred to truancy court or even Childhood Protective Services.
‘The Family Starts Breaking Down into Pieces’
In the one-square-mile Godfrey-Lee Public Schools district, where about 80 percent of students are Hispanic, Heredia, the KSSN worker, said families are too fearful to attend a session like “Know Your Rights” because they don’t want ICE to become aware of it.
“A lot of our families feel this district could be a target. We deal with situations on a one-to-one basis,” she said.
Yet, sometimes there are no clear answers to the questions families ask.
“I feel like it is so hard when you can’t meet with the family and give them some hope. It breaks my heart,” she said. “You know what they want to hear, but unfortunately there is no easy path.”
Heredia is planning an information session about DACA, hosted by Justice for Our Neighbors, to build awareness district-wide of what students and families are experiencing.
There is often a snowball effect when a person is deported.
Frequently it unfolds like this: A father is deported. The mother is no longer able to pay bills, rent, or to put food on the table. The family moves in with relatives. The mother must work long hours, relying on school and neighbors to take care of the children. Heredia knows of a 19-year-old left to take care of younger children after their parents were deported.
“You can see how the family starts breaking down into pieces,” Heredia said. As a result, children become disruptive and withdrawn and their grades slip.
But Heredia and staff members urge students to keep coming to school, where they are safe learning and interacting with peers. “We try to stress to the parents that kids need to be in school. It doesn’t help the situation for kids to be at home.”
Mostly, she hopes people will learn empathy.
“I just wish people would see each other as people. I hate the feeling of people looking at other people’s faces and automatically building a wall, and I am on one side of the wall and you are on the other.”