By Mary McPhail Gray
I wondered why some of my clients were acting more vigilant—and hyperalert?” commented a Taos Behavioral Health clinician in the Taos schools. Soon he had an explanation—ICE was in town.
While most of the attention and talking about undocumented residents is about adults — we at TBH see the evidence of how children and youth are impacted. At a minimum, a family with undocumented adults is often living in very small quarters with few resources to provide for their children. Adults who work usually make minimum wages and are often subjected to a variety of abuses in their employment.
The fear of deportation or of family separation is real. Some families work with Sin Fronteras Nuevo Mexico and Taos Immigrant Allies (TIA) to establish guardianship for their children in case the parents are arrested and taken away. The guardian assumes responsibility for the children’s needs until the parent is able to resume their primary role. This arrangement can be comforting to the children IF the selected guardian is well known to the children and the parents have thoroughly explained the circumstances to them. However, TBH clinicians have clearly heard children say that if their parents were deported, they naturally would want to go with them.
Just recently, a report by the Office of the Inspector General in the US Department of Health and Human Services reported on the deep trauma experienced by children who had been separated from their parents in border shelters. Frequently, the children would report heart problems, such as “I can’t feel my heart” to “My heart is hurting.” Most often, no physical medical diagnoses could be found.
Ongoing stress caused by the possibility of family separation contributes to anxiety, attention problems, depression, and poor sleep patterns in children and youth. All family members usually experience a fear of law enforcement and become socially isolated. Even when a family can receive benefits, such as SNAP or Medicaid for their children born in the United States, they do not always apply for such services because of their fear of authorities.
TBH therapeutic group programs have served a number of children and youth who are immigrants and/or who have undocumented family members. One young girl expressed to one of our staff member her fears and worries as a recent immigrant to Taos. The staff member was able to share that he too was an immigrant and had arrived here as a seven-year-old. Sharing impressions and memories with the child established a comforting rapport that eased her ability to participate in the therapeutic program more comfortably.
In our group therapeutic programs, a curriculum is followed that helps youth express themselves and learn new skills in significant areas such as caring for others, learning to share, learning how to express honest feelings, expressing their fears, taking responsibility for their behaviors, and developing positive relationships. Part of the very supportive process is a stable staff and a schedule that is consistent from day to day. A clinician and a CCSS worker are assigned to each age group so that they develop a group cohesion that is comforting and comfortable.
As youth deal with the reality of stress caused by immigration/deportation fears, one outlet clinicians encourage is participation in a variety of group activities. For most of these youth, a barrier to sports participation is usually that they have do not have the required insurance. Likewise, if an adolescent seeks a job, they find that the lack of insurance is again a barrier. Thus, two outlets for stress and supportive participation in a group setting are denied to them.
As you think about how you can be supportive, consider donations to TBH, TIA and Sin Fronteras New Mexico. Here are the contacts: www.Taosbehavioralhealth.org, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. Your caring is a reflection of this community’s heart.
TBH has the largest licensed and certified behavioral health clinicians in northern New Mexico. Reach us at 105 Bertha in Taos, at 575-578-4297 or www.taosbehavioralhealth.org.
Mary McPhail Gray is the board chair of TBH and can be reached at 575-7779-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org.