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Threat of Deportation Haunts Immigrant Students

Kate McGee, KUT News

More than 100 Austin parents, teachers and community members gathered at Mendez Middle School Saturday for an immigration forum sponsored by the teachers union, Education Austin. Advocacy groups and organizations provided information to undocumented immigrants about a pathway to citizenship and the latest on immigration reform.

It's a process that advocates say can stress out many parents. But it can be a stressor on children as well.

Esmerelda Rodriguez is one of those children. She emigrated from Mexico right before starting sixth grade at Mendez Middle School.

“It was really hard, Rodriguez said. "I [could] only speak one language. Me starting school without knowing English, it was really hard.” 

She and her parents are undocumented. As a child, she says she feared her parents would be deported. Now, as a 19-year-old mother, she fears what could happen to her daughter if she is deported.

“I have to find the help so I can stay here with her. It makes me actually scared to lose her," Rodriguez said.

She wants to get paperwork to work legally in the U.S. as a beautician.

Rodriquez’s story is common among those who turned out for the immigration forum.

Leonore Vargas is a Family Resource Specialist at Mendez Middle School—where student enrollment is 90 percent Hispanic. She says it’s difficult to know the specific number of students who are undocumented or have undocumented family members, but she says the threat of deportation has an obvious effect.

“It creates a lot of stress on children and families, we’ve seen depression, increase, sometimes, in suicide, kids who don’t eat because they’re so depressed, kids with anxiety, or even just some fear of every time ‘is my parent going to be home or not be home?’ That, of course, affects them academically," Vargas said.

In 2011, 49 percent of Mendez Middle School students passed all standardized tests. That compares to the rest of the district, in which 75 percent of students passed.

Julieta Caamano is a bi-lingual Kindergarten teacher in Austin. She attended the forum to learn what to tell undocumented parents who are looking for answers about immigration. She says even some of her kindergarten students are aware of the threat of deportation.

“We had some visitors and we have a police officer and they were like, “oh, is this la migra, teacher?’ They have stories about a sibling or someone in their family that they had to go back to their country," Caamano said.

Vargas says the fear continues as undocumented students get older.

“What we see is a student who is not a U.S. citizen experiences a higher level of stress fear, continuous stress and fear, and always being hyper-sensitive of not getting in trouble at school, for fear it might bring attention to the family that is unwanted," she said.

According to TRAC, a group that tracks immigration cases across the country, more than 13,000 non-citizens in Texas have been deported since October 2012.  It’s unclear how many of those cases involve parents with children.

Miguel Gutierrez is working on astudy at UT’s School of Social Workto learn the mental health effects of a Mexican parent’s deportation on U.S.-born children. Parents and children fill out surveys and participate in interviews.

"I’ve seen cases where house re-modeling are left on hold, children expressing anxiety about their other parent being deported if they arrive late, 15-20 minutes, they express ‘where were you? Where have you been?’ So there’s a heightened sense of anxiety and depression," Gutierrez said. "It’s one of the things we’ve seen and we’re trying to understand that and hopefully create a more humanitarian immigration policy."

The survey is expected to be complete sometime in 2014.

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