E. Miranda raced to his children’s school in Carthage, Miss. the morning of Aug. 7, 2019.
He received a call earlier from a friend warning him that immigration officers were arresting workers at poultry plants, including Pearl River Foods, where his wife, Azucena Matias, worked.
Miranda’s sole thought: Pick up the children. Don’t let them hear about their mother’s arrest from anyone else.
They are a tight-knit family, Miranda said. And for his oldest son, “his mom is everything he…ever loved.”
When his father broke the news to him, it was the first day of school.
Miranda remembers him screaming.
“What I lived that day was so painful,” he said. “What I felt when I saw my children without their mom, I had no idea what was going to happen.”
One year later, the raids have a lasting impact
It has been one year since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out the largest single-state raid in U.S. history and arrested 680 workers from seven chicken processing plants in Mississippi. Dozens of families were torn apart, leaving communities shattered, and educators, religious leaders and activists scrambling to restore a sense of normalcy, only to have many of those efforts disrupted by COVID-19.
More: First ICE raids, now coronavirus: How immigrant families are fighting to rebuild lives
More: A year after Mississippi ICE raids, chicken plants face few penalties as families suffer
Though it’s hard to say how many children were impacted,experts familiar with the impact of family separation on the development and mental health of children say the magnitude of trauma created by the worksite raids is substantial. If left unaddressed, it could disrupt an entire generation.
About one-third of children whose parents were arrested or lost their jobs after the raids were between the ages of four and eight, according to a report by CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy, which highlights how the reemergence of worksite raids impacts families and communities, especially young children.
In rural Mississippi, mental healthcare is limited and largely inaccessible to immigrant families who primarily speak Spanish or indigenous Mayan dialects and are low-income and uninsured. Meanwhile, there is an entire generation of children, many of them U.S. citizens, who will grow up with the raids as a defining event in their lives.
It has marked their ability to perform in school, it has robbed them of sleep and appetite, and created feelings of anxiety that have had an impact on their home and school life. These are invisible wounds, not seen in headlines and photographs of that day, hurting the youngest victims of the raids.
An invisible ‘massive mental health crisis’ ensues
In a state with a population of just under 3 million, advocates say there was only one trauma-informed and bilingual mental health counselor the day of the raids. The counselor, Melissa Rodriguez, said it was overwhelming.
On Aug. 7, 2019, Rodriguez fielded dozens of calls from community members crying hysterically. She had devoted years working with Latino families who had emigrated to Scott County. She had gained their trust. Now they were coming to her for help.
“You’re the only one who can help us. Please I’m begging you to help me,” they told Rodriguez.
She did not sleep that night.
Weeks passed and the calls kept coming.
“It was like a big wave coming at you and you cannot do anything. You’re just one person against the wave,” Rodriguez said.
The stress of work began affecting her health, she said. In November, she had a heart attack, which she believes was a physical manifestation of second-hand trauma she experienced from working with families impacted by the raids.
“To witness and to feel so helpless with everything that is going on,” she said. “….Sleeping is guilt during those days. Eating was guilt. I was not able to go out and eat or just have lunch because I could be typing right now or someone else is hungry right now.”
The raids created a “massive mental health crisis,” she said, adding her concerns for what’s to come.
“It’s a ticking bomb… the fact we’re not talking about it, the fact they’re considered invisible residents of the community, it doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
How young children experience stress
Rodriguez worked with a 5-year-old child whose father was arrested last year. The child was traumatized from the separation and had lost their ability to speak, except for three words.
Other children she worked with started regressing in other ways. Children who were potty trained had started wetting the bed and having accidents at school. Others cried at night uncontrollably. Some children exhibited aggressive behavior toward their siblings and neighbors.
Traumatic separation, Rodriguez said, “tremendously” impacts the growth of children. They sometimes fail to meet basic developmental milestones, such as speaking in complete sentences. Trauma reminders — which in this case could be triggered by returning to school — can also cause post traumatic stress in children. Stomachaches, lack of appetite, insomnia, weakened immune systems can all be physical manifestations of how kids experience stress, she said.
Rodriguez left Mississippi at the end of 2019. She now lives and works in North Carolina.
While some traumatic events are isolated, the raids introduced a cascading set of stressors in the lives of young families: food insecurity, housing instability and the fear of deportation.
Research has shown that accumulated, unmitigated and long-term toxic stress can create changes in a child’s body and brain that may lead to a lifetime of poor health. Many of the problems, including depression, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, are costly, hard to treat and may not show up until their adult years, according to Al Race, deputy director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.
“There are both short term and long term consequences of experiencing toxic stress response,” Race said. “If you experience this prolonged activation of your stress response then you’re much more likely to or at much greater risk of experiencing later in life a wide range of health problems as well as difficulties with learning and behavioral control.”
Healing the trauma became a priority for faith leaders after the raids, said Joe Boland, vice president of mission at Catholic Extension, one of a few organizations now providing mental health services for immigrant families in Central Mississippi.
“Trauma can destroy people’s lives, it can destroy people’s families, it can destroy their relationships, it can destroy their future prospects,” Boland said.
A ‘mental health crisis’ in rural America
Volunteers were pressed to find adequate mental health support for families and children in the weeks following the raids. While humanitarian aid flowed into these communities, most of it focused on the most immediate needs — food, rent and utilities.
Monica Soto, an English tutor and staff member at Mississippi nonprofit El Pueblo, works at the local elementary school, where she says about 400 of the 500 students are Hispanic. She began to see children, who once earned A’s begin to earn C’s and students who were unable to sleep at night, also unable to focus in class.
“They are stressed. You can see it. Especially in the morning, when they would get off the bus,” Soto said before the pandemic closed schools. “They are like robots going from place to place. But they really aren’t there.”
Her immediate concern was this: there isn’t enough counseling available at school.
“I told the principal and the superintendent, ‘If this had been a mass shooting, automatically a trauma team would have come into the school,’ ” she said. “The number of kids we have who were affected by this, this would have been compared to that.”
Ensuring undocumented immigrants have access to mental health care is challenging in many ways.
“There’s a mental health access crisis in rural America already and then if you add on top of it, uninsured and speaking another language….the barriers to appropriate responses are just really high,” said Nicole Novak, an assistant research scientist at the University of Iowa College of Public Health who studied the impacts of a 2008 worksite immigration raid in Iowa on Latina mothers and infants.
Novak said raids typically happen in rural areas where the immigrant community does not have easy access to legal resources, bilingual mental health or counseling and well-established advocacy groups. Immigrants are often already living with untreated trauma stemming from fleeing violence in their home countries, treacherous border crossings and the stress of living in the U.S. without legal status, she said.
William Lopez, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan who wrote “Separated,” a book about the aftermath of an immigration raid, said many undocumented immigrants can’t afford to make mental health a priority when there are many other time-consuming and expensive needs to address first.
“Going to seek mental health care while your husband is being deported and you’re broke and you’re finding out a way to pay (the attorney) isn’t the… best way to use their time,” Lopez said. “….So the reason folks aren’t getting treatment is because we haven’t developed ways for them to treat everything else prior to that.”
So the burden fell to schools, religious organizations and nonprofits to provide free mental healthcare to kids and undocumented families after the raids.
Catholic Extension in partnered with the Southeast Pastoral Institute of Miami to begin providing mental health services to families in February, Boland said. They helped connect “several hundred” parents and children with bilingual counselors from places such as Miami and New Jersey. After a few group sessions, they split into individualized counseling which continues today via teleconferencing.
Boland said because of cultural differences, the sessions began with a lesson: What is counseling and anxiety and how can trauma impact your life?
“There almost needed to be a sort of pre-education for the people to know the kind of panic they’re feeling, that they don’t know where it comes from, that’s trauma,” he said.
“There’s a gaping wound there, these families have been through unbelievable darkness but they’re helping try to build a foundation and give these families the tools so that they can, not only heal, but also become stronger families going forward,” Boland said.
At Canton Elementary, where 120 students were directly impacted by the raids, the school had bilingual counselors available year-round, said Principal Shalondia Washington. In the weeks after the raids, teachers noticed a lot of absences and children who were not as attentive in class as they had been previously.
“Students have to feel comfortable and they have to feel safe,” she said. “These students will have a lasting impact because even if for a short while that safety net was taken away from them.”
Two counselors have been working to provide mental health services through El Pueblo since March, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Mary Townsend. The counselors are funded by donations and grants and currently serve more than a dozen adults and children, she said.
The organization, which started in Biloxi, set up an office in Forest to better serve families impacted by the raids, she said. For undocumented immigrants, “every moment on the road is a danger” when law enforcement can pull them over at any time, she said.
E. Miranda’s wife was held in detention for three weeks before she was allowed to return to her family in Carthage. Though the family is reunited for now, the raids left indelible marks on their three children.
The kids panic when law enforcement officers come to their neighborhood to make immigration-related arrests, which E. Miranda said happens about once every four months. Scared, they go to their father saying, “Dad, dad, police, police!”
The couple hide their worries, whispering to each other in Mam, the language they grew up speaking in Guatemala. But the U.S.-born kids are starting to pick up words.
“We try to protect them. But my children understand what is happening. They see. They know,” E. Miranda said.
His wife Azucena contracted COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic forcing the family to self-quarantine. E. Miranda and their three children have all tested negative for the virus.
Tending to the family’s emotional wellbeing has not been as simple as staying home, however.
The couple is doing whatever possible to keep their children happy and safe. There are occasional trips to McDonald’s. A new tablet device to keep them connected and up to date with their school work, all virtual now due to COVID-related regulations.
The financial impact of the raid has been substantial, as the family began to balance paying debts and unexpected legal bills. They canceled some services like cable. A silver lining, Miranda said, as it keeps their children from seeing the news.
“These are the scars we have been left with. The psychological damage, the economic damage caused by the raids. Then comes the coronavirus. It has been a gut punch,” he said.
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline in Spanish
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Immigrant Alliance for Justice & Equity of Mississippi
- (978) 993-3300
- Mississippi Resiste
- Catholic Charities Diocese of Jackson
- (601) 355-8634
- El Pueblo
Contact Maria Clark on Twitter @mariapclark1 or at email@example.com.
Contact Alissa Zhu at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @AlissaZhu on Twitter.