East Bay women build a net of support to help cope with the fear of deportation
on April 6, 2018
Every morning in front of Melrose Leadership Academy, the same choreography is repeated: the uproar of the children arriving at the school displaces squirrels and birds to the cherry and palm trees that adorn the sidewalk. At this public school, in the sanctuary city of Oakland, people exchange greetings in Spanish. The first poster near the school’s entrance doesn’t inform parents about opening hours or extracurricular activities. Instead, it states: “You have rights, don’t let ICE or police enter your house.” Below it, an envelope attached with blue tape contains a handful of red cards that state in Spanish: “Do not open if an immigration agent is knocking on your door.”
That advice was of little use for María on a May morning in 2016. (María declined to give her full name, because both she and her husband are undocumented.) While she was preparing molletes—bread with butter, beans and cheese—for breakfast in the kitchen, her husband left to go to work on a construction site. A shout from her 11-year old daughter broke the family’s routine—the girl saw an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer handcuffing her dad as he was about to enter his car. María and her daughter rushed to the street. Six officers, with four cars, had blocked the entrance and her backyard. “Why are you taking my dad?” shouted her daughter.
“I didn’t know what to do in that moment,” recalled María.
The daily hectic drop-off at Melrose Leadership Academy had already died down that day when María rushed to the office of the school director, Moyra Contreras. Contreras immediately put her in contact with another mother, Etel Calles, who belongs to the Immigrant Family Defense Fund, a group of 9 parents and teachers that helps immigrant families in the Oakland Unified School District.
Calles and a lawyer from the defense fund learned that a $2,000 bond had been set for María’s husband. A few hours later, Calles and the lawyer were sitting in the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in San Francisco ready to pay his bond.
When an undocumented immigrant is detained, a judge decides if they must await their deportation proceedings inside a detention center or if they will be allowed to return home. If the judge rules that the person doesn’t pose a threat and won’t flee, they can set an immigration bond, which ranges between $1,500 and $20,000. Once the bond is paid, the person is released, but has to show up for their court hearings. Otherwise, the person who paid their bond must forfeit the money. If the person shows up at court as promised, the bond money is returned to the person who paid it.
María wouldn’t have been able to pay the bond herself, since the signer of the bond needs to be a US citizen or permanent resident. By paying her husband’s bond, the defense fund members hoped to secure his release, so he could remain at home with his family until his hearing.
But while waiting, Calles and the lawyer realized they had no idea what María’s husband looked liked, so Calles asked her to send a photo. After one hour and half, they saw him. “He was dressed in a construction suit and was carrying his belongings in a paper box,” remembered Calles. Calles explained him they were taking care of his bond and then proposed taking a celebration selfie. “I sent it to María, asking, ‘Is this your husband?’ Let’s go,” she recalled, laughing.
She remembers that the husband only breathed freely once they had coffee at a café 10 blocks away from the immigration office. There, he told them that ICE agents had issued a deportation order; they had planned send him to Texas, where they would put him on a flight to Mexico that afternoon. But the flight was delayed, he told them. “As he did not have anything ‘big’ on his record, they set the bond,” recalled Calles. By paying the bond, the fund allowed María’s husband to be back home by that evening. Later, María paid them back the money.
According to the defense fund’s website, being released on bond “improves the odds of ultimately succeeding in winning relief from deportation.” The site states that in 2015, 68 percent of those released on bond were allowed to stay in the US, while of those who remained in detention, only 33 percent were allowed to stay.
On February 27, the US Supreme Court eliminated the need to establish a bond after six months of detention. This implies that an undocumented immigrant could be held indefinitely. In its first year, the fund’s staff have gathered $130,000, which has allowed them to pay bonds for 12 people, covered legal services for other 12 and give an emergency grant—that could cover rent, transportation, medical and basic living expenses—to another four.
María’s husband is now living at home. He has a court date next January. But their lives are still on hold. If he is deported, María won’t be able to pay the rent; they are thinking of moving to a smaller apartment or even going back to Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. Her daughter would need to cross the border every day to continue going to an American school. “If we go back to Ciudad Juarez, I would have to leave my daughter to cross alone the bridge to the US to go to school, because she is a US citizen,” María said.
Calles knows she can’t completely resolve the family’s fears, but she hopes to relieve them. She is among the many Bay Area women working to help people deal with deportation-related fears. Some offer each other rides to take children to school or help to write a “family preparedness plan,” so that the children will be taken care of by others if the parents are deported. Others offer legal help, lead “know your rights” workshops, or provide emotional therapy. And still others rely on activism or religious faith as tools to cope with the uncertainty of not knowing if they or a family member could suddenly be made to leave the country.
Some, like Calles, are motivated by their own immigration experience. As a 10-year-old, Calles was sent alone by bus to the US to escape the civil war in El Salvador. She remembers saying goodbye to her neighborhood and to her father, who she wouldn’t see again. Over five days, she crossed El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, until she reached Los Angeles. To relieve her fear on that trip, her family gave her a letter in which they told her about all the beautiful things she would see on her way, like cows and donkeys. “But they didn’t talk about the bad things,” Calles recalled—about the strange noises in the darkness, or being surrounded by unknown people. To distract her during her journey, concerned people on the bus would talk about the newsy stuff in the United States: Michael Jackson, Madonna and Star Wars.
Today, in her 40s, Calles is a woman with an easy laugh and strong hug. In addition to being part of the defense fund, she is co-president of the Parent Teachers Student Association at Melrose Leadership Academy, is a member of the cooking club and works as a nurse for elderly people. To relieve the stress of multitasking, every Wednesday she dances zumba with her young son and then they go out for sushi.
When her son joined Melrose Leadership Academy, a double immersion school with 50 percent Hispanic families, Calles thought she could help students cope with immigration-related anxieties. She shares with them her childhood experiences in El Salvador and her journey to the US as an unaccompanied minor. She talks about the uncertainty she felt growing up when hearing a helicopter, because she didn’t know if it was bringing water or snipers. “I talk about my anxiety and fears—that hasn’t changed,” she said. “I tell them that no one knows the traumas and fears of others, but we can all be kind and help and just be a good friend so [the newcomer] doesn’t feel lost.”
When Calles relives her experiences, she is not only trying to help the children who have recently arrived, but also is working on her own trauma. “I feel I am cleaning spider webs in my past,” she said. On her right arm is the image of a spider hanging from a web, which covers half of her son’s face. “I am this spider, who—at the same time that is cleaning the past from spider webs—is netting a web where if somethings falls apart, my son can fall and rebound,” she said.
Earlier this spring, María and Calles were sitting together at the academy, where Calles—through the organization Padres Unidos—had organized a “know your rights” workshop. It was a Friday afternoon, and classrooms quickly emptied. There was fried chicken and pasta. It was the first time María had attended one of these workshops. Six mothers, a father and a legal assistant from Centro Legal de la Raza—a group that ensures access to legal help for low income and immigrant communities—listened attentively as Maria recalled the morning her husband was almost deported.
One of the mothers asked her if ICE interrogated her when she went outside of her home. “They asked me: ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘His wife.’ ‘What is your name?’” María recalled. “But I only said, ‘María,’” she added.
The legal assistant, who asked to be identified only as Cristina due to the immigration status of some family members, intervened: “That’s alright, there are many Marías. It is OK to say just your first name,” she said. “But don’t identify yourself.”
During the two-hour-workshop, Cristina taught them the art of remaining silent if they encounter ICE officers. “Don’t open the door, don’t identify yourself, don’t talk,” became her mantra.
Cristina knows well the importance of remaining silent. One early morning a decade ago, she said, ICE officers knocked on her door asking for her uncle. “I opened the door, unfortunately,” she told the group. When he went out in his pajamas, they arrested him. “In that moment, I didn’t know my rights,” she said.
At the police station, Cristina said, her uncle was told to sign a document so he could “get out immediately.” He signed. But nobody told him that they meant it would get him out the US, not out of the police station. That same afternoon, her uncle was deported to Mexico. “Never sign anything,” Cristina emphasized.
She gave the parents copies of the red cards that are at the entrance of the school. In English, they read: “I do not wish to speak with you, answer your questions, or sign any documents based on my 5th Amendment rights under the US Constitution.”
This little piece of paper didn’t seem to convince all the mothers that it could be their safeguard against deportation. According to ICE figures, 226,199 individuals were deported and 143,470 were arrested in the fiscal year of 2017. In that same period, the San Francisco Area of Responsibility for ICE registered 7,231 administrative arrests and 6,292 removals.
“The card doesn’t assure us that we aren’t going to be arrested. But that’s what we have for now, so we need to use it,” Cristina told them.
The mothers’ questions revealed their inner fears: Can ICE agents enter your home if you don’t open the door? What if I get nervous and I open the door? How long can they detain you? What if I don’t have money for a lawyer?
Oakland and other sanctuary cities of California are attempting to offer some support to people with these concerns. In these cities, local police officers don’t collaborate with ICE agents during removal operations. Schools don’t require proof of legal immigration status upon enrollment. At the county level, the Alameda County Immigration Legal & Education Partnership (ACILEP) and Stand Together Contra Costa have each recently launched rapid response teams, where volunteers verify the presence of ICE officers on the street and provide legal advice to people who are detained. There are 13 response teams in Northern California. They have a 24-hour hotline, which Cristina told the parents about during the workshop. “I need to put this number on my fridge,” said one mother to herself.
At the end of the training, Cristina asked: “How many of you were born outside the US?” All the parents raised their hands, except for one who answered: “Why would I give you that information?” Cristina looked at her and smiled—she was the only one who hadn’t fallen into her trap.
“How many of you are from Mexico?” Cristina asked, trying again. This time, the women looked at each other, and none raised their hands. A father said, “I am from America —can I say that?” A mother added: “I am citizen of the world.” The room burst into laughter. “If the immigration officers don’t know where are we from, they can not detain us,” said Cristina.
Next, she asked them to imagine they were on the street and ICE officers arrived asking for Cristina. “What would you do?” she asked. Everyone remained silent. Cristina insisted, imitating an ICE officer asking in a more aggressive tone: “I have a detention order for Cristina. Who is Cristina?”
A mother answered: “We are all Cristina.” Some mothers laughed, but Cristina reminded them that they cannot lie. This time, they showed her the red card. Cristina was satisfied.
At the headquarters of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, or MUA, a women’s support group in the Fruitvale, there’s a tiny room with white walls where two armchairs are facing each other. During each 40-minute session, a “soul counsellor” sits here and talks with a woman seeking psychological help.
In these meetings, there are no professional therapists. Among equals, women share their fears. In the Latino community, the stigma of going to a psychologist still plays a role—that’s how Maria Jimenez, director of the MUA support program, sees it. For Jimenez the main barrier is the language: If the therapist doesn’t know Spanish, you need a translator. She also said that services are expensive, and if you don’t have insurance, the waiting list can be long unless you are in a very serious crisis.
MUA also offers self-esteem, workers’ rights or leadership workshops to schools, community centers and even the Mexican consulate in San Francisco. “Since Obama came to power, we felt very insecure as community, because he promised things that were never accomplished,” said Jimenez, referring to the promises of amnesty for millions of undocumented people. But during the Obama administration, there were 5,281,115 deportations, according to the Migrant Policy Institute.
Yet the most dramatic change came after the election of Donald Trump, whom Jimenez refers as the “45th president” or “the current administration,” to avoid pronouncing his name. Since last year, schools or community centers have demanded workshops about immigration rights. “People don’t want to talk about anything else,” Jimenez said.
Jimenez remembers the most extreme cases she has witnessed during the Clinicas del Alma—people threatening to commit suicide. “We try to convince them that nothing is worth taking your own life. There’s hope. We try to de-escalate the crisis,” she said. When the pain pushes women to hurt themselves, they are sent to a professional therapist. In “less serious” cases, the soul counselling sessions work by letting women treat women. Beyond the fear of deportation, said Jimenez, “most of women who come to MUA are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault. They don’t trust men.”
Each women who seeks help receives support for three months. Then she is invited to join the organization where she will be trained over four Saturdays to be a “soul counsellor” herself. The idea is that by helping others, they help themselves. “We learn to not depend on a therapists,” said Jimenez.
A psychologist teaches the volunteers about empathy, confidentiality and how to detect warning signals of depression. Here are some of the warning signals that Jimenez has learned to detect: Women who no longer take their kids to school because they panic about driving their car in case an ICE officer stops them. Women who order food deliveries because they fear going outside of their homes. Women who used to love dancing, but no longer go because they don’t find joy in it anymore. “I met a lady who had ripped out her eyelashes and eyebrows. Others cut themselves. I have seen survivors who party the whole week to avoid thinking,” she said.
“In this society, we are trained to not feel. Women are educated to be strong and always smiling and beautiful,” Jimenez continued. “The first step in mental health is acknowledging that you are having pain.” In the soul clinics, they train women to express their feelings: fear, sadness, humiliation, discrimination. “While you are not identifying the feelings that are attacking you, it is very difficult that you recover,” she said.
Beyond the clinics, the group also offers yoga classes, acupuncture, childcare services, and other forms of relaxation. “Women are sad and cry, but they have also found the way to feel good,” Jimenez said. “They dance, they are happy, having their coffee here. We are creating ways to keep us healthy: fighting for our rights, learning from one another, and sharing.”
When people share their fears, the fear weighs less. But sometimes the fear comes true.
Every morning, Vilma Melisa Serrano arrives at Melrose Leadership Academy to teach 24 5-year-olds in her transitional kindergarten class. Some live with a fear of deportation. Serrano, as the daughter of Salvadoran migrants, knows that anguish.
Serrano was born in Los Angeles, but she said her parents crossed into the US illegally. She said that under the stress of working two jobs, her father started taking speed and methamphetamine, and was ultimately arrested for “drug possession with intent to sell.” He was deported when Serrano was 3 years old—they wouldn’t see each other again until she was an adult.
The distance with her father was more than geographic. They barely spoke on the phone every two years. “Sometimes my uncle would bring us photos of him,” she recalled. “I felt resentment. I felt there was no reason for him to distance himself from us like that.” As a child, Serrano had been very talkative, but after the deportation of her father, she said she spent the following two months silently staring through the window. “Waiting for him,” she said.
Valeria Slapak, an early childhood mental health specialist with the organisation Jewish Families and Community Services of the East Bay, which provides services to refugees and asylees, said that it is common for traumatized children to adopt atypical behaviours. Other effects are being very withdrawn, not relating with other children, looking depressed, being very aggressive, or going back a few stages of development. For instance, “they start peeing on their pants or putting their thumb in the mouth again,” she said.
According to Slapak, it is essential for children to talk about their feelings. “Putting a name to a sensation helps children put shape to something that is really chaotic,” she said. Another way of navigating their feelings is through play therapy. “A 5-year-old can’t tell you, ‘I am hitting my brother because I feel angry,’ but they would talk about how the little doll they are playing with feels or why they are hitting another doll. You can help come up themselves with strategies of how to help their doll or their puppet,” she said.
After experiencing trauma, “like seeing a person being taken away, nightmares or re-enactment of having the feelings you had in that moment are common,” she said. Relaxation and breathing techniques are helpful, she said, because it reminds you that “you are in the present, focusing on the things that are around you, and telling yourself that what happened was really scary but it happened in the past.”
After the deportation, Serrano’s mother sent her to a school for low-income families. There she met “Miss White,” a teacher who taught her English and took care of her. “She loved me a lot. She made me feel I was worthy as a person,” Serrano recalled. Today she has become “Miss Serrano” and through teaching tries to give back that kindness and “protect kids with trauma,” she said.
She also became a teacher for “representation.” “When I was a kid, I only had one teacher that was Latina. I wanted my students to see me and recognise themselves,” she said. In the 2016-2017 academic year, according to the California Department of Education, 63 percent of teachers in public schools in the state were white.
Latino students can identify with Serrano, and she feels that on occasion that helps them to open up and share their feelings. For example, five years ago, when Serrano was teaching at Oakland Bridges Academy, her students debated about borders and migration. A student told the class how his father was killed in El Salvador, and how he crossed the border with his aunt. “In a certain moment, his aunt asked him to eat a sweet. He then fell asleep and doesn’t remember anything,” Serrano said—he was drugged to prevent him from making any noise during a delicate moment in their journey.
Today, Serrano is also part of the defense fund that helps immigrants pay their bonds. Her mother didn’t know about immigration bonds two decades ago, and today Serrano wonders what would have happened if her father could have gotten his bond paid and hired a better legal defense—if that could have spared her from growing up with an absent father.
While the Latino community is under a constant spotlight, other communities are also targeted.
In October, 2017, Chen Kong Wick was preparing chicken noodle soup for breakfast, hurrying up her daughter to get ready for school. She had taken the day off from her job at the Oakland school district, where she works as program manager for extended learning. Chen was on her way to the hospital to make some medical decisions for her ill sister. Then, she received a text message from her sister in law—ICE officers had picked up her brother.
“My heart sank,” Wick remembered. Instead of going to the hospital, she drove to Davis to check on her sister in law. On her way, she called her pastor. He prayed for her and her brother.
Wick came to the US in 1981, after part of her family survived the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, who in 1975 overtook the Cambodian government, leaving in their wake 2 million deaths. In a sepia photo of the day they arrived as refugees, Wick was 7 and her brother 2. She is the only one smiling.
When she was 23, she went through the naturalization process to become an American citizen. “The reason why I initiated my citizenship was because my brother had a joyride conviction and he was picked up by ICE,” she said. At that moment, they realised they needed to become citizens, since even lawful permanent residents, including refugees, are deportable if they are convicted of an aggravated felony.
Wick said her brother’s earlier joyriding conviction led to his detention last October. The weeks after his detention were an “emotional rollercoaster, unmanageable, torturous,” Wick said. She could not picture her brother being deported to a country that he barely knew, with no family left and not speaking a word of Cambodian.
She also struggled with guilt and embarrassment, and “the model minority myth that Asian people are supposed to be the good immigrant versus the bad immigrant,” as she put it. She felt judged by her own community: “It was like, you had your chance of become a citizen. How come you didn’t do it?”
Wick’s daughter knew that something was wrong. “I would send her off and yell at her from nowhere and then had to apologize,” Wick recalled. They told her that her uncle was on a work vacation. (Slapak, the childhood mental health specialist, suggests that parents tell the truth in a way that is age appropriate. She recognizes that in the middle of a crisis can be overwhelming and families need to say, “Daddy is on vacation.” “It is not ideal, but it is OK to wait until the parents are mentally ready to talk about it,” she said.) Eventually, Wick’s daughter caught her crying. “I couldn’t hide it anymore,” she recalled.
Even though Wick majored in psychology, she decided that therapy was not the way to deal with the possible deportation of her brother. “A therapist didn’t give me hope, and I needed to fight,” she said. Instead she found her strength in her Christian faith. “This is not the fate for which my father fought very hard trying to keep us alive from the Khmer Rouge, nor for which my spiritual father died on the cross,” she said.
For Wick, “You can’t teach or give to someone the value of hope and faith. It is a inner thing, you need to believe yourself that this is not the fate I am going to accept.”
She said she felt aware she was in a privileged position, since people in her work environment understood trauma and were supportive to her. “They would ask me how was I doing, give me a hug, have lunch and tell me that I look awful,” she said. One scheduled a time for her to get a massage. At first she refused, but then she gave in. “The massage was amazing,” she recalled with a smile. During those months, she felt that taking care of herself “wasn’t an option. It felt, like, selfish.”
“That is the nice thing of having a sanctuary district,” Wick said. “Imagine the layer of difficulty if I worked in a school district that didn’t care what I was going through.”
And in the end, she received sweet news — her brother was released after being granted clemency by California Governor Jerry Brown, Oakland’s former mayor. Her brother is no longer on the removal list and he is applying for citizenship. But Wick still worries. “He is not safe until he is a citizen,” she said.
Today when she hears information about ICE raids she constantly texts him: “Where are you at?” The word “roundup” scares her. Intrusive memories play in her head. She has to remind herself that “roundup,” as she puts it, “is just a word.”
Lourdes Barraza is attached to her phone on the morning of April 2.
She is standing at the doors of the US Citizen and Immigration Services building in San Francisco. She moves her hands nervously. As she smiles, she bites her lip. She will soon be able to hug her husband, Fernando Carrillo, for the first time in 173 days. He was detained by ICE in October while dropping of their daughter at day care.
Now that daughter, who just turned 5, is nervously dancing around. She asks her mother: “Why don’t we go inside the building?”
“No, we don’t want to go inside. It is an ugly place,” Barraza says.
Earlier, she and her three daughters had briefly entered in the building to see Carrillo through a window. No contact, as has been the rule for the last six months, while he was detained in the West County Detention Center in Richmond.
After a few minutes Barraza and the 5-year old had gone to wait outside, while the other two daughters remained inside. Barraza was glued to her phone, texting every minute. She reads the texts out loud: “The interview is over.” “He is on the sixth floor now.” A while later she announces: “He is coming, I can feel my heartbeats.”
The moment arrives and she rushes to hug her husband, together with the rest of the family.
The path to this hug hasn’t been easy, and can be explained by the fact that Barraza is not only surrounded by family members, but by activists and about 10 TV cameras. Barraza has used activism to cope with the fear of having her husband deported. Her protest took the shape of a Change.org petition asking the field director of the ICE Office in San Francisco to release Carrillo, a YouCaring crowdfunding effort to pay his bond and a Facebook page called “Free Fernando Now,” with 285 likes, which is where she pours out all her emotions.
She also attended protests in support of her husband. In early March, she took the microphone in front of 150 people rallying at the West County Detention Facility organized by the group Let Our People Go. “Fernando is really close to giving up, so I ask you to keep us in your prayers because, we can not give up. I told him we need to keep fighting,” she told them with a broken voice.
The couple, who are Catholic, also constantly thank God. Since her husband’s detention, Barraza has become involved with several organizations, some of them faith-based, including Let Our People Go and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. This last group held a “Holy Thursday Vigil For Fernando Carrillo” on March 29.
“25 minutes after, we received the text message that the judge said we had won the case! It is an Easter miracle,” says Barraza. Carillo would be released, and able to apply for a work permit. “He doesn’t need to live in fear anymore,” as his wife puts it.
Barraza said that she obtains “courage” through protesting, but that “this wasn’t easy for me, to stand up and speak in front of so many people, so many cameras.” She acknowledges that “the community support kept us motivated to keep fighting for Fernando.”
As for her husband, he says it’s true that he was about to give up many times. “My family gave me strength, they gave me hope, they would send me letters from the community,” he says. Indeed, on the morning of his release he receives a big card on which someone has written: “Yay, we don’t have to move to Canada!”
After the family reunites, they pray with the activists, and then Barraza announces that the first thing her husband wants to do is to go to church. He adds that he wants to take “a real shower and put on my pj’s.”
Barraza and Carrillo are aware that they have a voice that others don’t. For two hours, TV crews had been waiting to capture their reunion. During that time, many other people had walked in an out of the immigration services building. Nobody paid attention or told their stories. Barraza—like Calles, Jimenez, Serrano, Wick and others—are building a web to help people with deportation fears learn to engage in activism, get help from their faith or “soul clinics,” or attend rights workshops. But still, they know that many people remain in the shadows, suffering their fear alone.
Journalists start packing up, but Carrillo continues: “Just like me, there’s hundred of families. They don’t have support. There’s a lot of them. They need to get out.”
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