Working with Undocumented Families

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Alina Ramirez-Ponce, Ph.D., LCSW-S, Clinical Director
By Alina Ramirez-Ponce, Ph.D., LCSW-S, Clinical Director Feb 19, 2018

As adults, one of our first instincts is to protect and comfort children who are afraid. But that instinct can be challenging when a child’s fear is real, and there’s nothing we can do to protect them from it. One big area where we see this fear is around the topic of immigration.

For many children around the country, the fear of deportation or other trouble with immigration officials is very real. Children and families fear that ICE officials will scoop them up at work or school, that their family will be separated, or that their safety in this country is at risk. These fears are not irrational or illogical. Children are seeing stories in their communities and in the news of families like theirs facing immigration challenges. These fears are based in real situations happening in front of them.

When these fears are logical and real, adults can’t say, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be okay.” Adults don’t actually know that things will be okay, and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. So what can adults working with children living in fear of immigration concerns do? How do you handle real fear when you can’t reassure them that things are going to be okay?

The answer to these questions is similar to how we handle scary news headlines. Start by creating a safe place for children. We can’t control the outside world, but we can control our little corner of it. So, you can tell children that you are a safe person. You can assure them that they can talk to you about any of their fears or concerns.

It is important that children feel safety somewhere. School can serve as a buffer, so to speak, for the insecurity they’re feeling at home. It is a terrifying world for a child who lives in constant fear, and then comes to school where the fear continues without any adult reassuring them. Teachers, administrators and anyone who works with kids need to reassure the children that they are safe at school. You can say, “At this school, we are going to do our best to keep you safe. If you are scared or worried, you can talk to me.” Creating a safe place means that we must be intentional about noticing and addressing when children have fear or anxiety. Sometimes these fears come out through behavior or in one-on-one conversations, and sometimes they’re harder to decipher. Anyone who works with a population of families who may be living in fear of immigration issues should pay extra attention to signs that children may be concerned or fear for their safety. If a child is having more of a trauma response, teachers and administrators need to be aware of the signs and have resources for support, through either a school counselor or an outside organization. I’ve listed some resources at the bottom of this post.

Another area where concerns bubble up are around peer conflicts. It is not entirely uncommon to hear race or immigration related bullying, such as, “Go back to where you came from”. This is another challenging area to address, and should be handled with careful attention to protecting a child’s sense of safety.

I encourage anyone who works with children from any background to talk about why diversity and immigration are important to our country. Teachers can talk to students about the history of immigration in this country at a developmentally appropriate level depending on the age of the students. A teacher can share her own ethnic background. If a teacher’s family immigrated to the United States, she can share that story with her students and talk about her family’s country of origin. If she didn’t immigrate and instead has Native American roots or her ancestors came as part of a slave trade, she can talk about any details that she’s familiar with and comfortable with. She can talk about immigration in a broader sense and talk about different important people in their school or in the world who immigrated to the United States. It can be very powerful for children to pull up from the current discussions about immigration to talk about it in a bigger sense. Children can come to understand that the United States is a country of immigrants and that this diversity from people all over the world is what makes this country great. It is important not to shame one child for making a racist or insensitive comment. Children often only repeat what they hear from others and don’t always know the undertones of what they’re saying. Instead of addressing each concern and disciplining a child for making a comment, a teacher can come back to discussions about immigration as a whole and say things like, “We welcome immigrants in this country” or “We welcome all of the students in our classroom”.

The last big area to focus on when working with children living in fear of immigration concerns is their families. It can be challenging to know how to address the topic of immigration with parents. We can encourage them to seek out support and have their things in order. Some parents don’t feel that they have any legal recourse so they haven’t talked to an attorney or worked on any details related to immigration. But even parents who don’t have a path to citizenship can still have a family preparedness plan. They can have a power of attorney, have any copies of legal documents in a safe location, know other adults who can pick up their children from school, have these other people on a school pickup list, have updated emergency contacts and more. This level of planning makes it less likely for a bad situation to be even worse.

It is helpful for parents to have some sort of conversation with children about their legal status or about immigration in general. Some parents don’t feel comfortable talking about being undocumented because they’re worried it will create fear in their children. This should be decided by each family based on their child’s age, maturity level, anxiety level and how likely it is that their family will face concerns around immigration. But even if parents choose not to give specifics about their legal status, they can still talk to kids about safety in general, in the same way children prepare for fire drills. They can say, “We all want to be prepared in case anything ever happens to our family. Ms. Jones is a safe adult who can pick you up in case of an emergency.”

Children are likely hearing negative messages around immigration from many sources – from the news, politicians, peers, and maybe even their families. Addressing this topic head-on as a teacher or administrator can be very challenging. We all want to be sensitive to not get caught up in politics or current debates about the laws. Instead, we all need to focus on the bigger picture, which is protecting children and allowing them to feel safe at school. What tone are we going to set for children? What message do we want them to understand? How do we want them to feel like they belong? If the tone focuses on the bigger picture, we can keep politics out of it altogether. We can acknowledge that adults disagree about the details of this issue, but that it is our job to keep children safe. Every decision we make must work towards that goal of reassuring and reinforcing safety and concern for children. We can’t tell them that everything will be okay, but we can help them understand that in our presence, they are safe. And that reassurance can make a huge difference for children.

 

 

 

Resources:

Here are a few resources that I recommend. One important note – new agencies pop up from time to time who say they’ll assist people with legal support around immigration. Sometimes these agencies will take a person’s money (usually a very high fee) and then not complete paperwork, or close up shop before the next step. There is, unfortunately, rampant abuse of immigrants with the assumption that they won’t know better and are easy to take advantage of. It is important to be cautious to make sure that referral sources are reputable.

Community organizations often sponsor “Know Your Rights” presentations which may offer helpful information to families.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association can help determine the reputation of an agency and can point people in the right direction for legal aid.

Catholic Charities

Human Rights Initiative

 

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