Helping Foreign-born Kids Cope with Fears

Maritere, born in Mexico, holds a letter from the Department of Education. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“Mom, I don’t want the bad guy to take me away from you.” “Does the bad guy have children?” “If they catch us, will they put us inside a cage?” “Will they also kick my doggie out?” These are only some of the questions the daughter of Mexico-born Maritere asks her every day. A Brooklyn resident, she is the mother of a 6-year-old kindergarten student born in New York who has been in constant emotional stress since Donald Trump became president. The child has become distracted in school, is afraid to go out in the street, and finds it difficult to sleep, often waking up crying in the middle of the night refusing to tell her parents what she was dreaming about.

“I am very worried to see her this way. She is just a little girl. She feels uncomfortable, and the stress she has is so great that sometimes she doesn’t want to go to sleep because she says that she is afraid that no one will pick her up from school the next day,” said the girl’s mother. “She tells her dad when he takes her to school in the morning to be careful at work and not to get close to police officers because they might take him.”

The emotional impact the federal government’s announcements on immigration are having on children and parents is such that the Department of Education (DOE) has set guidelines for school staff to make children be at ease and feel safe.

“The DOE provides schools with additional study plan resources and both social and emotional support,” said Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, pointing out that the goal is to guarantee a safe, supportive learning environment and reiterate New York City’s commitment in the midst of the current climate of uncertainty. “Schools are receiving guidelines on how to start conversations with staff and students to promote respectful dialogue regarding diversity and inclusiveness.”

In an attempt to calm the palpable nervousness among students, the DOE has also announced the launching of 100 workshops to be offered before, during and after regular school hours in which youths will learn about their rights.

“We want to reaffirm our commitment to protect the rights of all New York City students attending public schools regardless of their immigration status. Your child is our priority, and we will do everything in our power to protect those rights,” said Fariña in a letter sent to parents like Maritere a few days ago. The communication also informed them that “la migra” (ICE) will not be able to freely enter schools.

Fear prevails

Still, the Trump effect is so great among students and families across the city that the chancellor’s words of support are not enough for parents like Lucía S., born in Ecuador.

“I walk around in such fear that I don’t even take my child to school anymore. I bought him a cell phone, and I walk him to a certain point but then he walks by himself the rest of the way while we talk on the phone until he tells me that he is inside the school,” she said, adding that both she and her 8-year-old are feeling much stress. “When school lets out, we do the same thing. I wait for him a few blocks away because, even though they say that ‘la migra’ cannot go into the schools, I have heard that in some places they wait outside for immigrants and take them. So I’d rather not risk it.”

In light of the impact on the emotional health of children such as Lucía and Maritere’s, Cindy López, from the city’s Department of Health (DOH), said that her agency and the DOE are working alongside the Office of School Health to create emotional development and social health programs to cover every need students may present.

“All children and parents have the same opportunity to receive mental health attention, regardless of their immigration status. Our mental health providers are integrated into New York City schools to help them in their efforts to build supportive environments and to strengthen family and educational center networks,” said the DOH official, adding that the actions the agency has taken to address the anguish minors and parents have demonstrated in the last few months include distributing documents containing information on immigrant rights, making support hotlines available and offering advice on how to help students showing emotional and behavioral reactions caused by the anxiety and fear.

“Parents and children who are feeling worried and need emotional support can find help at their local school, where trained supervisors are available to assist and provide translation services,” she said.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke of the anxiety overcoming not just the families of undocumented people but children in general, and said that it is crucial for schools to provide constant support.

“At a moment like this, it is more important than ever for us to offer students and parents mental health services and social-emotional support at schools,” said Brewer. “It is not enough for us to discredit what comes out of Washington. We need to thoroughly review everything the city does and make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect and support all New Yorkers.”

For her part, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito pointed out that, in this period in which the country is going through a political climate where “fear, uncertainty and hatred are plaguing communities,” the city – along with the DOE – is working to implement new measures to protect children, their mental health and their safety, such as the rule forbidding ‘la migra’ to enter schools.


Psychologist Claudia García said that the emotional anguish the minors are enduring due to a fear of being separated from their families is a huge burden that could cause serious damage to the development of their personalities and of their emotional and social behavior.

“The children are being submitted to an abrupt wave of emotions and concerns that may unleash fear, trauma and phobia when they grow up,” said the specialist, adding that constant therapy is required. “It is essential for parents and teachers to be alert and to counteract these effects by talking honestly to their children at the time they generate confidence and strength. This could have positive results, allowing them to become self-assured adults capable of better handling difficult situations they may face throughout their lives.”

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