Parish, school leaders affirm deportation fears affecting families

| May 16, 2017 | 3 Comments

Antonia Alvarez’s 12-year-old daughter, Melina, can’t talk about the issue of deportation without crying, so the two rarely discuss it.

Her daughter is a U.S. citizen, but Antonia, 46, is not. Melina is afraid she’ll come home one day from her St. Anthony school and her mother — a community organizer and co-founder of Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, which focuses on immigration reform and related issues — will have been deported.

Fear surrounding deportation is widespread among the Latino community in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and has increased since the election of President Donald Trump, said leaders at Incarnation-Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in Minneapolis, Alvarez’s parish. While parish leaders have not observed an increase in the rate of deportation of unauthorized immigrants in their community, some Latino parents have reported to staff that their children are having trouble sleeping and are distracted in school because of the issue.

“The children are not immune to what Washington says or what the president says; quite the contrary. They are very much affected by it,” said Brad Capouch, Incarnation’s administrator. “Kids who go to school are concerned about leaving their parents and not knowing if their parents are going to be there when they come home.”

The issue has been severe enough to warrant a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics in January following the Trump administration’s executive orders bolstering deportation and calling for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. “When children are scared, it can impact their health and development. Indeed, fear and stress, particularly prolonged exposure to serious stress — known as toxic stress — can harm the developing brain and negatively impact short- and long-term health,” it stated.

Michael Rogers, president of Risen Christ Catholic School in Minneapolis, said he knows that fear affects students at the school, although it’s difficult to distinguish whether it is that anxiety or a myriad of other stressors the school’s families face that affect students’ relationships and academic performance. “A lot of our students are dealing with toxic stress, regardless of what is going on,” due to social and economic issues that affect many low-income families, he said. Of the school’s 335 students, 98 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Eighty-eight percent of Risen Christ’s students are Hispanic, making it the school with the largest Latino population in the archdiocese. The school doesn’t collect information on students’ immigration status, and staff doesn’t know who is undocumented or living with undocumented parents. About half of the student body stayed home on “A Day Without Immigrants” in February, Rogers noted.

He has written twice to students’ families assuring them that the school is a safe place.

“Teachers and staff at Risen Christ Catholic School are aware of the concerns, tension, and fear that exist in our students’ lives because of the recent rhetoric and actions related to immigration,” Rogers wrote in a Feb. 22 letter. “We are heartened by the response of our local churches, pastors and bishops, and we continue to pray for all who are affected.”

Risen Christ worked with community organizations to compile information for families, including the publication “Know Your Rights” from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, that’s available through the school office. It has also emphasized that the school’s staff is available to help students struggling with stress, anxiety or trauma.

Seven miles north at St. John Paul II Catholic Preparatory School in Minneapolis, Principal Edgar Alfonzo said a couple of parents initially expressed some concerns about deportation, but that he hasn’t seen a difference in behavior or anxiety among his students. He said it could be a cultural difference — most of his students are from Ecuador, not Mexico — but he can’t know for sure.  The school has written letters in support of students’ parents’ citizenship process, and last year, school leaders wrote a letter supporting a parent slated for deportation, describing him as a good parent involved in his children’s education. He ultimately was allowed to remain in the U.S.

“We always tell them that we support them,” Alfonzo said of the school’s students and their families. “We do anything they ask us to do.”

Incarnation has been working for years to help people at risk for deportation by offering resources to help families get in order their legal matters, including child care, in the event one or both parents are deported. Parish staff and volunteers are also trying to make sure that people in that situation don’t fall victim to predatory behavior, as their situation makes them vulnerable to scam offers for similar work for large sums.

“We’ve been working on changing the immigration laws for a long time, or at least giving people who have been here for a great period of time more opportunities to … become residents and eventually become citizens,” Capouch said.

Capouch noted witnessing changes in trends among unauthorized Latino immigrants. Two decades ago, they typically came to the U.S. to make money to send home, and then eventually returned home themselves. As time went on and the cost of living rose, it became more difficult to save money to send back, and then those who may have come as single people began to have their own families, rooting them to the community. (See sidebar: Unauthorized immigrant parents.)

“In the later parts of the [George W.] Bush administration and then for most of [Barack] Obama administration, deportations were on a continual rise, but they didn’t seem to be a threat to the community at large; they seemed to be isolated, they seemed to be going after some of the factories, which didn’t make them [Latinos in Minneapolis] feel that much better, but it didn’t seem like the community  was being personally attacked because of their immigration status,” Capouch said.

When parish leaders ask families what’s different now from a year ago, it comes back to the kids, Capouch said.

“They say that it’s generally their children who are responding to a heightened sense of fear or that feeling of alienation, and there are families that have young children who say their children do not want to sleep in their bedrooms, they only want to sleep with their parents,” he said. Latino children also have reported an uptick in harassment at school, he said.

In March, the parish publicized the arrest and deportation of one of its parishioners, who was driving with his wife and child near the home of his child’s caregiver in Minneapolis when he was stopped and arrested. Capouch and others tried to make a case for him to stay with documents attesting to his character, but because the man had already been deported once before, they were not successful in keeping him in the country. They’ve since focused on making sure his wife and child are supported by family and friends.

For Alvarez, compounding her daughter’s fears is the family’s housing situation. Despite Alvarez’s community organization efforts, the Lowry Grove mobile home park where she lives in St. Anthony has been sold and is slated to close, and she needs to find a new place for her family to live. Her immigration status has affected her ability to find a new home, she said, and the time she’s invested in standing up for her community — both Latinos and her mobile home park — means she hasn’t had time to focus on herself and develop a plan if she were deported, she said.

“It’s quite an incredible strain that’s put on the people,” Capouch said, “and I think those of us who are not in the constant fear don’t really understand how great a burden this is, not only for them, but for their children, to always be looking over your shoulder and not knowing if today is the day you get picked up. And that level of anxiety when it gets raised only makes it that much worse.”

Find resources on how faith communities can support immigrants and refugees at


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