The four children of undocumented farm worker Lucia de la Cruz dive into the bushes on their way home from school when they see anybody who might be an immigration agent.
“They live in fear,” De la Cruz said, afraid they will be deported on the way to or from school in Homestead, Florida. Her children no longer want to attend classes.
“It’s like a ghost that can separate us. I’m the only one left because their father was already deported,” De la Cruz said.
She wants her children to grow up in the U.S., and not in her homeland of Guatemala where she fears the armed gangs that are there.
But “imagine if I am deported; it is just like a death sentence. There is not much justice there,” De la Cruz said.
Reports of recent crackdowns on illegal immigration have sparked alarm among advocates, citizens and immigrants in the United States, who worry about the effects on the children of undocumented parents.
Witnessing a loved one being arrested and deported may have significant effects on the mental health of children, says Lawrence Palinkas, a professor of social policy and health at the University of Southern California.
“The most common impact is anxiety and depression. Anxiety over the lack of stability and security in the family unit,” Palinkas said. “Certainly, children tend to observe very closely the behavior of parents.”
The long-term impacts can vary, he added, from experiencing elevated levels of anxiety and fear to being more likely to report depressive symptoms during adulthood.
L.M., who asked to be identified only by initials, has been living in the U.S. for more than 17 years. She said her 10-year-old child has been “very nervous lately,” and wants to go “with me wherever I go.”
Speaking in Spanish, L.M. said the family of five is made of undocumented parents, two undocumented children and the 10-year-old, who is a U.S. citizen.
Some immigrants have chosen to avoid sending their children to school. But L.M., who works as an immigration advocate in Virginia, refuses to take her daughter out of school and change the family’s daily routine. When the 10-year-old comes home from school, she “hugs me tightly and says how glad she is that nothing happened to me.
“She has been having nightmares. The nights she has bad dreams she refuses to sleep alone; she wants to sleep with me,” L.M. said. “She says sleeping with me is the only way she feels calm.”
Palinkas said symptoms, such as those described by L.M., can be directly related to stress. Other traumatic forms of behavior are acting out in school or at home, bed wetting, and difficulties in school or poor school performance.
“One way or another, any child under these circumstances is likely to be impacted,” he said.
The American Psychological Association says reuniting deported parents with their children may take years due to difficult immigration regulations and financial barriers; the more complicated the reunification, the greater the likelihood that those children will suffer psychologically.
Two reports released in 2015 by the Migration Policy Institute and the Urban Institute show that the effects of a parent’s deportation can be aggravated by economic and social instability and unauthorized status.
At the extreme end, the study reports, some families became permanently separated as parents lose contact or custody of children.
That’s one of L.M.’s biggest fears.
“I don’t want my child to go into the system. … I don’t want them to be up to adoption,” she told VOA.
L.M. and her husband have asked a relative to take care of their children in case something happens, and power of attorney papers have been signed.
“It’s sad. For us, it was really sad to think about that. … We never asked for government benefits. We’ve always paid everything ourselves. … We have done everything this country has asked us to do,” she said.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acknowledged immigrants’ fears of family separation.
In an email response to VOA, Jennifer Elzea said the agency “is committed to ensuring that law enforcement activities, including detention and deportation, do not necessarily hamper the rights of foreign parents or guardians of minors.”
ICE told VOA that parents presented with a deportation order must decide whether to bring their children with them.
If parents choose to have their American child accompany them, ICE tries to meet, as much as possible, the efforts of parents to make arrangements for their children.
“As practicable, ICE will coordinate to afford detained parents or legal guardians access to counsel, consulates and consular officials, courts, and/or family members in the weeks preceding removal in order to execute documents [e.g., powers of attorney, passport applications], purchase airline tickets, and make other necessary arrangements prior to travel,” Elzea wrote in a statement.
But L.M. believes a 10-year-old should not be living in fear.
“[My daughter] is an American citizen, too. Does she [have] less value than the others?” she asked.
VOA’s Jose Pernalete and Angelica Herrera contributed to this report.