EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — School was still in session earlier this year when Carlos Marentes drove his 5-year-old grandson to a Pre-K along a highway that runs parallel to the Rio Grande.
As they got closer to their exit, they saw patrol cars and a large group of people kneeling with their hands behind their heads in front of Border Patrol agents on the other side of the steel mesh border fence.
“What are they doing to them?” the boy asked Marentes.
“I saw his face and he looked both surprised and scared. He was seeing something that looked out of a movie, except it was real,” Marentes said. On another occasion, the pair drove along the same route and came across police officers and paramedics pulling a body out of a canal that also runs parallel to the river.
“He asked me if that was a dead body … if someone had killed that man. I didn’t know what to answer. … I think a lot of us adults here on the border have grown accustomed to such events, but to our children, these things are not normal,” said Marentes, who runs a community center for farmworkers in South El Paso.
With many neighborhoods mere feet away from the international border and a large number of “mixed-status” families, it’s often inescapable for El Paso households — and probably those in other border cities as well — to discuss the immigration phenomenon with their children, activists and educators say.
This is especially true in a region where mass arrests of Central American immigrants, headlines like “Kids in Cages” and images like that of a Salvadoran father and his daughter floating dead on the Rio Grande are featured on television newscasts and websites.
“Parents and caregivers are a child’s first teachers. They have an opportunity, albeit a hard one, to explore these topics with their children,” said Marisa Limon, the deputy director of El Paso’s Hope Border Institute. “Each family here has an immigrant story somewhere in their lineage and it helps create context. But the most important thing is to help your child understand first of all that he or she is safe, that they have a secure environment with parents, caregivers and extended family who will look out for them.”
“Another way to ease a child into the immigration topic is through books that will help a child explore feelings about something he or she has seen in the news media or heard in family discussions,” said Limon, who has a master’s degree in education.
Since the Central American migrant surge began last fall and federal authorities have scrambled to contain it, such family discussions have become commonplace in many border cities, activists say.
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, as of July 1, 2018, 25.4 percent of El Paso’s residents were foreign-born, compared to 26.6 percent in Laredo, 29.5 percent in Brownsville, 27.1 percent in Yuma, Arizona, and 37.1 percent in Nogales. The Census doesn’t keep track of whether these persons are now naturalized U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents or undocumented.
Zenaida Navar runs an internship program at El Paso’s Border Network for Human Rights that teaches teenaged boys and girls about constitutional rights, migration and community outreach.
“They have (mixed-status) family members or they know someone who has been affected by immigration policies, so they have a very personal connection to these issues,” Navar said. “I think the fact that it’s so personal gives them more willingness to push these messages to the community.” The program participants range in age from 13 to 18.
Alex Rivas got involved with the organization at age 16, after she participated in an event called “Hugs, Not Walls,” in which the U.S. Border Patrol allowed families from Juarez, Mexico and El Paso to meet for a few minutes in the middle of the Rio Grande, which dries up during certain months of the year here. “I got an opportunity to meet my family from Juarez since I was raised in El Paso. I was able to talk to them, hug and hold hands since they cannot come over,” she said.
Rivas added that she was moved by news stories and lawmakers’ testimony about children in El Paso detention centers who were allegedly kept filthy, without basic supplies like soap and toothpaste and who had to take care of younger children in holding cells.
“I can’t even begin to understand what they must be going through. My mom raised us as a single parent, so I basically helped her raising my brothers. I imagine my (younger) brothers being in that situation and I think that’s crazy. I don’t understand how anyone could think of putting any kids or any families through that situation,” she said.
Rivas said her family and others in El Paso are worried not only about family members who aren’t legal residents but also about the possibility of being profiled themselves by immigration authorities. “I think it affects everyone because here we’re almost all Hispanic and some people are scared to be out on the street and be racially profiled,” she said.
The idea might seem far-fetched at first glance, had it not recently been documented.
U.S. immigration officials on Tuesday released from custody 18-year-old Francisco Galicia, a high school student and U.S. citizen who spent three weeks in a detention center under suspicion of being an undocumented migrant. He was detained at an inland checkpoint in South Texas after agents declined to take his word — or accept his school ID as proof — that he was a U.S. citizen.
But it’s not just immigrant families who are feeling the strain. Relatives of law-enforcement officers — sometimes portrayed as the bad guys in the humanitarian crisis — are also feeling anxious.
“We do have some family members that are married to Border Patrol agents and the issue is impacting those families more,” said Mary Carter, executive director of the Women’s Intercultural Center in Anthony, New Mexico. “It’s taking a huge toll on them because of what is being said about their spouses and their jobs. It’s awkward because these are families that have gotten together and donated to the community. It’s stressful for the kids and spouses and also the persons out in the front lines.”
Resources for families
Limon, of the Hope Border Institute, urges parents of small children to always be aware of what they are seeing and hearing.
“It’s about being in touch with our children and knowing what we are exposing to as well and monitoring what children are exposed to,” Limon said. “I know a lot of time the parents will hand over the phone either for entertainment or so everyone can enjoy a meal out. It’s really important to monitor what children are consuming and help them understand the complexity of the world.”
And, because children will not always articulate their fears or anxiety through words, it’s important to watch their body language or physical signs like stomach pains, she said.
But if the topic needs to be addressed, a family can look for resources like the church, she said. “If a family has a safe religious practice they should explore that — providing a community of faith around the topic. … They should consider what their own scriptures or religious teachings have to say about the topic.”
To help children learn more about the immigration issue, some community leaders recommend the following resources: