LAS CRUCES – The morning after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, 6-year-old Anabell woke up with a pressing question for her mother: “Does that mean we’re leaving the country?”
“No,” Nayeli Saenz reassured her daughter. “You were born here. You are a U.S. citizen.”
But Saenz, 34, is not. She was brought illegally from Mexico as a 9-year-old girl and has lived most of her life in the shadows. Las Cruces is where she graduated high school, got married and divorced, and raised three children. She has done so under a cloud of fear that began with the Obama administration and has grown under Trump.
“It’s a fear that you have that’s unexplainable,” she says. “You have to be careful who knows. As a mother, that fear, you translate it to your children.”
While the nation has been riveted by images of children torn from their parents at the border, families throughout New Mexico have been wrestling with a quieter but no less dramatic threat: a steep increase in deportations of immigrants with no criminal record.
Deportations haven’t hit the high point reached during Barack Obama’s presidency, but one difference stands out in the first year of Trump: ICE arrests of unauthorized immigrants with no criminal record surged 58 percent in New Mexico and West Texas in one year, to 621 arrests in fiscal 2017 from 392 in 2016, according to agency statistics. Nationwide, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests of non-criminals swelled 146 percent, to 37,734 from 15,353 over the same period.
This hardline approach takes a special toll on children, who feel the effects most deeply, research shows.
“One of the worst things you can do to a child is separate them from a parent,” says Brian Etheridge, a Silver City pediatrician and president of the New Mexico Pediatric Society. “Even the threat of a potential deportation has a huge impact on the child’s health.”
Thousands of children in New Mexico may be affected. The Pew Research Center estimates that 85,000 unauthorized immigrants live in the state, a figure extrapolated from Census data. Nationwide, in 2014, about 6 percent of U.S. citizen children, or 4.7 million kids, were living with an unauthorized immigrant parent, according to Pew.
Attorneys say enforcement changes of the past 18 months dictate that almost no circumstance will prevent the federal government from deporting someone who is in the country unlawfully.
Immigrants with a pending visa application aren’t as protected as they were a year and a half ago. Saenz is hanging her hopes on a visa granted to victims of domestic abuse. Lawyers say that is no longer a guarantee.
“The law hasn’t really changed all that much, but the enforcement of that law has changed quite a bit,” says Olsi Vrapi, who heads an Albuquerque immigration law firm. “There is absolutely no heart in immigration enforcement anymore.”
In an emailed statement, ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa told Searchlight New Mexico that “decisions whether to detain a parent who is caring for minor children are made on a case-by-case basis,” adding: “For parents who are ordered removed, it is their decision whether to relocate their children with them.”
New Mexico is the only home many of these children have known, and the same is true for many of their parents. Saenz hasn’t been back to the village of her birth in Hidalgo state, north of Mexico City, since she came here in the early 1990s.
When she crossed the Rio Grande on a raft with her mother, it was below an El Paso international bridge in plain sight of border agents who tolerated the practice. She and her parents have since spent decades applying for legal status.
Today, Saenz holds a temporary work permit that allows her to provide elder care in Las Cruces.
In a modest house with shades drawn against the southern New Mexico heat, Saenz explains how U.S. immigration policy has affected her children: how her sons cried for years when she dropped them off at school, fearful she might not be there in the afternoon; how her youngest, Anabell, is struggling to understand the limits her mother faces without full legal residency.
“I try to make them as comfortable with their situation as possible without them losing the view of our reality,” Saenz says, brushing tears away. “It’s a hard balance. It’s like they have these wings, but they can’t fully expand them and fly.”
Lifetime of trauma
A 2010 study by the Urban Institute examined the consequences of parental arrest, detention and deportation on 190 children in 85 families across six states and found that parent-child separation poses serious risks to children’s immediate safety, economic security, well-being and long-term development.
Within six months of an immigration raid or other arrest, about two-thirds of children experienced changes in eating and sleeping habits. More than half cried frequently and expressed fear, while more than a third were anxious, withdrawn, clingy, angry or aggressive.
Schools across New Mexico report similar fallout – especially in communities where immigrant populations are high.
“We see problems with them psychologically,” says Linda Perez, principal at Anthony Elementary in the Gadsden Independent School District. “We see problems with them physically. And we see problems with them medically.”
Student absences surge with every raid or arrest. The day after an ICE operation in Las Cruces in February 2017, some 2,100 of the district’s 25,000 students stayed home.
Etheridge says he has watched in despair as patients have fallen off the rolls or forgone care. He recalls a Silver City mother who was afraid to take her son to a pediatric dentist in Deming, fearful of traveling highways policed by the Border Patrol.
Saenz, for her part, taught her children the rules of the shadows from the time they were toddlers: to recognize law enforcement, to never mention her origins, and, if questioned, to plead the Fifth. All three of them know the drill – the “emergency plans” for who takes charge if ICE comes calling. Saenz gave her U.S. citizen sister, at 18, power of attorney over her kids.
Activism has helped keep her family’s fears at bay.
Fifteen-year-old Steven – her oldest – has been tagging along to protests since he was a baby. Now in 10th grade, he says he wants to run for elected office someday and spread the message that undocumented immigrants aren’t strangers; they are friends and neighbors worth fighting for.
“I don’t think lots of people understand what it’s like,” he says, “fearing what will happen to your loved one when they go out, not knowing if they will come back.”
Searchlight New Mexico, www.searchlightnm.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. \