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It’s an unsettling feeling knowing that just a few miles from you children were torn from their mother’s breast. The children’s ages, the violence or threats their families might have faced in their home country, and, in some cases, even the way in which they entered the United States— none of that seemed to matter.

Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement of the infamous “zero tolerance” policy at the border, over 3,000 children were separated from their families. We know of the long-term consequences that family separations will have on the children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said that “family separation cause irreparable harm to children” which “can lead to lifelong health consequences.” Less known is the impact which harsh immigration enforcement policies have had on the communities that have seen them play out.  

“I try not to cry in front of them.”

“I shouldn’t have asked him, but I did,” Nayelly Barrios said about a recent interaction she had with an immigrant man seeking asylum at the McAllen bus station. She asked the man whether he had been separated from his child. “As soon as I asked him that, his eyes just welled up. His face just flushed red.”

“Two months and two days,” the man told Barrios. Stories like these have abounded in Barrios’ summer.

“I don’t ask them anymore,” she said.

Barrios is a lecturer at the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. For most educators, summers are usually a time to unwind. For Barrios, however, it has been “the most unpredictable summer of my life.” As a member of the Angry Tías and Abuelas, a grassroots group of mostly aunts and grandmothers that formed in response to the “zero tolerance” family separations, Barrios has largely dedicated her summer to helping immigrants, including those seeking who are asylum stranded on international bridges and bus stations across the Rio Grande Valley. She says there’s no typical day with the Angry Tías. On any given day, she might work anywhere between two to eight hours carrying out on demand, unpaid, volunteer work.

This summer, Barrios spoke to local and national media more times than she can count. She has explained what compels and motivates her to get up, stuff backpacks, drive hours, and to stay out under the Texas blistering heat to deliver supplies to people she’s never met. What doesn’t make it into the interview, however, is the personal toll the work has taken. Journalists don’t typically ask about the medical appointments she had to reschedule because she was busy delivering emergency supplies or about the times an article’s headline was enough to give her flashbacks to the people she’s met, causing her to burst into tears.  

They don’t know about the anxiety attacks either, the latest of which happened just two days before her interview with Neta.

Courtesy of Stefanie Herweck

Barrios was at home, working on her monthly budget matters. Her phone kept buzzing as message after another flooded the Angry Tías and Abuelas Facebook Messenger thread. She knew she had to respond. While trying to balance her budget and the group thread, she got a call from Reyna, an asylum-seeking woman she had recently dropped off at the airport. She was reaching out to Barrios because she needed help scanning and sending some documents to her attorney.

“For you and I, it’s so simple,” Barrios said, referring to the scanning of documents. “But she doesn’t even know anyone in the area.”

With her budget documents in front of her and her phone still buzzing, she opened another tab on her browser and began looking for libraries near Reyna. After Barrios was able to walk her through a plan of action, a series of thoughts started to trickle in.

“I just started thinking about how all of these asylum seekers that are finally off to their sponsors [really] do have a long road ahead of them,” she says. “We think about the bigger things…but then I’m like ‘oh my god, there’s all these other little logistical things that they need help with.”

As she tried to balance her thoughts about the odds stacked against immigrants seeking asylum, her pending budget, and her buzzing phone, she was hit with overwhelming sadness and anxiety. She felt her heart starting to race and her body shake. Barrios was experiencing an anxiety attack.

When she’s supporting immigrants and asylum-seekers, Barrios tries to keep a calm face. “I try not to cry in front of them. I want them to think that the volunteers are 100 percent strong for them, which isn’t true, but part of me wants them to think that,” she said.

But the pain and anxiety don’t stay at the bridge or the bus stations. Even when she’s with her family, hanging out with her nieces and nephews, her attention drifts to the people she’s met. Frequently, she struggles to fall asleep because she can’t stop thinking about people like the 6-year-old girl she met on the Reynosa bridge. Although she was the youngest of the five siblings she was traveling with, Barrios said she was the first one to speak up when prompted about their needs. The sight left an impact on Barrios.

“Everything they’ve been through, and she’s a 6-year-old advocating for her siblings…I keep thinking about her because she was traveling with just her sibling,” Barrios said. “I hope she ends up somewhere safe and nurturing where she can have the opportunity to be like some outspoken lawyer or some good politician that’s going to help immigrants.”

Her experiences have impacted how she sees her community. Whenever she sees a Border Patrol agent, she wonders “if they’ve ever had to tear a kid from their mom or if they’ve been of the ones standing in the middle of their bridge watching these kids throw up (out of dehydration).”

Barrios is now starting to get ready for the school year. In addition to preparing her lesson plans, she’s also working on figuring out how to balance the school year with her volunteer work. She knows she won’t be able to keep up at the same pace, and that worries her. Something else worries her too. “I know [the memories are] going to come up when I see my students,” she said.

For some, the symptoms that Barrios described might seem typical reactions to the pain and suffering of others. In the world of psychology, however, they also sound similar to common symptoms associated with a well-known traumatic response: secondary or vicarious trauma.

A secondary or vicarious trauma describes what some experience when they are exposed to the trauma of another person.

“It really is essentially a traumatic reaction,” Kim Nguyen-Finn (MA LPC-S), private therapist and lecturer at the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, told Neta. It’s “some sort of reaction…that causes distress and causes the person to have difficulty functioning in various aspects of their life. It might disrupt them socially, personally, emotionally, psychologically, with their jobs or they might have a hard time at school or in their relationships,” she added.

In the case of people interacting with immigrant and asylum-seekers, the opportunity for trauma exposure is high. “Those who are coming have been traumatized in their own countries already, and the journey can be traumatizing, so they’re having multiple traumas. Folks who are working with them…hear a lot of horror stories,” Nguyen-Finn explained.

One way of gauging whether or not a person is experiencing secondary or vicarious trauma is by assessing what impact their work is having on their lives.

“Maybe it’s causing a strain in their own families, in their own lives. They’re not able to do their own personal tasks like they have before.” General symptoms, which Nguyen-Finn noted, can also be very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder and can also include having flashbacks to people’s stories, constant or obsessive thoughts about what they might be going through, heightened anxiety, crying spells, withdrawal, forgetfulness, confusion, and fatigue. Paradoxically, despite fatigue and lessened focused, some people may overwork themselves because they’re concerned that they’re not doing enough. Distrust and hypervigilance of others may also manifest as reactions.

It’s not just volunteers like Barrios who are exposed to extreme trauma.

“Emotionally, you just can’t prepare for talking to a mother about family separation.”

Laura Peña is a visiting attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP). Originally from Harlingen, she moved back to the Rio Grande Valley from San Francisco to work on the issue of family separations. Nearing a month with TCRP now, she describes her “typical day” as a “rollercoaster.” With no way of telling what new challenges her usual 8- to 12-hour work days might bring, she tries her best to plan for the unpredictable.

Rochelle Garza is another attorney helping parents whose children were taken from them at the border, as well as undocumented immigrants seeking relief. Like Peña, her workday is long. Following the Department of Justice’s announcement of zero tolerance and family separations, she says working late evenings and through the weekend has become standard practice.

Day in and day out, they talk to traumatized parents desperate to reunite with their children. “Cuando, cuando, ya quiero salir, ya quiero hablar con mi hijo,” their clients repeatedly ask. “When? I want to get out. I want to speak to my son.” They are haunting questions, but these days, Peña and Garza can’t always give them an answer.

Neither Peña nor Garza is new to the convoluted nature of the U.S. immigration system. But since Trump took office, they agree that what was essentially already a complicated and confusing situation actually worsened.

Courtesy of Laura Peña

“Everything is under more scrutiny. Everything is harder, a lot more denials, a lot more criminalizing behavior or actions that were previously not criminalized,” Peña said.

Her current focus area of family reunification is replete with challenges. Just a few hours before speaking with Neta, Peña actually learned that the government had seemingly backtracked on promises made to several parents detained at the Port Isabel Processing Center who were previously told they would be reunified and released with their children by the end of July. No explanation was given to her or her clients. Now, Peña says those parents are in a “really, really tragic mental state,” she said.

“I just broke down,” Peña said. “Those cases have really hit me hard because I was already able to sort of wrap my head around the initial violation of the separation right, but every time the government is sort of ceasing to fulfill its end.”

Garza, who also practices criminal and family law, has also dealt with her fair share of complications attempting to track and reunify separated families. In one family reunification case earlier this summer, Garza shared she made several failed attempts to see her client-a child before she finally got a call from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) representative.

Courtesy of Rochelle Garza

“They’re like, ‘we didn’t believe that you represented the child. We didn’t have any permission from the parent,” Garza said. The excuse seemed beyond ironic to Garza. “I’m like ‘the parent is in freaking Central America, and you don’t get permission from the parent to give psychotropic drugs to kids!”

While she is continuously shocked by the government’s lack of transparency, in some ways, she’s not surprised.

In February, she took on the case of an undocumented immigrant seeking an abortion. According to Garza, she was able to have an initial conversation with the client, and during that conversation, the client said she wanted an abortion. The next time Garza tried to see her client though, the government blocked any visits.

“I think that’s what really gets to me— how willing this administration is to completely destroy the rules and everything that I know about what it means to be a lawyer and to represent another person through the system,” Garza said.

Till this day, Garza says she still doesn’t know what might have happened “behind closed doors” to change her client’s decision. The second time something similar happened with another client seeking an abortion, Rochelle says she fell into a depressive episode.

“In that moment, I felt completely powerless. That experience was so traumatic for me. At one point, I just couldn’t get out of bed… I felt defeated by the system,” Garza said.  

For people like Peña and Garza, who are exposed to these type of stories every day, it can feel impossible to leave work at work. “You don’t turn something like this off,” Peña insisted. “I’ve seen the underbelly of immigration law, and by the underbelly, I mean the ugliness that is there. Mentally, I knew the sort of severe violations that occur and that were caught occurring. Emotionally, you just can’t prepare for talking to a mother about [family separation].”

When asked if they worry for other attorneys who are working to support families separated at the border, both Peña and Garza said yes.

“The legal profession has always had a history of really difficult mental health issues that we don’t talk about enough, and I think immigration attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, public defenders— those who are working with the most vulnerable in our society— are even more prone, more at risk, of having secondary effects of the trauma that our clients go through…So yeah, I’m worried about the profession. It’s sort of really under attack from all angles,” Peña said.

For Garza, the incredible cruelty which she has seen inflicted on immigrants and asylum-seekers also raises critical questions about the community she considers herself a part of and its future.

There’s the case of a woman she met while tagging along on a Congressional visit to PIDC, for example. After asking detainees who had been separated from their children to raise their hand, she says a woman who said she was from Weslaco approached her. She said she had been separated from her children, just not through zero tolerance policies. She was the victim of domestic violence.

“The thing that hurt me was hearing that she called the police when she couldn’t take it anymore. Instead of arresting the guy, they arrest her. And that’s why she was at PIDC. That’s why she was in immigrant detention— because she called the police to protect her.”  

“Where are they? Are they ok? Have they been stopped by police?”

Abraham Diaz is the Education Specialist at La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). There, he oversees education program, as well as youth organizing program. For the communities that LUPE serves, immigration status is one of several challenges impacting their livelihood and safety.

When news of zero tolerance and family separations broke out, Diaz says he was touched by the response of the local community members he worked with day in and day out. Even though some are undocumented, Diaz says their first reaction was, “How do we help? What can we protest? Who do we call?” Many took up participation in a fast organized response to family separations. “This shouldn’t be tolerated…I’m going to help as much as I can,” Diaz recalled LUPE members telling him.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas

Even children, some as young as 10 years old, demonstrated full awareness of the situation that was unfolding within their communities and solidarity with affected families.

Among many of the people Diaz has been working with, their responses have been rooted in solidarity, but also shared threat.

“Most of them know the fear of family separations, whether it’s the fear of themselves being separated from their families or seeing it and relating to that feeling. They’re directly affected,” Diaz said. “Family separations are not just a new immigrant issue. Family separations are an immigrant issue whether you’re already a U.S. citizen, a legal permanent resident, or live in a mixed-status family.”

Diaz, who was formerly undocumented and who has family members who are still undocumented, knows this firsthand. For him, his connection to the issue has been a double-edged sword. It’s “good because it’s motivated me to do the work that I’m doing…and bad because it’s very draining,” he said. “Whenever you go home you’re still thinking about it. You’re still worried…the hardest thing is the emotional toll.”

In the office, calls from desperate families trying to locate their loved ones is a frequent occurrence. The way he describes the constant calls, it almost sounds like the organization is also doubling as a missing person agency. He told me of one particular case he was involved in and his experience trying to get answers from U.S. agencies.

It was like “running through a maze,” hitting “brick wall” after another. It took the organization and the family almost a week to be able to locate the child they were looking for. For Diaz, that’s too slow. “Kids are missing,” he stressed.

Like many of the families and leaders he works with, for Diaz, the emotional toll doesn’t end when he clocks out from work. When he’s at home, he worries for some of his family members.

“Where are they? Are they ok? Have they been stopped by police,” he asks himself, worried until he knows his parents are safely home. “And then you say ‘Ok, everyone’s fine. We all made it back today. Tomorrow, it’ll be another day. Worry again,’ he said.

Even when he’s out with his family, the worry doesn’t stop because the threat doesn’t stop. In a place like the Rio Grande Valley, he pointed out, it’s not uncommon to be eating at a restaurant and to have Border Patrol or ICE agents sitting at the next table over. Even when you’re in a “family-friendly” environment, he said, it “can be really hostile because…of the person that’s eating next to [you].”

A volunteer, two attorneys, and a formerly undocumented community member and activist. These are just four members of the Rio Grande Valley community and their stories.

The stories untold

Not included in this piece are the stories, voices, anxieties, and fears of hundreds of thousands of other border residents.

The undocumented mother or father who has notarized documents detailing who their children should stay with, in case of deportation, and who tenses up every time they see a police officer on the highway. The undocumented children, as well as the U.S. citizen children living in mixed-status families, who have developed toxic stress, a type of “stress that can harm developing brains and result in psychological, biological and neurological changes,” because of the threat that something could one day happen to their families. Neighbors who now distrust one another and others around them. And even the immigration enforcement officers and the guards at the local child and adult detention centers who may be experiencing qualms about “just doing their jobs” or their family members.

Given the daily visual reminders of border militarization— the 18-feet border fences, the men and women in green uniform— immigration enforcement is an issue that is almost impossible to ignore in the Rio Grande Valley. Thanks to national attention, it’s an issue that can’t be ignored even at home. On Facebook, on TV, it’s everywhere. And it concerns and impacts people here.

Someday, academics, policy makers, and public interest groups may look to this time to discuss the trauma and harm inflicted upon families separated at the border. They will focus on the trauma of those most directly impacted, as they should. But a complete assessment of the effects might require more than that. It will also need a close study of the impact on the individuals and communities that saw these policies implemented in the place they call home. If they do this, they will find great examples of local resistance and resilience. Unfortunately, they may also encounter many cases of community pain and secondary trauma.