Hispanic students express fear, uncertainty amid immigration clampdown

IMAGE: CNS photo/Katie Scott, Catholic

By Katie Scott

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — Countless immigrants
across the country live in a climate of fear sparked by actions in the new
administration, including President Donald Trump’s plan to build a U.S.-Mexico
wall, his executive order on immigration enforcement and several highly public

Alongside the concerns of adult immigrants are the worries of
their children. At dinner tables and in classrooms, young Latinos are trying to
make sense of overheard conversations, the onslaught of immigration-related
stories disseminated by news outlets and activists, and — foremost — the
instability in their families.

“Students are on edge, often distracted, occasionally distraught
because they fear for their family’s well-being,” said Tim Joy, principal of De
La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, which is nearly 40 percent
Latino. “We’ve had many students in tears.”

He said some parents are too fearful to leave the house to shop
for food, “so students are the ones running family errands.”

Over the past several months, Joy and fellow Catholic school
administrators in the Archdiocese of Portland have been trying to find ways to
support Latino students and their parents.

“Our teachers and counselors do what they can to comfort, forbear
with missed assignments — helping in any way possible,” Joy told the Catholic
Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese.

A 2013 study by the California-based advocacy organization Human
Impact Partners found that deportation scares take a physical and mental toll
on the children of immigrants who entered the country without authorization.
Not surprisingly, researchers concluded: “U.S.-citizen children who live in
families under threat of detention or deportation will finish fewer years of
school and face challenges focusing on their studies.”

In western Oregon’s Catholic schools, Hispanic students make up
about 10 percent of total enrollment; nationally, 15 percent of Catholic
schoolchildren are Hispanic. The schools do not track immigration status.

Tayz Hernandez is Hispanic and a student at Jesuit High School in
Beaverton. She said the past few months have been “very stressful.”

Her mother, a native of Mexico who does not have legal
documentation, has heard terrifying rumors about sudden deportations from
Hispanic co-workers. “She tries not to believe them, but it’s difficult,” said

The high school senior, bound for Seattle University in a few
months, said she follows the news closely, trying to absorb and understand the
latest developments so she can explain them to her mother. She attempts to put
her mom’s mind at ease while suppressing her own worries.

“When I look at the news, I have to remind myself that nothing has
happened yet, she hasn’t committed any crimes so there’s no reason for her to
be deported,” Hernandez said. “But there’s always this impending fear.”

Like De La Salle, St. Andrew Nativity School in Northeast Portland
has a large number of Latino students and serves low-income families. Nativity
eighth-grader Elizabeth — her last name has been withheld at the school’s
request — said she constantly worries about her parents and brothers, all of
whom were born in Mexico.

“You don’t open the door for anyone unless you know them,” Elizabeth
told the Catholic Sentinel. “My parents talk about it, my friends talk about
it,” she said. “What would I do if my parents were deported? What would happen
to me?”

But Elizabeth said her parents have tried to help her stay calm.
“My parents taught me that what’s going to happen is going to happen, so try
not to worry about it.”

Hispanic families with legal documentation are not immune from
fear. For example, Teresa Ramirez, mother of a ninth-grader at La Salle Prep in
Milwaukie, said she feels “like everything is up in the air, everything is

“I have cousins who are here illegally, and I was once there, too,
so I know the feeling,” she said, adding that she’s at times received
suspicious looks when in public. “Sometimes I feel like I want to hide, but I’m
proud of my culture and my faith; my faith keeps me going.”

Ramirez and a number of Hispanic parents with children in Catholic
schools expressed gratitude for the support from Portland Archbishop Alexander K.
Sample. The archbishop told a crowd of Hispanic Catholics at a Dec. 10 Mass to celebrate
the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “It does not matter to me from
where you have come, when you came, or whether you have the proper documents or
not. You are loved.”

Schools have taken several steps to support families. They’ve
offered prayers for unity, disseminated information and provided opportunities
for students to articulate their concerns.

In the front office at Nativity are handouts in Spanish and
English about what to do if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents
knock on the door. The school sent home a message assuring parents and students
that Nativity is “a safe place, nobody has to self-identify on their
immigration status and we welcome conversation,” said Lizzie Petticrew, vice
principal of the middle school.

Nativity also hosted a know-your-rights event for parents in
March, led by a Catholic Charities of Oregon staff member.

Scott Powers, Christian service director at Jesuit High School,
said most Jesuit universities have taken a strong stance against Trump’s
immigration policies and that “Jesuit high schools have stood with them.”

Jesuit has regular brown-bag lunches where tough topics are
addressed head-on, including immigration. “We want to have these discussions,”
said Powers. “We are promoting Catholic social teaching.”

Maritza Mendez is a guidance counselor at La Salle, and her office
saw an influx of concerned students after the election.

“We’re just trying to create a space where students can come and
express what their thoughts and feelings are,” she said. For many Latinos with
immigrant families, these fears have long been present. But now, she said,
“they are carrying so much more.”

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is special projects reporter for the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the
Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon.

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