Coping with the Fear of Deportation

A network of East Bay women provides immigrant residents with legal help and psychological support.

On a May morning in 2016, María was in the kitchen of her Oakland home preparing molletes — bread with butter, beans, and cheese — when her husband left for his construction job. Moments later, her 11-year-old daughter screamed: An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer was handcuffing María’s husband outside of his car. María and her daughter rushed outside, where several immigration officers and their cars were blocking their access to the street.

“I didn’t know what to do in that moment,” recalled María, who only wanted to use her first name because both she and her husband are undocumented.

Distraught, María went to Melrose Leadership Academy to explain why her daughter wouldn’t be at school that day. Located in Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood, the dual immersion school has a student population that’s 50 percent Hispanic, and for their families, deportation is a constant threat. Inside the school’s entrance are posters with tips for dealing with ICE agents. One states: “You have rights, don’t let ICE or police enter your house.” An envelope contains red cards that say in Spanish: “Do not open if an immigration agent is knocking on your door.”

Moyra Contreras, the school’s director, immediately put María in contact with another mother, Etel Calles, a volunteer with the Immigrant Family Defense Fund. The nonprofit helps those who are facing deportation with legal help and assistance paying immigration bonds.

A few hours later, Calles and a lawyer from the defense fund were sitting in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in San Francisco, waiting to pay María’s husband’s $2,000 bond. María wouldn’t have been able to pay the bond herself, since the signer of the bond needs to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. By paying the bond (which María later reimbursed), the defense fund allowed María’s husband to be back home by that evening — rather than on a flight to Mexico.

It’s just one way that local activists are trying to help immigrant residents who are facing deportation. Despite Oakland and California’s “sanctuary” laws, deportation is still a threat for local immigrant communities. According to ICE statistics, the agency’s San Francisco office — which covers all of Northern California, as well as Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan — deported 6,292 people in fiscal year 2017.

A network of local women activists assist with not only legal aid but also to help people cope with the constant anxiety and fear of deportation threats. Some of these women activists offer to take children to school, or help write a “family preparedness plan” to arrange for others to take care of children in case parents are deported. Others lead “know your rights” workshops or provide emotional support. Some use activism or religious faith to help families cope with the uncertainty of not knowing if a loved one could suddenly be forced to leave the country.

Paying immigration bonds is an important part of the Immigrant Family Defense Fund’s work. According to the organization, being released on bond improves the odds of ultimately succeeding in winning relief from deportation. In 2015, 68 percent of those released on bond were allowed to stay in the U.S., while only 33 percent of those who remained in detention were allowed to stay. The fund is piloting a school-based immigration bond fund in the East Bay, allowing any student, parent, or sibling in an Alameda County public school to access the fund if they’re detained by ICE. In its first year of operation, 2017, the defense fund raised $130,000, which paid bonds for 12 people, covered legal services for another 12, and gave emergency grants — to cover rent, transportation, medical, and basic living expenses — to another four people. (Although earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a ruling that gave detained immigrants a bond hearing every six months, implying that an undocumented immigrant could be held indefinitely.)

For Calles, the desire to help families deal with deportation was motivated by her own immigration experience. As a 10-year-old, Calles was sent alone by bus to the U.S. to escape the civil war in El Salvador. She remembers saying goodbye to her father, who she never saw again. Over five days, she crossed through El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, until she reached Los Angeles. To relieve her fear on the trip, her family gave her a letter telling her about all the beautiful things she would see on her way. “But they didn’t talk about the bad things” — the noises in the dark or the strangers that would surround her, Calles recalled.

Today, Calles is in her forties and has an easy laugh and a strong hug. In addition to being a volunteer with the defense fund, she is co-president of the Parent Teachers Student Association at Melrose Leadership Academy. When her son enrolled in the school, Calles thought she could help students cope with immigration-related anxieties. She shares with them her childhood experiences in El Salvador and her journey to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor. She talks about the uncertainty she felt growing up when hearing a helicopter because she didn’t know if it was bringing water or snipers. “I talk about my anxiety and fears — that hasn’t changed,” she said. “I tell them that no one knows the traumas and fears of others, but we can all be kind and help and just be a good friend so [the newcomer] doesn’t feel lost.”

When Calles relives her experiences, she is not only trying to help the children who have recently arrived, but also heal her own trauma. “I feel I am cleaning spider webs in my past,” she said. On her right arm is a tattoo of a spider hanging from a web, covering half of her son’s face. “I am this spider, who, at the same time that is cleaning the past from spider webs, is netting a web where if somethings falls apart, my son can fall and rebound,” she said.

Earlier this spring, María and Calles were sitting together at the academy, where Calles, through the organization Padres Unidos, had organized a “know your rights” workshop. It was a Friday afternoon, and classrooms had quickly emptied. There was fried chicken and pasta. It was the first time María had attended one of these workshops. Six mothers, a father, and a legal assistant from Centro Legal de la Raza — a group that ensures access to legal help for low-income and immigrant communities — listened attentively as María recalled the morning her husband was almost deported.

One of the mothers asked her if ICE interrogated her when she went outside of her home. “They asked me: ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘His wife.’ ‘What is your name?’ But I only said, ‘María,'” she said.

The legal assistant, “Marta,” who didn’t want to use her real name due to the immigration status of some of her family members, intervened: “That’s alright, there are many Marías. It is OK to say just your first name,” she said. “But don’t identify yourself.”

During the two-hour-workshop, Marta taught them the art of remaining silent if they encounter ICE officers: “Don’t open the door, don’t identify yourself, don’t talk” became her mantra.

Marta knows well the importance of remaining silent. One early morning a decade ago, she said, ICE officers knocked on her door asking for her uncle. “I opened the door, unfortunately,” she told the group. When he went out in his pajamas, they arrested him. “In that moment, I didn’t know my rights,” she said.

At the detention center, her uncle was told to sign a document so he could “get out immediately,” Marta said. He signed it. But nobody told him that they meant it would get him out the U.S., not out of the detention center. That same afternoon, her uncle was deported to Mexico. “Never sign anything,” Marta emphasized.

She gave the participants copies of the red cards that are at the entrance of the school. In English, they read: “I do not wish to speak with you, answer your questions, or sign any documents based on my 5th Amendment rights under the US Constitution.”

But the mothers weren’t convinced that the cards would protect them. 

“The card doesn’t assure us that we aren’t going to be arrested. But that’s what we have for now, so we need to use it,” Marta told them.

The mothers still had questions: Can ICE agents enter your home if you don’t open the door? What if I get nervous and I open the door? What if I don’t have money for a lawyer?

Marta reminded them that they have the right to not open the door, but if they did they have the right to remain silent and can show the card. If they need a lawyer, she told them to go to Centro Legal de la Raza, where every third Thursday they offer free legal assistance.

In Oakland and other so-called sanctuary cities in California, there are some protections for immigrants. State and local laws are supposed to limit the cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, and Oakland schools don’t require proof of legal immigration status upon enrollment. At the county level, the Alameda County Immigration Legal & Education Partnership (ACILEP) launched a rapid response team, which verifies possible ICE raids, in March 2017. On average, they receive between 200 and 250 calls per month alerting them of the presence of ICE officers. Once they receive a call, they send a small team of volunteers to verify that ICE is there. To date, they have trained 300 volunteers. The most common scenario they face are searches for a particular person at their own home.

Besides verifying possible ICE raids, ACILEP also offers legal assistance. So far, their lawyers have represented more than 500 people in the deportation process and have assisted 200 detainees.

There are 13 such rapid response teams in Northern California. Each one has a 24-hour hotline, which Marta told the parents about during the workshop. “I need to put this number on my fridge,” said one mother to herself.

At the end of the training, Marta asked: “How many of you were born outside the US?” All the parents raised their hands, except for one who answered: “Why would I give you that information?” Marta looked at her and smiled — she was the only one who hadn’t fallen into her trap.

“How many of you are from Mexico?” Marta asked, trying again. This time, the women looked at each other, and none raised their hands. A father said, “I am from America. Can I say that?” A mother added: “I am citizen of the world.” The room burst into laughter. “If the immigration officers don’t know where are we from, they cannot detain us,” said Marta.

Next, she asked them to imagine they were on the street and ICE officers arrived asking for Marta. “What would you do?” she asked. Everyone remained silent. Marta insisted, imitating an ICE officer asking in a more aggressive tone: “I have a detention order for Marta. Who is Marta?”

A mother answered: “We are all Marta.” Some mothers laughed, but Marta reminded them that they cannot lie. This time, they showed her the red card. Marta was satisfied.

At the headquarters of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, or MUA, a women’s support group in the Fruitvale, there’s a tiny room with white walls where two armchairs face each other. During 40-minute sessions, a “consejera del alma” (or “soul counselor”) sits and talks with a woman seeking psychological help. In these meetings, called Clínicas del Alma, there are no professional therapists. Among equals, women share their fears.

In the Latinx community, the stigma of going to a psychologist still exists, said Maria Jimenez, director of the MUA support program. According to Jimenez, the main barrier is language: If the therapist doesn’t know Spanish, you need a translator. Services can also be expensive, and if you don’t have insurance, the waiting list can be long unless you are in a very serious crisis.

MUA also offers self-esteem, workers’ rights, and leadership workshops to schools, community centers, and even the Mexican consulate in San Francisco. “Since Obama came to power, we felt very insecure as a community, because he promised things that were never accomplished,” said Jimenez, referring to the promises of amnesty for millions of undocumented people. But during the Obama administration, there were 5,281,115 deportations, according to the Migrant Policy Institute.

Yet the most dramatic change came after the election of Donald Trump, whom Jimenez refers as the “45th president” or “the current administration” to avoid saying his name. Since last year, schools and community centers have demanded workshops about immigration rights. “People don’t want to talk about anything else,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez said the most extreme cases she has witnessed during MUA’s counseling sessions have been of people threatening to commit suicide. “We try to convince them that nothing is worth taking your own life. There’s hope. We try to de-escalate the crisis,” she said. When the pain pushes women to hurt themselves, they are sent to a professional therapist. In less serious cases, the soul counseling sessions work by letting women treat women. Beyond the fear of deportation, said Jimenez, “most of women who come to MUA are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault. They don’t trust men.”

Each woman who seeks help receives free support for three months. Then she is invited to join the organization, where she’ll get trained over four Saturdays to be a “soul counselor” herself. The idea is that by helping others, the women help themselves. “We learn to not depend on a therapists,” said Jimenez.

A psychologist teaches the volunteers about empathy, confidentiality, and how to detect warning signs of depression. Some of the warning signals that Jimenez has learned to detect are: Women who no longer take their kids to school because they fear that an ICE officer will stop them; women who order food deliveries because they fear going outside of their homes; women who used to love dancing but no longer go out because they don’t find joy in it anymore. “I met a lady who had ripped out her eyelashes and eyebrows. Others cut themselves. I have seen survivors who party the whole week to avoid thinking,” she said.

“In this society, we are trained to not feel,” Jimenez continued. “Women are educated to be strong and always smiling and beautiful.”

The first step in improving mental health is acknowledging you’re in pain, she said. In the soul clinics, the counselors train women to express their feelings: fear, sadness, humiliation, discrimination. “While you are not identifying the feelings that are attacking you, it is very difficult for you to recover,” she said.

Beyond the clinics, the group also offers yoga classes, acupuncture, childcare services, and other forms of relaxation. “Women are sad and cry, but they have also found the way to feel good,” Jimenez said. “They dance, they are happy, having their coffee here. We are creating ways to keep us healthy: fighting for our rights, learning from one another, and sharing.”

Sharing one’s fears can make them less burdensome, but sometimes the fear becomes a reality.

Every morning, Vilma Melisa Serrano arrives at Melrose Leadership Academy to teach 24 5-year-olds in her transitional kindergarten class. Some live with the fear of deportation. Serrano, the daughter of Salvadoran migrants, knows that anguish.

Serrano was born in Los Angeles, but her parents crossed into the U.S. illegally. She said that under the stress of working two jobs, her father started taking methamphetamines and was ultimately arrested for “drug possession with intent to sell.” He was deported when Serrano was 3 years old — they wouldn’t see each other again until she was an adult.

The distance between her and her father was more than geographic. They barely spoke on the phone every two years. “Sometimes my uncle would bring us photos of him,” she recalled. “I felt resentment. I felt there was no reason for him to distance himself from us like that.” As a child, Serrano had been very talkative, but after the deportation of her father, she said she spent the following two months silently staring through the window — “waiting for him,” she said.

Valeria Slapak-Brown, an early childhood mental health specialist with Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, which provides services to refugees and asylees, said it’s common for traumatized children to adopt such behaviors. They can be withdrawn, depressed, aggressive, fail to relate with other children, or regress developmentally. For example, “they start peeing in their pants or putting their thumb in the mouth again,” she said.

As with adults, Slapak-Brown said it’s essential for children to talk about their feelings. “Putting a name to a sensation helps children put shape to something that is really chaotic,” she said. Another way of navigating their feelings is through play therapy. “A 5-year-old can’t tell you, ‘I am hitting my brother because I feel angry,’ but they would talk about how the little doll they are playing with feels or why they are hitting another doll. You can help them come up with strategies of how to help their doll or their puppet,” she said.

After experiencing trauma like seeing a loved one being taken away, “nightmares or re-enactment of having the feelings you had in that moment are common,” she said. Relaxation and breathing techniques are helpful, she said, because it reminds you that “you are in the present, focusing on the things that are around you, and telling yourself that what happened was really scary but it happened in the past.”

After the deportation, Serrano’s mother sent her to a school for low-income families. There she met a teacher who taught her English and took care of her. “She loved me a lot. She made me feel I was worthy as a person,” Serrano recalled. Today, as a teacher herself, Serrano tries to give back that kindness and protect kids with trauma.

She also wants to be a model for other Latinx students. “When I was a kid, I only had one teacher that was Latina,” she said. “I wanted my students to see me and recognize themselves.” According to the California Department of Education, just 20 percent of teachers in the state’s public schools in the 2016-2017 academic year were Latino or Hispanic, while 50 percent of students were of the same ethnicity.

Serrano said she thinks that being Latina may help her students identify with her and make them more comfortable to open up and share their feelings. For example, five years ago, when Serrano was teaching at Oakland’s Bridges Academy, her students debated about borders and immigration. A student told the class how his father was killed in El Salvador, and how he crossed the border with his aunt. “In a certain moment, his aunt asked him to eat a sweet. He then fell asleep and doesn’t remember anything,” Serrano said — he was drugged to prevent him from making any noise during a delicate moment in their journey.

These days, Serrano is also part of the Immigrant Family Defense Fund. Her mother didn’t know about immigration bonds two decades ago, and today Serrano wonders what would have happened if her father could have gotten his bond paid and hired a better lawyer — and if that could have spared her from growing up with an absent father.

The Latinx community isn’t the only one being targeted by ICE.

In October, 2017, Chen Kong Wick was preparing chicken noodle soup for breakfast, hurrying up her daughter to get ready for school. She had taken the day off from her job at the Oakland school district, where she works as a program manager for extended learning, in order to visit her ill sister in the hospital. Then, she received a text message from her sister-in-law — ICE officers had picked up her brother.

“My heart sank,” Wick remembered. Instead of going to the hospital, she drove to Davis to check on her sister-in-law. On her way, she called her pastor. He said he’d pray for her and her brother.

Wick came to the U.S. in 1981, after part of her family survived the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, who in 1975 overtook the Cambodian government, leaving in their wake at least 1.5 million deaths. In a sepia photo of the day they arrived as refugees, Wick was 7 and her brother was 2. She is the only one smiling.

When she was 23, Wick became a U.S. citizen. “The reason why I initiated my citizenship was because my brother had a joyride conviction and he was picked up by ICE,” she said. At that moment, she realized they needed to become citizens, since even lawful permanent residents, including refugees, are deportable if they are convicted of an aggravated felony.

Wick said her brother’s joyriding conviction led to his detention last October. The weeks after his detention were an “emotional rollercoaster, unmanageable, torturous,” Wick said. She could not picture her brother being deported to a country that he barely knew, with no family and not being able to speak a word of Khmer, the Cambodian language.

She also struggled with guilt and embarrassment, and “the model minority myth that Asian people are supposed to be the good immigrant versus the bad immigrant,” she said. She felt judged by her own community: “It was, like, you had your chance of becoming a citizen. How come you didn’t do it?”

Wick’s daughter knew that something was wrong. “I would send her off and yell at her from nowhere and then had to apologize,” Wick recalled. She told her daughter that her uncle was on a work vacation. (Slapak-Brown, the childhood mental health specialist, suggests that parents tell the truth in a way that is age-appropriate. She recognizes that being in the middle of a crisis can be overwhelming and parents need to tell their children, “Daddy is on vacation.” “It is not ideal, but it is OK to wait until the parents are mentally ready to talk about it,” she said.) Eventually, Wick’s daughter caught her crying. “I couldn’t hide it anymore,” she recalled.

Even though Wick majored in psychology, she decided that therapy was not the way to deal with the possible deportation of her brother. “A therapist didn’t give me hope, and I needed to fight,” she said. Instead, she found her strength in her Christian faith. “This is not the fate for which my father fought very hard trying to keep us alive from the Khmer Rouge, nor for which my spiritual father died on the cross,” she said.

For Wick, “You can’t teach or give to someone the value of hope and faith. It is an inner thing. You need to believe yourself that this is not the fate I am going to accept.”

She said she felt aware she was in a privileged position, since people in her work environment understood trauma and were supportive of her. “They would ask me how was I doing, give me a hug, have lunch, and tell me that I look awful,” she said. One scheduled time for her to get a massage. At first she refused, but then she gave in. “The massage was amazing,” she recalled with a smile. During those months, she felt that taking care of herself “wasn’t an option. It felt, like, selfish.”

“That is the nice thing of having a sanctuary district,” Wick said. “Imagine the layer of difficulty if I worked in a school district that didn’t care what I was going through.”

In that context, she was able to speak up. But she is aware that many suffer “in the shadow.” She said she has another brother who is a U.S. Marine and because of his position, he couldn’t talk about his immigration status. “You keep it inside,” she said.

Wick also said her husband, who is white, helped “bring this court case to the forefront. He had the writing ability to tell our story.”

After they publicized their story, Gov. Jerry Brown granted clemency to her brother.

He is no longer on the removal list and is applying for citizenship. But Wick still worries. “He is not safe until he is a citizen,” she said.

These days, when she hears information about ICE raids, she texts him: “Where are you at?” The word “roundup” scares her. Intrusive memories play in her head. She has to remind herself that “roundup,” as she puts it, “is just a word.”

On the morning of April 2, Lourdes Barraza was obsessively checking her phone.

Standing outside the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services building in San Francisco, she moved her hands nervously. As she smiled, she bit her lip. Soon, she would be able to hug her husband, Fernando Carrillo, for the first time in 173 days. He was detained by ICE in October while dropping off their daughter at day care.

Now that daughter, who just turned 5, was nervously dancing around. She asked her mother: “Why don’t we go inside the building?”

“No, we don’t want to go inside. It is an ugly place,” Barraza told her.

Earlier, Barraza and her three daughters had briefly entered the building to see Carrillo through a window. No contact was allowed, as has been the rule for the last six months while he was detained in the West County Detention Center in Richmond.

Barraza began reading aloud texts from her daughter, who was still inside: “The interview is over.” “He is on the sixth floor now.” A while later, she announced: “He is coming, I can feel my heartbeat.”

The moment arrived and she rushed to hug her husband, together with the rest of the family.

The path to this hug wasn’t easy, as evidenced by the fact that Barraza was surrounded not only by family members but also by activists and about 10 TV cameras. Barraza used activism to cope with the fear of having her husband deported. She created a petition asking the field director of the ICE office in San Francisco to release Carrillo, a YouCaring crowdfunding effort to pay his bond, and a Facebook page called “Free Fernando Now,” which is where she poured out all her emotions.

In early March, she took the microphone in front of 150 people outside the West County Detention Facility, at a rally organized by the group Let Our People Go. “Fernando is really close to giving up, so I ask you to keep us in your prayers because, we cannot give up. I told him we need to keep fighting,” she told them, her voice breaking.

The couple have also relied upon their Catholic faith. After her husband’s detention, Barraza became involved in faith-based organizations such as Let Our People Go and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. The latter group held a “Holy Thursday Vigil for Fernando Carrillo” on March 29.

“Twenty-five minutes after, we received the text message that the judge said we had won the case! It is an Easter miracle,” said Barraza. Carrillo would be released and able to apply for a work permit. “He doesn’t need to live in fear anymore,” as Barraza put it.

Barraza said she obtains courage through protesting, but that “it wasn’t easy to stand up and speak in front of so many people and cameras.” She said “the community support kept us motivated to keep fighting for Fernando.”

As for her husband, he said he was tempted to give up many times. “My family gave me strength, they gave me hope, they would send me letters from the community,” he said. Indeed, on the morning of his release, he received a big card that read: “Yay, we don’t have to move to Canada!”

After the family reunited, they prayed with the activists, and then Barraza announced that the first thing her husband wanted to do is to go to church. He adds that he wants to take “a real shower and put on my PJs.”

Barraza and Carrillo are aware that they have a voice that others don’t. For two hours, TV crews had been waiting to capture their reunion. During that time, many other people had walked in and out of the immigration services building. Nobody paid attention or told their stories. Barraza, along with Calles, Jimenez, Serrano, Wick, and others, are building a network to help people living in fear of deportation learn to engage in activism, get help from their faith or “soul clinics,” or attend rights workshops. But still, they know that many people remain in the shadows, suffering alone.

As the TV reporters began to pack up and leave, Carrillo said: “Just like me, there’s hundreds of families. They don’t have support. There’s a lot of them. They need to get out.”

A version of this story was originally published by Oakland North at

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