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Anti-immigrant vitriol kicks off anxiety in children of immigrants

A report shows that young children of immigrants are fearful of having their parents deported - even if those parents are U.S. citizens.

Ana Canochola, facing, educates and informs on anti-deportation movements among Asian people. resources. They grapple with the Trump administrationÕs ever-greater immigration enforcement. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Ana Canochola, facing, educates and informs on anti-deportation movements among Asian people. resources. They grapple with the Trump administrationÕs ever-greater immigration enforcement. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff PhotographerRead moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

A 4-year-old girl in a Pennsylvania Head Start program told her teacher that President Trump wanted to send her mother back to Mexico.

Her mother was born in the United States.

But because the child had absorbed endless vitriol about immigrants, and had heard scary tales of parents being deported, she was frightened that she'd lose the person closest to her. She'd concluded that Mexico was the primary place into which America casts its discarded people — where moms are disappeared.

That story, along with dozens like it, is included in the nation's first-ever multi-state study documenting the effects of U.S. immigration policies and rhetoric on children under age 8 — including those living in families where every member has lawful immigration status, as well as those in mixed-status families.

The report, by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a national anti-poverty nonprofit based in Washington, asserted that the Trump administration "is wreaking havoc in the lives of young children."

Based on interviews with more than 100 child-care and early-educational professionals in Pennsylvania as well as in California, Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico, and North Carolina, the report was released Thursday morning.

Children as young as 3 fear that their parents will be taken away, the report concluded. So profound is their anxiety that many are regressing and withdrawing from activities, co-author Hannah Matthews said in an interview. At the same time, parents fearing deportation limit their children's access to health care, as well as to nutrition and education programs, even though many of the kids are U.S. citizens and entitled to help.

"Basically, millions of very young children are living a nightmare," said Matthews, director of child care and early education for CLASP.  Referencing the Pennsylvania 4-year-old, Matthews said she wasn't permitted to disclose details about the child.

CLASP reported that around nine million U.S. children under age 8 live in an immigrant family — one in which at least one parent is from another country — comprising 25 percent of all children in that age group.

About 93 percent of these children are U.S. citizens. The report added that about two million children under age 5 live with at least one undocumented parent.

In Pennsylvania, there are nearly 40,000 undocumented children, according to Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a local child advocacy group.

The CLASP findings "absolutely coincide with what we see on a daily basis at our agency," said Philippe Weisz, managing attorney with HIAS Pennsylvania, a Center City nonprofit that offers legal services to low-income immigrants.

"Parents talk about their kids' fear of losing them. It's brutal to hear."

Weisz said that xenophobia perceived to originate from the Trump administration starts that fear.

He cited a speech that Trump gave to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week in Maryland in which he recited an old poem called "The Snake." In it, a talking snake bites and poisons a woman who let down her guard and helped it. In Trump's telling, the United States is the woman, while immigrants are nation-killing reptiles.

"There's no doubt of the negative impact of the snake story on immigrant families," Weisz said.

Children have their ear to the culture, people who work with them say.

"Even from a young age, kids have an understanding that if they are Mexican, for example, people here don't like Mexicans," said Alexandra Wolkoff , a director at Puentes de Salud, a social-services agency and health clinic in South Philadelphia.

The undocumented parents of several children at the agency have been deported, Wolkoff said. "You see a big shift in their affect," she added. "Depressive symptoms, withdrawal, aggression, loss of weight."

Even children of immigrants who have not been deported suffer from the fear that such separation could occur.

"When parents are under threat, they can communicate to their kids this terrifying notion that things can be dramatically changed," said psychology professor Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University. "That can affect kids' later development."

Immigration-inspired anxiety has been ramping up since Trump was elected, noted Mary Graham, executive director of Children's Village, an early-childhood and after-school program in Center City. "Kids are acting out more," she said. "Immigration is on the mind of children and families and teachers."

A spokeswoman for the conservative Heritage Foundation said she could not provide anyone to comment on the CLASP report. In January, the foundation published a commentary praising Trump for keeping his promises on immigration and for "having the political courage to take a needed stand on our illegal immigration problem."

The CLASP report concluded that if the children of immigrants are allowed to continue to suffer anxiety, it will hinder their ability to succeed and to help the country grow.

That, the report's authors said, would be "a heavy price."