Moderator Moderator Nita Gonzales
Moderator Nita Gonzales

Examining the complexity of family separation at the border and in Denver

December 13, 2019

Family separation at the border and in Denver, an increasingly common experience for many Latinx children and their families, has far reaching and negative impact on all members of the family. 

On December 2, the Fall Education Policy Networking Series hosted by the School of Education & Human Development and the School of Public Affairs, featured a panel discussion about the complexity of family separation at the US-Mexico border and in Denver. 

Moderator Nita Gonzales, Principal of Nuevo Amanecer LLC and long-time leader in the education community in Denver, facilitated the panel of experts on the topic:

  • Dr. Jorge Chavez, associate professor, Human Development and Family Relations, CU Denver
  • Dr. Franci Crepeau-Hobson, associate professor, School Psychology, CU Denver 
  • Dr. Diane Estrada, associate professor, Couples and Family Counseling, CU Denver 
  • Carlota Loya Hernández, doctoral candidate, CU Denver and Boulder Valley School District employee 

Nita Gonzales shared her thoughts about the importance of providing safe, loving and nurturing school environments, especially for children who are facing trauma as a result of racism and/or family separation. She recounted the history of separation in this country: from the Native American tribes, to the separation of families of black slaves, to the immigration issues today. “I always believe in people rising to the occasion to make the difference,” she said.

Dr. Chavez provided historic perspective on immigration policy and information to contextualize the discussion. Immigration issues have been recognized in the US for the last 150 years. What’s different in 2019 is that we’re seeing programs that allow federal government to partner with localities to allow them to enforce immigration laws. The actual rates of removal haven’t changed dramatically since the Obama administration. But, the current administration’s greater priority on internal enforcement and deportations is hitting families who have been in the U.S. for a very long time. 

“Many youth and many families in this situation don’t know what laws apply to them or where they apply to them and whether they being impacted by local municipalities, county, state or federal law,” said Chavez. “It creates a culture of uncertainty. And this is important, not necessarily because the youth themselves are at risk for deportation, but because their family members are. We’re seeing the largest growth being among youth who have parents who are immigrants authorized or unauthorized.” It’s not an individual program, it’s a group problem. The fear is not just being felt by immigrant populations and authorized populations, but also people who are on their way to becoming citizens. Chavez also discussed the growing literature on “crimmigration.” It’s the idea that people are increasingly linking crime and immigration despite evidence that shows that immigrants are no more likely to become offenders and less likely to become offenders.

Dr. Crepeau-Hobson described the impact of trauma on the brain, and how previous and current trauma impacts learning and behaviors. Individuals can be traumatized by discrimination and racism, especially cumulatively over time. Anyone who has been marginalized already has a larger baseline for stress and distress. Youth who don’t know if ICE is going to show up and take a family member, or who are experiencing racism or the potential of homelessness, walk around with a consistent sense of threat. “If you are in a state of arousal alert or alarm, lower parts of the brain are activated. You can’t access your cortex. You can’t learn, you can’t remember. You can’t problem solve,” said Crepeau-Hobson.

Next, Dr. Estrada described the true story of a mother and son separation at the border. Family separation, she said, takes away children’s ability to cope and the parent’s ability to protect. This leads to dual trauma and long-term effects in mental health. “What we’re seeing is that mothers are not able to sleep. Their blood pressure is up. They’re under constant stress. Their sense of wellbeing and their sense of confidence as a parent is shot since they’re not able to protect. Children are not eating. They become more silent. They’ve regressed. They’re confused. They don’t understand.” She went on to discuss the lack of quality education in detention centers and the high amount of support that families need after a detention center experience. “We must be a welcoming host community. There’s research that shows that some of the negative impacts of trauma and the migration experience are curved when people feel welcome in the community,” said Estrada. 

Finally, Carlota Loya Hernández, an experienced educator, talked about her family’s journey from Mexico to Arizona to Texas and eventually Colorado. She discussed the idea of humanizing classroom pedagogy. Her main point was that teachers really do care about their students and want to support them. For example, school teachers are seeking out training in mindfulness and multilingual education. Schools, she said, should be sanctuaries for these children.

Dr. Gonzales, ended the evening with signs of hope. She mentioned Denver’s immigrant right fund and lawyers who help immigrant or migrant residents, Colorado’s immigrant detainee policy that mitigates ICE detention, and an Attorney General who supports the rights of immigrants. She mentioned efforts to diversify the teacher and educational leadership populations in Colorado. “When you give voice and you empower, when you lend to people’s power, their individual power, it’s amazing what can happen.”

Guest contributor: Julia Cummings, marketing director of the School of Education and Human Development