Erica was 11 years old when she had her first encounter with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
The young woman, who was born in the United States and is a legal citizen, was home with her father, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, and her 2-month-old sister. Erica’s mother, also undocumented, was working at a local deli and not present when the officials came knocking.
After opening the door and allowing the agents to enter their home, Erica had her photo taken before being sent to wait in another room with her baby sister—uncertain of what would happen to her parents.
Those were the longest three hours of Erica’s life. Her mind was racing as she was convinced that whenever she was eventually allowed to emerge from the room, she would find that ICE officials had taken her parents away, leaving the 11-year-old to raise her baby sister on her own.
Fortunately, Erica’s parents were not deported, but the fear she experienced nine years earlier, in 2008, remains with her to this day, according to her doctor, Harriet Hellman, a certified pediatric nurse practitioner who founded Hampton Community Health Care on County Road 39 in Southampton in 1995. She noted that about 85 percent of her patients are Latino and all of her employees are bilingual.
“I can’t imagine the terror of an 11-year-old in that situation,” Dr. Hellman said as she shared Erica’s story, declining to provide identifying details about her patient, including her last name and hometown, noting the sensitivity of the subject.
But Dr. Hellman said she thinks that Erica’s story is an important one to tell, considering recent national immigration policy changes being pushed by President Donald Trump that could result in the deportation of many people who entered the country illegally, including Latino men and women living on the East End who are not wanted for a crime. The fear of the unknown, she continued, is taking its toll on both adults and their children, including those of whom were born in the country and are legal citizens.
“It’s scaring people,” Dr. Hellman said on Friday. “It’s scaring patients of mine.”
Over the past several weeks, Dr. Hellman said she has noticed an increase in the number of children complaining about anxiety symptoms—similar to the ones she treated Erica for in 2008. Those symptoms can include rapid heartbeats, chest pain, constipation, bed wetting, and sudden phobias of going to school or leaving their house.
Dr. Hellman, who is also the chief medical officer for both the Southampton and East Hampton school districts, said she is constantly overhearing children talk about their fears about the new immigration policies and what it could potentially mean for their families.
“A 5-year-old should be into superheroes—Batman, Superman, Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers—and thinking that they’re invincible,” Ms. Hellman said. “They shouldn’t be worried about, ‘When is Mom going to come home, because the police are out?’ … The kids do worry about this stuff. It’s really upsetting—it drains me.”
To help ease their children’s anxiety, Dr. Hellman said parents should be cognizant of the amount of time their children spend watching the news and, specifically, reports on the latest immigration policies. “I think the TV doesn’t need to be on all the time, and that news is not an appropriate thing for kids to be watching at this point,” she said. “Now, that’s obviously age-related. A 4-year-old isn’t going to pay much attention. But 7- to 12-[year-olds] do have a grasp of reality, and certainly teenagers, they get it. So it depends on the age.”
Dr. Hellman said she recently spoke with a man from El Salvador who is an undocumented worker who now has two daughters, both patients of hers and both of whom were born in the United States. She recalled their conversation:
“He said, ‘I’m trying one more time to speak with a lawyer, and if that doesn’t work, we’re all going back to Salvador.’ And his girls were standing there, and I watched them look at one another. They don’t know Salvador; They grew up here, and they know this country.”
The man and his wife, both undocumented immigrants, are still having conversations with an immigration lawyer to decide if they are safe to stay or if they are better off uprooting their family and moving back to El Salvador.
Their story is a familiar one overheard in recent weeks by Melissa Azofeifa, a receptionist at Hampton Community Health Care. She explained that many parents who visit the office have expressed similar concerns about the uncertainty of the situation.
Recently, a local father shared with Ms. Azofeifa that he is asking his immigration attorney if he should marry his girlfriend, also an immigrant, explaining that they recently had a child together. The man, she explained, is worried that he won’t get to see his child if he ends up getting deported. His girlfriend, meanwhile, has similar concerns and is talking to her own immigration lawyer about the benefits of getting married in the country—if there are any.
“He was telling us that he was very scared to go with the process,” Ms. Azofeifa said. “One of the lawyers told them to get married, the other one told them not to. So they are mixed. The dad was very scared to lose his kid.”
Ms. Azofeifa said she has been hearing similar stories more and more frequently in the past few weeks. “That’s one of the small cases,” She said of the story she shared. “We see a lot of concerns with kids and parents.”
Jacqueline Roman, an office manager at Hampton Community Health Care, noted that many of their younger patients are now afraid to go to school, fearing that their parents could be deported while they are away. “I feel that this is an invitation for bullying,” Ms. Roman added.
To help quell some of those growing fears, local churches are pitching in and offering support to families.
Sister Margaret Smyth, director of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, who also does work on the South Fork, said this week that she is hearing similar fears from members of the undocumented immigrant community. She is now working with St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Riverhead to help create identification cards for immigrants to show if and when they are stopped by police, as most are unable to secure driver’s licenses as they are not legal citizens.
St. John’s and Centro Corazon de Maria on East Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays both received a Catholic Charities grant a decade ago to start producing the identification cards that include an individual’s photo, home address, height and weight. Sister Smyth explained that the cards are needed so immigrants have some sort of documentation to provide to police if they are ever stopped or detained. She also noted that the cards were cleared with Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller.
Ms. Smyth estimated that she has made more than 3,000 identification cards over the past decade, including approximately 400 over the past two weeks.
“For the first time in years parents are coming to find out how to do custody papers for the children in case they are taken,” Ms. Smyth added. “They are developing plans … I see things that are very bad.”
Local groups are also working to inform immigrants of their rights. Last week, Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit that works to inform, empower and celebrate the East End’s Latino and Hispanic communities, held an informational meeting that attracted hundreds of people at the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Bridgehampton. The forum was dedicated to discussing national immigration policies and what local residents can do to prepare for potential encounters with ICE officers.
A similar discussion will be offered this Sunday, March 5, from 2 to 4 p.m., at the Southampton Town Senior Center on Ponquogue Avenue in Hampton Bays. The conversation will focus on what information and resources are available locally to immigrants, as well as offer suggestions regarding what their neighbors can do to help.