The large-scale federal crackdown on immigrants in the country illegally promised by President Donald Trump last week did not take place, but the threat of detention and deportation has fueled fears that continue to haunt many in the community, advocates said Monday.
That threat, and especially the prospect of family separation, creates stress that may lead to health problems, mental illness and other products of trauma, the advocates said, especially in children.
“The sustained level of fear can have severe psychological and physiological impacts,” said Emily Torstveit Ngara, director of the Deportation Defense Clinic at Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law.
The president’s threat to crack down on 2,000 immigrants ordered by courts to be removed from the country, which comes on the heels of a similar threat Trump made last month, has created deep emotional strains in immigrant communities, Torstveit Ngara said.
“It’s about keeping the terror fresh in people’s minds,” she said of the announcements. “It’s mostly about sowing fear in the immigrant community.”
Advocates said many immigrants are afraid to go to work or shops, take public transportation, send their children to camp or school or even leave their homes because they are afraid they will be swept up in ICE raids. “The whole community is in lockdown,” said Patrick Young, downstate advocacy director for New York Immigration Coalition in Hempstead. “I've heard from people who are permanent residents who fear being challenged by ICE. The fear is there.”
Dulce Rojas-Mendez of SEPA Mujer, a Suffolk County agency that provides support to immigrant women, said many of the organization’s clients have asked for help in drafting documents that will name relatives as legal guardians of their children in case they are detained.
“We’re telling people they need to prepare for 'what if,’ ” she said, adding that such fear has also made victims of domestic violence, sex abuse and other crimes reticent about contacting authorities.
The stress created by endless fears of detention and deportation can also lead to insomnia, stomach disorders, headaches and other physical woes, as well as anxiety for children, said Keith Scott, director of education at the Safe Center, a Nassau County social services agency.
“You can’t pay attention if you are in school if you are worried that mommy and daddy won’t be here tomorrow,” Scott said.
A spokeswoman for ICE New York issued a statement saying the agency prioritizes the arrest and removal of immigrants here illegally who pose a threat to national security and public safety, but “all of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and – if found removable by final order – removal from the United States.”
Anthony Zenkus, the senior director of education and communications for the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, said many immigrants were traumatized by rampant violence in their home countries or experienced assaults during their journeys to the United States. “To someone who has already been traumatized, the threat of detention or being separated from your family can be devastating,” he said.