On February 14, 2015, my mom made green-chile enchiladas for my three sisters and me. She loved preparing meals for us after school. After dinner, we sat down to watch The Lion King together. The movie was interrupted by a knock on the door: It was police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers looking for my stepdad, who, according to the cops, was going down the wrong path. My mom told them that he was still at work. So, the cops left but they came back the next night after 8pm. This time there were a lot of them. They broke the door down and, as they forced it open, ended up fracturing my mom's wrist. After searching the whole house, the police arrested my stepdad for selling drugs. My mom did not know until that night that he was selling with his brother. She bailed him out the next morning with $2,000, but that same day he just left for Mexico.
It was only hours later that ICE showed up to our house again and asked my mom for her legal documents. She didn't have them. So the officers told my mom she had a choice: She could leave the United States on her own or get deported. Either way, my mom had to leave the place where she had built a life and was raising four daughters. My mom took us to Mexico the day after the officers showed up, but she sent my sisters and me back with a relative since we were American citizens. She felt like our life would be better in the US.
It was too much. We were aged 5-14 and we all missed each other. So, four months later, my mom tried crossing the border again to be with us. She was caught and immediately put in a detention center in Texas, which was the last place I saw her. My heart dropped when I visited her there: The feeling of seeing her and yet not be able to hug her was awful. I broke down into tears over the fact that my mom was being punished because she tried getting back to her daughters.
My mom was one of many people who had to leave her family that year. In 2015, "ICE counted 31,411 parents of minor citizen children deported," according to the Center For Public Integrity. This means that at least that many children were negatively affected, even seriously traumatized, by being separated from their parents. I was 14 years old, the oldest of my sisters, and my mom's deportation to Mexico deeply affected me emotionally, in school and as I became a young mom myself.
My sisters and I moved in with my auntie. We had a home, but we had been separated suddenly from the person we love the most—and who loves us the most, too. Getting separated from a loved one at a young age affects kids emotionally and physically. Many kids experience changes of emotion really fast, and you can see the difference in the way they act. The American Immigration Council gives an overview[https://americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/us-citizen-children-impacted-immigration-enforcement] of how family separations harm children. They cite a 2010 study showing that "the majority of children experienced at least four adverse behavioral changes in the six months following a raid or arrest. … children cried or were afraid more often, changed their eating and sleeping habits, and/or were more anxious, withdrawn, clingy, angry, or aggressive."
For me, my life felt insecure all of a sudden, and I became very insecure about myself. I cried more often about everything and I started to see more things as obstacles that I thought I would never be able to overcome. I ended up losing my confidence in myself and in how capable I am of accomplishing things. After my mom was deported, I started to become an angry person. I was angry about losing the person I love the most and who had cared for me my entire life.
When your emotions change out of the blue, your body needs time to adapt to new feelings that you had no way to anticipate. I tried adapting to the changes by not caring and acting like it hadn't hurt me that my mom was far away. That was the opposite of the truth, but I didn't know how else to deal with all of my complicated feelings. Nearly all the families interviewed for a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report on "Family Consequences of Detention/Deportation: Effects on Finances, Health, and Well-Being" reported high stress and anxiety and "described feeling extreme sadness and, in some cases, desperation." The feeling of extreme sadness affected me very much. It affected how I saw my life and the world around me. I felt like the weakest person ever alive. Even though I was 14 and understood something about why she'd been made to leave, her absence in my day-to-day life made me feel confused and powerless. I felt guilty because I felt like I could have made a difference in my mom being with me instead of taken away.
The emotional and physical consequences of parent-child separation are immediate and can impact children's long-term emotional and mental well-being for years. According to KFF authors Samantha Artiaga and Barbara Lyons, many educators, healthcare providers, social workers and government agencies have "expressed major concerns about the long term impacts [of separation] for children, referencing research showing that stress and trauma in children lead to poor long-term mental and physical health outcomes." The thing is, these immediate and long-term effects on children and families do not affect just the individuals. They seriously affect families and the communities these families are part of.
The emotional trauma of getting torn apart from a loved one affects a child's educational progress in school because it is hard to focus on class and homework when your mind is hundreds of miles away with your parent. Teachers of kids whose families have been separated notice this and are worried about it. An educator interviewed for the KFF report "noted that, psychologically, it is more difficult for children to learn because they cannot access the correct area of their brain when they are in a state of stress and experiencing trauma." Every child separated from his or her parents is affected in some way.
My mom getting deported affected me so much in my education. She got deported when I was in the 7th grade at Devargas Middle School. Even though I had been selected in sixth grade for the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which identifies promising students and aims "to close the achievment gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success," I stopped caring as much about keeping up my grades or even going to school. After my mom was gone, I didn't care as much if I graduated.
My attitude toward school changed as a result of my mom being deported, but I have been able to overcome the feeling of not succeeding and get back on track with my education. In some ways, maybe, my mom being away has given me more motivation to succeed and to show her that I am going to be okay.
The effects of family separation have an impact on a child's life no matter who the family member is, but losing my mother has been especially hard. Two years after my mom was deported, I had a daughter. I think being a young mom has been even more challenging without my mom around to guide me and help me learn how to parent. This experience has taught me that my daughter needs my full support as she grows up. I want to be there to see her accomplish everything she wants to accomplish, to become a better person than I am and to help her have better teenage years than I did.
My emotions are still affected by not having my mom around. I try to keep my emotions stable because I have to keep myself together for my daughter. I'm always going to keep pushing forward to become better for my daughter, not only because that is what is best for her, but also because I will show both of us that I was able to overcome the fact that my mom was separated from me. I have not had my mom living with me for the last four years, but she is still an important person in my life. We talk to each other on the phone, we text and we write letters. For Thanksgiving last year, we went to El Paso/Juarez and I was able to introduce my two-year-old to my mom for the first time.
Even from far away, my mom has kept pushing me. She has kept telling me to never give up just because life throws obstacles in my way. I want to succeed so that I can prove to my mom, my daughter and me how capable I am—and to acknowledge how important it is that my mom deeply believes in me no matter the distance between us. My mom has taught me that family is the strongest bond that can ever exist. She tells me that everything is possible. She tells me that I have to graduate to become a better version of myself and to help myself and my daughter.
I am very aware of how my life might have been different if my mom had been present for my difficult moments over the last four years. It may have felt like nothing could ever bring me down. I think she would have made me feel like I was able to accomplish everything I wanted to in my life. Instead, I have learned things the hard way and without my mother being here, but that does not mean that I haven't made it through.
I have made it this far, and I am proud to tell my mom that I am graduating this year. I can't thank her enough for never giving up on herself or on me so that I could keep succeeding. I will be emotional when I graduate and she is not there in person. But, when I walk across the stage in July to get my high school diploma, I will remember that I'm doing this for three of us: my mom, my daughter and myself. I am doing it for our past, my present and my daughter's future—because my mom believed that I could.
Ruby Rocha Hernandez completed two years of the Mother Tongue Project English class and Mentor program at Capital High School, where she wrote this essay (and many others). She also co-composed and presented an original poem for the 2019 New Mexico Public Education Department Town Hall Event in Support of Young Parents, and wrote her story for a US Office of Adolescent Health Pregnancy Assistance Fund event. Ruby graduated from Capital High on July 23, 2019, and plans to begin her studies toward a medical career at Santa Fe Community College.