Working With an Immigrant Family
Esmerelda is a 15-year-old girl who lives in a rural southern town with her family and three younger siblings. Her parents were born in El Salvador but came to the United States in the 1990s when they were at the point of starvation in their home country and heard rumors about a better life up north. Esmerelda and her siblings were born in the United States. Her mother and father each work several shifts at a poultry processing plant, so Esmerelda has taken on more responsibilities in the home, taking care of her younger siblings, cooking, cleaning, and opening the mail and making sure her parents know which bills they need to pay by the end of the week. Esmerelda’s school counselor, Frances, has noticed that Esmerelda appears tired during the day. When asked about her apparent exhaustion, Esmerelda briefly mentions nightmares about her parents being deported that disrupt her sleep. However, she makes it clear that she does not want to discuss that topic further. Frances consults with Esmerelda’s teachers and receives varying impressions: She is quiet and sleepy in her geometry class, unable to focus and pay attention in English class, and withdrawn and “not very social” in history class. However, none of the teachers state that they are overly concerned about Esmerelda. Frances decides that she needs clarification about what is going on with Esmerelda, and she asks Esmerelda to stop by for a conversation. Frances asks if she can invite one of Esmerelda’s parents to join them as well, but Esmerelda indicates their English is not strong enough to participate in the meeting. When Esmerelda comes to the counseling office, Frances begins by inquiring about Esmerelda’s wellness and learns that she is usually forgoing her breakfast so that her younger siblings will have enough to eat. Although the family would most likely qualify for free or reduced lunch at school, they have not completed the necessary paperwork, and Esmerelda declines to take the application home. Esmerelda also admits to having headaches and stomachaches often while at school and to being distracted by persistent and intrusive thoughts. She cannot identify a support system outside of her family, and she says that her classmates still tease her about her family’s origins, incorrectly and inappropriately calling her a “dirty Mexican” even though she is a fully bilingual U.S. citizen. Although Esmerelda has described all of this with a stoic look on her face and in a low, quiet voice, she finally breaks into anguished tears as she touches on the topic of the deportation dream. For a few moments, the two sit quietly together as Esmerelda sobs, unable to find any more words for her grief and fears. Frances realizes she does not know anything about immigration law or whether it is probable that this nightmare could come to pass. After a few moments, she asks if Esmerelda would like to have a social worker check in on her family. Esmerelda abruptly leaves the room. Frances decides to consult with the school interpreter, Jorge, guessing that he might have more information than she does about immigrant families and legal status. He confirms that several students in the school have already had parents deported because of immigration raids at some of the factories in the community. Jorge tells Frances that his standard practice is to not inquire about legal documentation, as he has seen the state laws go back and forth about whether school personnel must report the presence of undocumented individuals to the government. “I just would not want to be in the position of choosing whether to tear a family apart or be in contempt of court,” he says. When Frances asks whether Jorge has met either of Esmerelda’s parents, as she is considering reaching out to them about her concerns for their daughter, he advises her to restrict her attention to what is happening in school. “Besides,” he says, “if the family is afraid to speak to us, terrified of seeking services in the community, and unable to pay or get insurance coverage, there is not much we can do for them.” Francis feels torn between her growing concerns about Esmerelda’s mental and physical health and her helplessness to be an effective advocate around complicated legal issues with which she is unfamiliar.
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