By Chloe Lombardi, Medill, Immigrant Connect
When Siena Singh was in eighth grade, her dad picked her up on his black vespa after school. On April 22, 2010, she waited outside the doors of school – NYC Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies in Manhattan – until she received a phone call from her mom, telling her she needed to take the subway home.
As she made her way from downtown Manhattan to her apartment on 146th St., she contemplated why her dad hadn’t picked her up. “I remember thinking he was sick because he had a cold that week. I expected him to be making soup or sleeping on the couch when I got home,” said Singh.
To her dismay, she did not come home to the smell of her father’s heartwarming black bean soup. “I knew something was wrong the second I opened the door. My mom was on the phone crying,” recalled Singh. “Then she just came over to hug me and started telling me that my dad would not be home for a couple weeks and maybe longer.”
Earlier that day, Singh’s father, Sam Castelo**, was detained by immigration officers in New Jersey after being pulled over for speeding. He was detained and questioned about a decade-old drug charge for which he had already completed community service.
Earlier this year, there was extensive news coverage on the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the border. What is less understood, and much more common, is the trauma that many children already in the US go through when a parent without documentation is apprehended, detained, or deported.
According to recent estimates documented in a 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute and the Urban Institute, an estimated 5.3 million children live with unauthorized immigrant parents, and 85 percent of the children are US-born citizens. The report, “Implications of Immigration Enforcement Activities for the Well-Being of Children in Immigrant Families Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” (ICE), which was issued before the Trump administration, documented that Hispanic children living in immigrant families may be confused with unauthorized immigrants though they themselves may be US citizens, and “may also suffer distress from seeing peers separated from parents or communities.” The report concluded that children who’ve been separated from parents as a result of detention and deportation have effects “similar to those seen for children with incarcerated parents; they include psychological trauma, material hardship, residential instability, family dissolution, increased use of public benefits, and, among boys, aggression.”
At the age of eighteen, Castelo had immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1980 as part of the famous Mariel Boatlift. He lived in Miami with his family until the age of twenty-one at which time he moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. He met Siena’s mom, Samantha, an immigrant from Canada who was also trying to become an actress. By the time Siena was born, Castelo had set up a successful massage practice that he ran out of the family’s Harlem apartment.
Although granted asylum when he came to the US, Castelo didn’t attempt to become a US citizen. “I never thought to get citizenship because frankly I didn’t need it and I didn’t know how,” said Castelo. “I conducted my business entirely in cash so I never had a problem for all the years I lived here until I got detained.”
Pediatric professionals agree that the effects of detention, including family detention, are uniquely traumatizing for children and can cause irreparable, lifelong harm. This was definitely the case for Singh, who after her father was detained for three months in a New Jersey prison, struggled with PTSD.
“It was really hard on my brother and I when my dad was detained,” said Singh. “We had no idea when he would be home…there was just so much uncertainty. Even after he was home we were so scared he would get deported. I would get so anxious every time he was late to pick me up to the point where I would have panic attacks.”
The struggles that U.S children whose parents are detained or deported are both short term and long term. A 2010 study of immigration-related parental arrests found the majority of children experienced significant behavioral changes such as crying often, trouble sleeping; and being anxious, withdrawn, and clingy. In the long term, many children develop PTSD or other anxiety disorders that last for years after the traumatizing event.
Today, Singh continues to struggle with anxiety. “I am in college now and have moved on from a lot of my fears specifically around my dad’s detention,” said Singh. “That day definitely changed me forever and I don’t think the pain of that day will ever go away.”
**The name Sam Castelo is a pseudonym, used here to avoid further stigma faced by the family.