In past years, Sandra Hernandez, executive director of the Colorado Springs nonprofit Centro de la Familia and a licensed clinical social worker, spent her days helping Hispanic and immigrant families with run-of-the-mill issues: parenting skills, marital problems, children struggling in school.
But recently, Centro has given its free or low-cost counseling to families with bigger troubles. Hernandez is seeing depressed kids, even suicidal kids. And they all have something in common: a parent or loved one who's been deported.
The trend began several years ago, after Colorado enacted several laws to crack down on illegal immigration, and it hasn't eased since. Hernandez says that now, she's worried about some politicians' campaign-trail promises to bring Arizona's rigid new immigration law to Colorado.
In one recent case, a father was facing deportation, to the horror of his two young sons—both American citizens.
"You could tell that dad was very nurturing, spent a lot of time with his boys, played a lot of soccer with his boys, took them to the movies, that they went fishing ... and when dad was in jail for three months, these kids really deteriorated," Hernandez says. "The one little boy, the oldest one, he became suicidal; he was making suicidal threats. I think he was about 9 or 10 ... and he was basically saying, 'I'm going to kill myself. I'm going to hurt myself. I don't want to live.'"
Imagine, Hernandez says, being a child afraid that someone would invade your home and take your mom or dad—or even you—away to some strange place. Mexico. A place you've heard about where heads show up without bodies.
Most often, she says, kids she sees are worried about a father who's facing deportation, a process that can take months. (Hernandez only helps families facing deportation if the undocumented worker has not committed any crime.)
"What we're dealing with here is that there's no resolution to, 'What's going to happen with my dad?'" she says. "'Are they going to come in the middle of the night and pick up my dad? Is my dad going to be taken while I'm in school, like happened last time?'"
The ordeal leaves kids depressed, anxious, aggressive and unable to concentrate in school. Hernandez is currently working with an 8-year-old who stopped speaking when her father was picked up by authorities.
And there's another case that haunts her: an English-speaking 18-year-old girl, raised in America, who is stranded in Juarez. The girl's request for citizenship was denied—not because she did anything wrong, but because the petition her parents filed on her behalf is no longer valid.
"This little girl comes to the United States," Hernandez explains. "She's 6 years old. The mom marries an American citizen, so mom becomes an American citizen, and they petition for the little girl. Well, this takes forever. ... So she hits the age of 18, and ... the hearing occurs after her 18th birthday, so they have to go to Ciudad Juarez (where the hearing is held). And the judge said no. He said no to the petition because it's after her 18th birthday. So, they have to leave this 18-year-old girl in a boarding house in Juarez, where all the killings are going on with the women."
Hernandez sighs. "We can do better than this."
Back in 2006, long before SB 1070—a law whose most controversial elements are now tied up in the courts—Colorado was already passing some of the country's strictest immigration policy.
Republicans are promising that, if elected, they will bring ever-stricter immigration law to Colorado. Conservative gubernatorial candidates have all spoken fondly of Arizona's tactics. Locally, both candidates for sheriff like Arizona's law.
Of course, it wasn't so long ago that big-name Republicans and Democrats wanted "comprehensive immigration reform." Most envisioned this as providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States, and creating a more logical process for immigrants to come to the country—legally—in the future.
These days, few are willing to stick their necks out. Even Sen. John McCain, one of the Republican Party's most vocal proponents of reform in past years, has changed his mind.