Back-and-Forth on DACA Leaves Young Immigrants ‘Just Dangling’


Violeta Gomez-Uribe, 32, goes to kickboxing classes in Brooklyn. Eduardo Garcia, 22, lifts weights at the gym, in between classes and two jobs. Apolinar Islas, 34, who came to New York from Mexico when he was 15, said he walks around in “zombie mode” and tries to stay off social media to avoid “the tsunami of confusion.”

All of them are recipients of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation and lets them work legally in this country.

They have felt a whiplash of emotions since Sept. 5, when, after months of uncertainty, the Trump administration announced it would be ending the program. Hours later, the president showed his support for DACA recipients on Twitter. A little more than a week later, Democratic leaders said they had struck a deal with Mr. Trump to preserve the program, only to have the White House deny it.

Over the next two years — unless Congress finds a solution — DACA holders, who are often called Dreamers, will lose their work permits and driver’s licenses. Many are sole providers for their families; they fear their parents will be deported or they, too, will be sent back to a country they do not know.

“I try not to think about it,” said Lizzette Rincon, 21, who came from Mexico 16 years ago. “That would be my anesthesia.”

The government is allowing some DACA holders to renew their permits, with an Oct. 5 deadline to accept two-year renewals — six months from the date DACA is scheduled to end. More than 40 organizations across the city and state will provide free legal services on Sept. 25 to help recipients renew their paperwork, and to screen them for other potential immigration benefits.

But amid this feverish push, many organizations are also seeing that they need to address another pressing need, one rarely talked about: the mental health toll.

“They are going on autopilot,” said María Mónica Andia, the supervisor of college programs for The Door, an organization that works with low-income young people. “They’re disassociating. What I’m hearing most often from students is that, ‘I’m in school, my body is there, but I’m not really there.’”

She tries to remind students to adhere to a routine, and that while the future is uncertain, nothing has changed now.

Isabel Martinez, an assistant professor of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, gave her students the same advice. “I told them, ‘You’re still going to see movies. You’re still going to have boyfriends or girlfriends,’” she said.

Ms. Martinez arranged two pizza gatherings on Sept. 5 — one for lunch and one for dinner — modeling them after John Jay’s Pizza Mondays, which began in November as a support group for immigrant students or children of immigrant families worried about deportation under the Trump administration.

Often, she added, because they are the responsible adults in their homes and did “not want to freak their parents out,” they have withheld their emotions.

“We wanted to make sure the students were thinking that they are not alone in this,” she said.

While college campuses have dedicated mental health services, only some community-based organizations have social workers on staff. Atlas: DIY, an organization that works with immigrant youth in Sunset Park, is one of them. In addition to informal gatherings, Atlas: DIY also organizes Friday yoga sessions for its members. New York State Youth Leadership Council, run by DACA recipients, conducts healing circles where students share their anxieties.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs has been referring immigrants to the city’s free wellness support, where 100 counselors are available via phone, text and internet chat.

Ms. Rincon was at the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights in Inwood last weekend to complete her renewal application with a lawyer’s help. She said that the current situation has brought back memories from when she was 5, when she crossed illegally into the United States with her mother from Mexico. The sun, she recalled, was searing hot and together they walked for two weeks nonstop.

“I don’t remember the images, but the feeling of exhaustion is embedded in me,” Ms. Rincon said. “Right now, I feel like I’m a 5-year-old again, a lost child who needs someone to provide her with what she needs. I depend on someone else’s decision. And I don’t like to depend on nobody. I’m just dangling.”

This helplessness and lack of control in an otherwise highly motivated group of young adults has led to shock, depression and despair, said several social workers who work with advocacy groups around the city.

Amelia Ortega, who runs a private feminist psychotherapy practice in Queens and Philadelphia, said that since the Sept. 5 announcement, she has had 15 phone calls requesting appointments.

“The unknowns are so raw and so real right now,” Ms. Ortega said. “I’m watching people’s bodies go to a place of being very frozen, or going to a place of hyper-vigilance because this is intersecting with increased police presence from ICE.”

She was speaking about the immigration enforcement agency that has stepped up its arrests now that, under President Trump, all undocumented immigrants could be considered for deportation. Individuals respond to trauma in one of three ways, Ms. Ortega said: “There’s fight, flight or freeze, and I’m seeing all three being activated.”

Ms. Gomez-Uribe, the kick-boxer, who has been in New York since she was 3, said she has become paranoid about whether the Trump administration has deliberately sent mixed signals on the future of DACA to keep immigrants off-balance emotionally. “I think that’s part of the plan — in order to make people not have the ability to think straight,” she said.

Because she is older, and knew of a time before DACA, Ms. Gomez-Uribe said she thinks she is better equipped to fight. “Screaming at rallies” to protest the end of DACA serves as another stress release, she said.

But she also has one fail-safe method. “I eat a lot of chocolate,” she said.



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