McHenry County children of immigrants under stress amid Trump rhetoric

McHENRY – Before the 2016 presidential election, the Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center in McHenry had a policy to not discuss politics, Executive Director Lupe Ortiz said. 

Ortiz said she and other leaders at the resource center, which serves mostly low-income, Spanish-speaking families, wanted to respect everyone’s opinions and right to privacy, but that changed when Donald Trump ran for, and became, president. 

“It was really hard to keep that policy when there was such a concern, so we had to have these support groups that talk politics,” Ortiz said.

From fears of deportation and separated families, to the lowering of self-esteem because of racist remarks, Ortiz and other program leaders at the resource center have seen it all from their clients – and it’s mostly affected younger students who’ve picked up on the rhetoric that sometimes surrounded Trump’s campaign. 

Trump campaigned on building a border wall with Mexico to stop illegal immigration, deporting immigrants who are in the nation illegally and halting the resettlement of refugees to strengthen the federal program that vets them. 

“We realize that bullying because of the election has definitely gone up,” Ortiz said. “Like comments that are being thrown out to kids like, ‘Trump’s gonna send you back.’ Things like that, where it’s specific bullying issues because of the new president.”

The center sees about 30 students daily for its after-school youth program that helps people from first to 12th grade with homework and gives them a sense of community. There also are parents who use the resource center’s services such as help with transportation, learning English and taking computer classes.

Nearly 90 percent of adults who come to the Garden Quarter are undocumented, Ortiz said, however, most of the children were born in the U.S. or are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

One of the largest concerns children at the Garden Quarter had during and after Trump’s election was the fear that their undocumented parents would be sent to their country of origin, Ortiz said. Parents had told center leaders that their children were crying and throwing up because of stress from the fear that their parents would be deported. 

“To me personally, it really hits home, because I am a deferred action student, and my parents are undocumented,” said Michelle Luqueno, youth program manager at the resource center. “So I live with that, I wouldn’t say fear, but that struggle of knowing that my parents are OK.”

With her deferred action status, 20-year-old Luqueno is able to work and go to college, she said. She’s lived in the U.S. almost her whole life – her parents brought her from Mexico when she was about 1, she said. 

Although she is currently working and dually enrolled at College of Lake County and Northern Illinois University, Luqueno said she fears that the Trump administration will change the policies for deferred action, and she’ll miss out on a college education by being sent back to Mexico. 

Patricia Wallin, parent program manager and bicultural services manager with the center, said her son in elementary school came home one day and said he was sad because he feared his friend would be deported. 

“So I of course hug him, and I explain to him that nothing’s going to happen to him, we’re all here to protect each other,” Wallin said. “… But even for me having to tell him, ‘Hey we’re protecting each other, we won’t let anything bad happen,’ and I still talk about it, but I don’t know.”

Ortiz said it is overwhelming to provide enough support and education to help students and parents who are stressed – so to help they’ve increased their partnerships with other organizations in the area such as the Community Health Partnership of Illinois, Association for Individual Development, and Mano a Mano Family Resource Center.

Lawyers have come to the center to meet with parents and help them apply for legal citizenship, support groups have been held for children to discuss how a democracy works and referrals are made to mental health organizations when staff realizes a high level of anxiety in children. 

The center always has had an open-door policy where people can talk to staff at the resource center, and staff reminds children to advocate for themselves, and report bullying incidents at school.

Jennifer Mendez, a 7-year-old second-grade student at Riverwood Elementary School in McHenry, said she’s been told by classmates that she’s going to “go back to Mexico.” She also said she’s worried that her father will be sent back, and she’s “going to be all alone.”

“Don’t feel less than other people just because of your color, just because of your facial characteristics,” Luqueno said she tells people who come to her for advice. “Be proud of where you come from, and be proud of your parents and be proud of who you are as an individual.”

When Karen Gonzalez, a 17-year-old junior at McHenry West High School and Garden Quarter participant, hears demeaning comments about her race, she said it makes her upset, but also gives her strength to prove others wrong. 

“They don’t realize we came here to have a better future. My parents wanted a better life for me,” Gonzalez said. “… They don’t see that we’re trying to get the same privileges as them.” 

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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