Carlos Cuadrado, 2, plays in a Catholic Charities office July 22. During the journey from Guatemala to the United States, “he was crying all the time,” said his mother, Karla Doniz. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Carlos Cuadrado, 2, plays in a Catholic Charities office July 22. During the journey from Guatemala to the United States, “he was crying all the time,” said his mother, Karla Doniz. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
The crushing, life-altering event can occur during the most mundane circumstances — as parents pay a traffic ticket or drop kids off at school.

“It’s happening every day in Portland, in Eugene, everywhere in the state,” said Vanessa Briseño, director of Oregon Catholic Charities’ Pope Francis Center.

Arrests of undocumented immigrants are increasing nationwide, and the result is more children are losing — or fearing they will lose — a parent through detention or deportation.

On July 22, the Trump administration released a new policy allowing immigration officials to quickly arrest and deport undocumented immigrants without going before a judge. More than 20,000 people could immediately be subject to the expanded fast-track removal process.

The expansion is the latest in ongoing efforts by the administration to keep migrants out of the country or remove them after they enter. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported more than 256,000 immigrants, an increase of 13% over the previous year. Some years of the Obama administration, the numbers were even higher, though convicted criminals and those who’d entered the country multiple times were targeted. Under the current administration, agents are instructed to detain and remove anyone living in the country illegally, including individuals without criminal histories. Many of the undocumented individuals are parents and caretakers.

When it’s a parent who’s deported, the impact on children is traumatic and has emotional, developmental and physical repercussions, said Lucrecia Suarez, manager of the Intercultural Counseling Center at Catholic Charities. Even a baby’s development “can be altered by the toxic and chronic stress the remaining parent, and the entire family, has to overcome with such a loss,” she said.

Catholic Charities is attempting to help support these children though a range of services. “We don’t know what the outcome will always be for the families,” said John Herrera, director of the agency’s Immigration Legal Services. “But we can do our best to provide support and use existing laws to keep parents with their children. Through it all, we are working to fulfill the Gospel.”

‘A public health fallout’

Current policies have created “a blanket of fear over the entire immigrant community,” perhaps most significantly over children, said Michael Bennett, a lifelong Catholic and a Portland immigration judge for nearly three decades.

In Oregon, an estimated 62,000 young people, many U.S. citizens, have at least one undocumented immigrant parent, based on U.S. Census Bureau data from 2013. Nationally, nearly 6 million U.S. citizen children live with a family member who does not have legal status, according to 2010-14 census figures. Children in these families are living with relentless stress, said Briseño.

Although the well-publicized, large-scale raids of immigrant families haven’t materialized in the state, there has been “a steady increase in ICE pickups,” said Kat Kelley of Catholic Charities. When a raid does occur, “it’s almost as bad as it can get for children,” according to Bennett, now retired and a member of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Seaside. “It’s not quite like a death in the family but almost.”

“The psychological effect of all this on children, on families, is huge,” added Kelley. “We are going to see a public health fallout over this for decades.”

Preserving hope

Suarez, who with Catholic Charities colleagues is attempting to mitigate that fallout, said fear and toxic stress associated with family separation manifests in different ways within children and should be understood in light of a child’s developmental stages.

Children under 3 years old “are learning what it means to trust, both at a psychological and a physical level,” she said. They need to be held and fed on a regular basis within an environment of predictability. “If a parent is deported, or there’s a forced family separation, the levels of stress have an immediate impact on the central nervous system,” she said. In a sense, brain functions “get stuck and don’t grow in ways they naturally would,” said Suarez. Motor, perception and language development can be interrupted.

School-age children are discovering how to relate to people and themselves, and creativity, playfulness and imagination help them grow. “Without pretending and dreaming we can’t be functional and creative adults,” she said. Intense fear of survival and feeling abandoned may shut down their ability to play and relate. They can become aggressive or inattentive, behaviors that might result in relational and learning difficulties.

When a crisis hits, children may also be forced to grow older before they are ready, performing responsibilities such as caring for little brothers or sisters, Suarez said. Even though the growing up and adapting is a sign of resilience, it also means “losing ground developmentally.”

For those in adolescence, “the brain prunes a lot of information to open up space to understand and manage complex situations and ideas as future adults,” said Suarez. “Depending on how the story is told about a parent’s deportation, it can create more confusion or invite intense anger at injustice.” Teens may shut down, become depressed or show defiance. Because teenagers are willing to take high risks, they also might make long-lasting, harmful decisions, including participating in criminal behavior or developing an addiction.

Suarez said it’s important to understand that the many stories immigrant children hear or are told about their parents can create confusing and harmful self-perceptions. “When the collective message is that ‘Dad can’t stay because he’s Mexican’ or that ‘he cannot work because he is an illegal,’” the parents and the children’s community need to share positive stories to contrast the “image of a Mexican or immigrants as inferior,” she said.

There are physical effects of a parent’s deportation as well. Sustained stress produces high levels of cortisol, which causes inflammation in the body. “Obesity, diabetes, cognitive decline and memory problems are just a few of the many deteriorating effects of chronic stress,” said Suarez.

At the counseling center, support for children focuses on the entire family. There is case management to assure all basic needs are covered and counseling sessions for adults and families with children.

Counselors and case managers begin by helping parents in practical ways, such as with children who don’t want to attend school or are unable to sleep. “Then, during the grieving process of loss,” she said, “we offer sustained ways to stay connected to a deported family member and to preserve hope.”

‘Our schooling in love’

Some argue that the children of undocumented immigrants suffer because of their parents’ actions.

“One of the questions we most often hear is: ‘Why don’t these people follow the legal channels to get here?’” said Briseño, of the Pope Francis Center, which provides information about social justice initiatives. “Once undocumented people are here, the next response usually is, ‘They should just go home and get in line.’”

But “there is no line,” Briseño said. This is especially true for those who have left their countries overnight due to severe threats. “What we are seeing today are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents who are fleeing their home countries with children at their side because the threat of violence, death, starvation is all too real for them,” she said.

Outside of an employer who is willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get an individual into the country legally or of having a qualifying sponsor, “there is no reliable way to legally enter the country,” said Briseño.

Some point to the possibility of gaining legal status as a refugee or asylum-seeker, classifications given based on United Nations’ specifications. Yet there are roadblocks to these avenues.

The president, in consultation with Congress, determines the ceiling for refugee admissions each year. And in 2017, for the first time in modern history, the United States settled fewer refugees than the rest of the world.

To qualify for asylum status, migrants must already be in the United States, and more than half of those cases — some reports say up to 75% — are denied.

Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody is associate professor of theology and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and he’s written extensively on migration.

Many in the U.S. immigration debate have legitimate concerns about an influx of immigrants, he said, and the Catholic Church accepts the necessity of national borders. But he argued that borders are not absolute and that “there is also a way of seeing deeper questions about law and our relationship with others.”

In the story of the Good Samaritan, he said, both the priest and Levite failed to do the right thing for the beaten, naked traveler based on legal reasons. “They used law as an excuse,” said Father Groody. “Without law, people can be injured, hurt or victimized, but the law is not limited to what’s on the books. There are also natural laws and divine laws that call us to have a heart bigger than our own nation.”

Ultimately, “I think this life is about our schooling in love,” Father Groody said. “And this is one issue where the church is saying to us we must learn who we are before God and how to respond to our brothers and sisters in need.”


Matt Cato, director of the Portland Archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, said that if society were to truly “appreciate the significance of children’s emotional ties throughout the first years of life, it would no longer tolerate children growing up fearful of losing a parent.”

Catholic Charities, as part of fulfilling its Gospel-centered mission, is using legal expertise to try to preserve these ties, protect the vulnerable and keep families intact.

Nationwide and in Oregon, legal services for families facing separation are extremely limited. That’s partially because retaining a private immigration attorney can cost thousands of dollars, usually far out of reach for the average immigrant family in the state, according to Herrera, head of Immigration Legal Services.

The Center for Removal Defense was established in 2017 to provide “equal access to justice and representation for undocumented migrants in our community,” Herrera said. He added that a number of center clients are from mixed-status families — those composed of at least one U.S. citizen.

According to data analyzed by the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Council, immigrants with access to legal counsel while in custody are four times more likely to be released from detention than their unrepresented counterparts.

The center’s full-time lawyer and legal assistant have argued more than 220 asylum cases. Currently they are tackling about 40.

Over the past two years “we’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of individuals and families who seek our services,” said Briseño. They’ve had to turn away almost 200 cases because they lacked sufficient resources to help.

Along with the center’s legal aid, Catholic Charities offers parents guardianship workshops, where attorneys go through paperwork ensuring that if one or both parents are detained or deported, their children will not enter the foster care system. A child’s older siblings or a neighbor, for example, is given authority to make decisions on behalf of the parent.

“It’s heart-wrenching to think about what parents are needing to do,” said Briseño, adding that Catholic Charities also belongs to a partnership that aims to keep the kids out of foster care by providing trained host families.

And the agency helps immigrant families craft a concrete plan for children if “Mom and Dad don’t come home one day,” said Kelley. It includes a list of what numbers to call, where important papers are kept and where children should go.

“We encourage families to have the plan taped to the door or bathroom so it’s visible in a crisis,” Kelley said.

One of the tragedies of separation for families is that even if reunited, “damage has been done,” said Bennett. “You don’t get that time back with your kids.”

Still, Suarez believes there’s hope for children to heal from the trauma. “Every child is different, but you can see a resilience in each of them that they learned from their parents,” she said. “That these families have survived up to this point shows how resilient they are.”

Catholic Charities staff tries to help even its youngest clients, added Suarez, “recognize that amazing capacity they already have deep within themselves.”

To help

If you know of an individual or family at risk of separation, contact Catholic Charities’ migration services at 503-542-2855 or To support the agency’s legal aid for immigrants, go to here.