When Parents Are Detained, Who's There for the Kids?

Threats of deportation leave children vulnerable
Laura Auerbach, one of 25 volunteers who answered an emergency plea to house the displaced children of a local woman facing deportation, showed some of the paintings her Latino trauma patients have produced in art therapy. Johnette Howard

Minerva Perez, the executive director of Organizacion Latino-Americana (OLA) of Eastern Long Island, is used to seeing possibilities where others see pessimism. But even Ms. Perez admits that when she posted an urgent message on Facebook on Nov. 19, the Monday before Thanksgiving, she privately thought the request was “a huge ask.” It read: 

“EMERGENCY CALL for help: Would you be willing to assist with temporary care for children in danger of being put into foster care because parent is being detained for non-violent offense such as driving without a license?”

“There are families in EH right now in danger of this happening. . . .”

Ms. Perez was surprised when 25 people — many of them Latino, many not — immediately responded with open-ended offers to take in the children. Most volunteered before they even knew the rest of the story: The parent in question was a 30-something Latina cancer patient and single mother with two children. She was stopped by police for driving without a license, a choice the woman made because she had no viable alternative to get to her medical treatments or handle the rest of her responsibilities, including work.

When she failed to appear for her recent arraignment because she was “terrified” that she might be flagged as an undocumented immigrant and deported once she entered the legal system, her worst fears were confirmed: A warrant was issued for her arrest, Ms. Perez said. She turned herself in and made bail and is now awaiting a local court decision to see if she will be sent to the county jail.

Ms. Perez emphasized she does not advocate driving without a license or breaking the law in any way. 

Laura Auerbach and Lynn Blumenfeld, two of the 25 people who responded to Ms. Perez’s plea for foster homes, independently stressed the same theme.

But all three women also said they question whether these kinds of nonviolent transgressions should trigger the penalties immigrant families are facing today. 

It is a scenario that has been playing out over and over here and across the country since the Trump administration made immigration enforcement a front-burner issue and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents started actively pursuing people.

To Ms. Perez, “To have 25 people who have families, who have responsibilities, get back to us right away just shows the depth of concern our community has for those that are vulnerable.”

Driving without a license is not an uncommon offense. But what many people do not know is that it is not possible to get a driver’s license in New York if you are not a legal United States resident. As such, the woman in this case faced the same dilemma many noncitizens here confront. They often cannot get work visas anymore, let alone green cards or a path to citizenship. Paying for a car service day in, day out is too expensive. Public transportation? Local legislators are trying to address the acknowledged gaps with proposals for increased bus and train service, and the so-called “last mile” program to get workers from the train stations to their local jobs. But such expanded services do not exist yet.

“And so, what do you do?” Ms. Perez asked. And what do you do as a community, she continued, when individuals are sometimes literally being plucked off the street or taken from their homes by immigration enforcement, thrown into jail, abruptly depriving their family of a breadwinner or parent, traumatizing or even orphaning their children, imperiling their job status, and plunging them into permanent deportation proceedings — all for nonviolent offenses? 

What do you do when even the fear of being picked up has left families battling severe stress and anxiety, especially when children are American citizens, but one or both parents are not?

Ms. Auerbach and Ms. Blumenfeld say these are sticky questions they ponder too.

Ms. Auerbach and her husband, Dominic LaPierre, have three children. He is an architect who works frequently with Latino crews and she is an art therapist who does pro bono work with the Latino community, especially women and children. 

Ms. Auerbach said when she heard Ms. Perez got 25 foster parent volunteers, what it signified to her is “our local community does not feel the same as our government [on the immigration issue]. And we recognize it’s going to take a grassroots effort to change what’s happening. . . . These people are our friends, our neighbors, an important part of the fabric of this community.”

Ms. Auerbach said she was also motivated to help because, “I know the anxiety and fears and P.T.S.D. that is happening from my work with the Latino community. I’m deeply, deeply saddened — and angry — at how our country is treating Latinos and Muslims, targeting those two groups in particular. Our country was built on immigration. We’re all descended from immigrants or refugees or slaves.”

Ms. Auerbach said all four of her grandparents were Russian Jews that emigrated to the United States to escape pogroms in 1912 and 1913.

“They were running from persecution, from death,” Ms. Auerbach said. “And when they came to America they were welcomed at Ellis Island. So I still have that immigrant mentality. I will always feel there is room at the table for one more.”

Ms. Perez said OLA is working on at least 10 cases of Latinos in severe peril of being deported for nonviolent offenses or old charges that they served their punishment for years ago. But numerous other families also have issues. To help, OLA has entered working relationships with the East Hampton and Southampton Town governments, asking them to publicly declare their policies on immigration enforcement and hammer out new legislation, if necessary. 

OLA sponsors community mental health workshops, and Ms. Perez landed funding for OLA to hire a staff human rights attorney, Andrew Strong, to help families with legal issues.

Ms. Blumenfeld, a Montauk businesswoman, said she objects to how people are being actively targeted.

“One question I have, just from reading the weekly crime reports, is are all these people really breaking the law, or are they being profiled?” Ms. Blumenfeld asked. “To me, it just seems like our country has lost its spiritual center. . . . The day after the [2016 presidential] election we got Ku Klux Klan invitations here in Montauk. The country is changing. I wanted to help because I think every individual has to act in a way that brings us together, and not divides us.”

“The East End would collapse without Latino workers,” Ms. Blumenfeld added.

Some people see shades of gray in the immigration debate. Others say it is a black-and-white issue: If you overstay and you get caught, you pay.

“There will always be people that say, ‘You’re not from here, you shouldn’t be here anyway,’ ” Ms. Perez acknowledged. “We understand that consequences need to be faced, and people need to understand they can’t just break the law. But we also have to understand the landscape before us. . . . Our judges do have discretion in many of these cases. . . . At OLA, we want to make sure this is a deep conversation that people are willing to have. Are we making our communities less safe or safer when we do this, or people take these risks?”

Ms. Auerbach said she sees the trauma surface in the art that her Latino therapy clients produce. Like Ms. Blumenfeld, Ms. Auerbach emphasized she felt sheepish even being interviewed for this story. Ms. Auerbach said she and her husband were acting on what they think this country should be.

“We were just offering to do what I think anyone who calls themselves an American citizen would do,” Ms. Auerbach said. “Particularly when it’s children in need.”