Undocumented immigrants might be avoiding nonprofits

There's a deep fear of deportation among undocumented immigrants and their families.

Child at a fence

Child at a fence Shutterstock

People across the country and around the world have been appalled at how our federal government is treating immigrant families. We have watched helplessly as the government implemented a sweeping policy separating children from their parents at the border and we have cringed while reading individual cases of anguish. 

And these are the reactions of many American citizens who have no reason to fear an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent at the door.

Imagine the stress and anxiety our neighbors who are undocumented must be feeling?

What sometimes goes under-reported is how deep and pervasive the fear of deportation can be and how that fear affects the daily lives of undocumented immigrants and their families.

We are trying to help.

Union Settlement has been providing core social services to waves of immigrant families in East Harlem for over a century – from the Irish and German immigrants arriving at the time of our founding in 1895, to the Italian and Jewish immigrants who came at the turn of the 20th century, to more recent immigrants from Mexico, Central America, West Africa, the Middle East and China. Generation after generation, these families have made and continue to make East Harlem a diverse and vibrant neighborhood with a wonderful mix of backgrounds and cultures.

Over the years, many of these immigrants arrived without required documentation. But they stayed and thrived and put down deep roots for their families. However, never before have our undocumented immigrant neighbors faced such clear threats of detention. Many are reacting to the fear of deportation by going even deeper underground – foregoing interactions with government, schools, social services and any other places they do not consider to be safe.

In many ways, their fears become our fears. We don’t know how many undocumented immigrants we serve, because in order to provide a safe space for all our participants, we consciously do not ask program participants if they are legal residents. We also do not circulate photographs showing the faces of participants who we believe to be undocumented, because it might be a disincentive for them to access our programs.

The demand for our services is great, so when undocumented immigrants choose not to access our early childhood, youth services, adult education, senior services or other programs, we are able to fill those slots with other individuals – so class size seems to remain the same. All of this makes it difficult for us to prove declining undocumented immigrant attendance trends with anything but anecdotal evidence - but we know the trends are real.

Last year, Union Settlement hosted a workshop for immigrants regarding their rights, covering topics such as: “What do you do if ICE stops you on the street?” The information was vitally important though it was disheartening that we had to offer the workshop at all.

Even worse, we were counseled by immigrant advocacy groups not to post flyers about the workshop and instead to rely on word-of-mouth communication, because of the appallingly conceivable possibility that ICE would see our promotionsand send agents to detain attendees at the event.

And, most depressing of all, one portion of the workshop focused on informing undocumented immigrant parents that, because they might get picked up and detained at any time, they needed to put a plan in place for who will take care of their children if they don’t come home.

We’ve all seen or read public service announcements advising parents to have a “go bag” of essential items to grab in case you need to evacuate your home – but how many American citizens are forced to have an “if I don’t come home ever” plan? Probably not many. Yet this is the reality that members of our immigrant community face every day.

So it is no wonder that undocumented immigrant families are choosing to disengage, and not access the services made available to assist them. This includes some parents not enrolling their children in early childhood education programs like those offered by Union Settlement – even if those children were born in this country and are American citizens.

Others are entitled to receive food stamps to cover the cost of feeding their U.S.-born children. But given the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric from Washington, how many are forgoing those benefits – possibly jeopardizing their children’s healthbecause the application requires them to give their name and address to the government prompting fears that the information could be used to initiate deportations?

Our social safety net should be available to protect everyone who falls on hard times and needs support. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s words and actions are forcing undocumented immigrants to walk a treacherous path and avoid the core programs and services designed to help them survive and lead productive lives.