One patient stands out in my mind from my first day back in the clinic after the fires in October. Juana was 39 weeks pregnant, wore an ash-gray sweat suit and had the same tired eyes as her two young daughters who joined her at the appointment.
We began as with any routine obstetrical visit, listening to the fetal heartbeat with an ultrasound. Then we talked about the fire, and I learned of her family’s harrowing escape from the Larkfield-Wikiup area. When a neighbor pounded on her front door in the middle of the night, she saw flames approaching; she bundled her children into the car and sped away to safety. “I only had time to grab my daughters and their papers,” she told me.
Some of us had the privilege to prioritize the past when we fled — memories, family photos, mementos and heirlooms. Juana, who is undocumented, knew she had to focus on a future that considers what happens to her family in the event that she is detained by immigration officials. The most valuable items she could save from the fire prove her daughters’ legal status in this country.
Our community sustained a terrible trauma during the firestorm and will continue to cope with the fear and toxic stress to which we have been exposed. This is nothing new to undocumented families in California, who have been living in fear and coping with stress for years.
A survey conducted of Los Angeles residents in 2017 by UCLA showed that more than one-third of all Los Angeles residents, including more than half of all Latinos, worried that they or a family member would be deported. Even more telling, 80 percent of Latinos were concerned that enrolling in government programs would raise their risk of deportation.
We know that deportation is harmful to families and children; if a parent is removed from the home there are economic and social repercussions. Along with the trauma of forced separation, families who lose a breadwinner are less likely to have money for medications, and the remaining guardian is less likely to be able to bring children to the doctor.
A child whose parent is deported is more likely to become depressed, anxious or show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and behavioral problems in school.
Scientific research also shows that the threat of deportation is harmful to health. Studies conducted in states before and after the enactment of legislation that stigmatizes immigrants demonstrate these harmful health effects.
In Alabama, Latino parents, according to a 2014 study, were less likely to bring their children to well-child visits after the enactment of anti-immigrant legislation. The stress of potential deportation also affects the health of unborn children. In 2008 in Postville, Iowa, there was a significant increase in low birth weight and premature births in the nine months after the nation’s largest-ever immigration raid.
As our community rebuilds and tries to heal, we have the opportunity to protect our neighbors from the harmful effects of threatened deportation. We can elect a sheriff who supports immigrant communities and declines to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. We can support the statewide implementation of Senate Bill 54, which limits local law enforcement’s ability to share data with, and protects immigrant families from, immigration officials. We can contribute to fire recovery funds for undocumented individuals who are excluded from federal fire relief. And we can recognize that the 28,000 undocumented individuals in Sonoma County contribute to our society and economy and that their work will be essential in rebuilding.