By Jordan Karr
The certainty, the hubris, the firmness; to spill threats like water
as if they could simply dry and be forgotten.
“Close your eyes and picture a safe place…a safe space with someone you love…someone who makes you feel secure. Imagine a space where you and someone you love are safe together.” His brow furrows, his back presses tight against his seat, and his ankles turn so his feet point inward. He inhales and exhales keeping a familiar mind on the tune of his breathe.
“Sorry,” at just 11 years of age he says, “I had something in my eye.”
Nothing is needed. Just a person to hold these feelings with. So I asked him about where he was. “I was with my brother and my dad. My brother was dancing. I was taking a video. We weren’t in Guadalajara. We were here in California. My mom says they might come back if we can get my dad papers.”
Santi wants to be professional soccer player. His past grades have been poor, but not this semester. He was given all Bs.’ His mom is so proud. The ladies love him. He always has a girlfriend. He has experienced anxiety and depressive symptoms since the deportation of his father who brought Santi’s brother to Guadalajara when he had to leave. Santi likes doing mindfulness and we pay close attention to how his body and mind feel when he imagines somewhere secure; somewhere safe with someone he loves. Hopefully he can harness those feelings in times of distress but this is not a cure. It’s like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.
“When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we're getting. And it only makes common sense. They're sending us not the right people. It’s coming from more than Mexico. It's coming from all over South and Latin America, and it's coming probably--probably--from the Middle East. But we don't know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don't know what's happening. And it's got to stop and it's got to stop fast.”
- Donald Trump’s presidential announcement speech June 16, 2015
I like to mock Californians for their laughable tolerance for the cold. December brings a glacial 42-degree wind chill that sends most of the students running for the slightly warmer rooms inside the school. Not Stephany. She makes it about 20 yards from the door before trying to run back to her mom’s car but she cannot dodge her mother Yoselin. Playing defense, Yoselin puts her body between Stephany and the car, kisses Stephany on her forehead, and turns her around. Stephany will have to join the other kids today.
Yoselin’s stare communicates instantly the unconditional love she has for her daughter and her relentless drive to protect her. I thanked her for coming in again to talk about Stephany. Stephany’s father has been deported twice, each time leaving Stephany with crippling anxiety, an inability to form peer relationships, and an internalized view of the world as a perilous place. Her mother understands this perfectly and explicitly labels the deportations as the cause of her daughter’s distress. Drowning in fear, she cannot interact with the school curricula. She turns 11 soon but is reading at a 3rd grade level. She is often bullied. She won’t tell me who is bothering her or what they say but she comes to my office with tears in her eyes whenever it happens. The secretary tells me that students with undocumented parents have been getting teased recently, since the election. These poor attempts at making a joke would shatter Stephany’s world if she was in fact the victim. Fortunately, her father is back. His unbreakable bond to his family is what brought him here…again… but he was injured on his return and thus cannot find work in construction; his prior source of income. So Yoselin takes on extra shifts, often working past midnight at a corner store to make ends meet. Paycheck to paycheck, in a daily life plagued with uncertainty, they always find hope in each other.
“First of all--we have to stop it. We can do that with combinations of walls and Border Patrol. And it won't cost the kind of money--in fact, we will save money, because people that are coming in here that shouldn't be coming in here illegally. We have some really bad dudes right here in this country, and we're getting them out and we're sending them back to where they came from. And I don't mean Mexico; they come from all over. We have some real bad ones, and they're in our prisons that we're paying for.”
- Donald Trump on CNN’s State of the Union interviews, July, 26, 2015
Deborah bites her lip and squeezes her eye-lids to hold back her forbidden tears. Her mind carries the burden of her “illegal” body. Her illegitimate fears are killing her as her unlawful heart makes feeble attempts to propel her through each day inundated with chronic stress. Deborah is a rape victim, she has lived through domestic violence, she lives paycheck to paycheck, and she is a mother. The doctor says it will be difficult to treat her stomach ulcers if she cannot reduce her stress levels. Yesterday her daughter, Martha, asked Deborah if she was going to die. She did not like seeing her mother go to the hospital.
Martha suffers from anxiety, headaches, nightmares, and a generalized fear that adults will leave her. Her anxieties are intensified by her exposure to the political rhetoric that washes over the American psyche and trickles all the way down to our 1st and 2nd graders. Before the election, Martha asked me “Will my mom be sent to Mexico if Trump wins?”
“Can you imagine? In a Trump administration all immigration laws will be enforced, will be enforced. As with any law enforcement activity, we will set priorities. But unlike this administration, no one will be immune or exempt from enforcement. And ICE and Border Patrol officers will be allowed to do their jobs the way their jobs are supposed to be done. Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don’t have a country. Our enforcement priorities will include removing criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, public charges. That is those relying on public welfare or straining the safety net along with millions of recent illegal arrivals and overstays who’ve come here under this current corrupt administration.”
Donald Trump Immigration speech, August, 31, 2016
Living with this kind of fear is toxic for the soul, the brain, and the body. The notion that emotions affect the body is not new. Nearly 2,000 years ago the great Roman physiologist Galen was studying a chain of nerve tissue entwined with the spinal cord and various internal organs. He labeled it “sympathetic” after the Roman word for emotions: sympathos. He understood, as we do now, that our bodies are inseparable from our emotions. The sympathetic nervous system is our automatic accelerator and the parasympathetic nervous system is our automatic break. In healthy individuals these systems work in harmony to balance our arousal, manage our energy, respond to threats, and calm us down. However, when the threats are persistent, when we learn that we cannot control the dangers that surround us, when powers deem our bodies to be illegal, distress becomes constant and our bodies vigilantly respond.
"Those here illegally today, who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and one route only: To return home and apply for re-entry like everybody else, under the rules of the new legal immigration system that I have outlined."
-Donald Trump Immigration speech, August, 31, 2016
When your body is “illegal,” the threats are chronic. When the powers that be appear to have no sympathy for you or your family, the body acts. The body adapts to fight, flee, or freeze. The body prepares automatically with real responses to abstract words.
Eleven million minds register these threats and 11 million bodies, brains, and souls will remember them.
 In order to protect the identities of the individuals described in this essay, all of the names are pseudonyms. In addition, other pieces of personally identifying information were altered.
Jordan Karr is a 3rd year PhD student in the School Psychology program at UC Berkeley. Over the past few years Jordan has gained experience providing assessment, therapy, and consultation services in Bay Area schools. Jordan is interested in better understanding the relationship between chronic stress and the development of executive functioning abilities, the effects of parental incarceration on student learning, and interventions for students who experience complex trauma. firstname.lastname@example.org