. . .a mental health crisis in the making
The number one reason appointments are canceled at Atlanta's Spanish-speaking mental health clinic is fear of leaving the safety of home.That concerns Pierluigi Mancini, a psychologist and certified substance abuse counselor, who heads the Clinic for Education, Treatment and Prevention of Addiction (CETPA) serving 800 clients and their families in Atlanta.
Mancini sees children and teenagers harmed by an immigration policy leading to the arrest, detainment, and often deportation of their parents or other relatives. Children as young as four have been passengers in cars driven by their parents who were stopped for a minor traffic violation. Unable to produce a driver's license was enough to detain and arrest them with the expectation of deportation. Some arrests have been made for fishing without a license. Others are the result of work-site round-ups of 25 or more, and there are no requirements that children at home must be informed when their parents are removed.
The consequences are wrenching. Elise Shore, author of a report about the impact of deportation for Georgia's immigrant children released by the Sapelo Foundation, called for a halt of "checkpoints and road blocks near schools, churches, day care centers and health clinics." One mother she encountered was given 30 minutes to call relatives before the authorities turned her three crying children, under the age of seven, into the Department of Human Services. She is not alone in believing these are "potentially traumatic and life-altering" for the youngsters trapped by the volatile, inconsistent immigration policies that both recruit and reject Hispanics.
These incidents shine a light on the tensions that have erupted for Georgia's 780,000 Latinos. In the past four years, Georgia has deported 14,692 people using powers known as 287(g) from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) allowing local law enforcement, empowered by the federal government, to initiate deportation. Undocumented residents have been taken to jails specified for this purpose, to "interrogate and process," before they are removed. These broad powers have even led to the deportation of a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent who is now suing ICE and Homeland Security for violation of Constitutional guarantees.Since 2007, the number of federal agreements with local law enforcement abilities to initiate deportation has doubled according to a Budget Brief prepared by the Department of Homeland Security.
Jerry Gonzalez, of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), believes an uptick in nativism was unleashed after 9.11, but points to a particularly harsh anti-immigration law Georgia passed in 2006 empowering officials in 287(g) jails.
That same year hundreds of thousands marched to protest immigration policies in cities across America. Volatile rhetoric sanctioned by local news and often mimicked by school-aged children includes labeling people "illegal aliens," implying that the undocumented population is less than human, says Gonzalez. He terms the atmosphere "Jose Crow," reminiscent of the racial hostility and epithets hurled against African-Americans.
In August the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a law suit against Cobb County on behalf of a 23-year-old Hispanic man who was on his bike when he was stopped by police, arrested without probable cause or a warrant, and held for four months in Cobb County jail. Cobb County is the epicenter of Georgia's 287(g) activities. It is unclear that his crime was anything more than looking Hispanic and having poor English language skills. The case has not been settled. Then, last week a class-action brought on behalf of three Hispanics, also filed against Cobb county, challenged the constitutionality of of 287(g).
Threats to family stability are a heavy burden for Georgia's Hispanic children. Loss of income, food shortages, threats to stable housing, break up of supportive multigenerational households, and poor school performance are among them. And the impact on mental health is staggering. Recent reports such as one from the Urban Institute indicate Latino youngsters are showing anxiety, depression, agitation, withdrawal, anger, or clinginess. Some have become incontinent. Those between 6 and 11 years old show changes in eating habits. Or they have trouble sleeping, and when they do, they have nightmares. Others cry spontaneously. Fearful when their parents are out of sight, they are also fearful of the police. Whether they were born in the U.S. or brought at an early age, they were raised here and it makes it all that more difficult to make sure they well become productive members of society, Gonzalez said.
Fears of deportation extend well beyond Georgia and resonate through the nation's Hispanic community. The Pew Hispanic Center found that roughly two-thirds of the Latinos they surveyed in 2008 "worry a lot that they or someone close to them may be deported." More foreign-born held this concern, but it was also true for one-third of the survey's native-born Hispanics. Among documented immigrants who were also permanent residents of the United States between 1997 and 2007, 88,000 were deported. Half had children under the age of five according to a study co-authored by two law schools of the University of California.
Mancini's clinic provides the only accredited language appropriate behavioral health services to Spanish-speaking families in Georgia. And a shortage of Spanish-speaking treatment programs means youngsters have been "suffering in silence," says Mancini. He calls this generation the "Olympic babies," children whose parents responded to Georgia's request for help to prepare Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics. They were recruited from neighboring Mexico, and in addition to building for the Olympics, many found work in other construction, agriculture, or the carpet industry. Georgia welcomed their culture organized around family, church, and anti-abortion politics, and the Latino population swelled nearly 300 percent in a single decade. But no more, even though immigrant labor is still expected to harvest Vidalia onions, pecans and peaches.
Eleven years ago Mancini opened Georgia's only Latino Behavioral Health Agency in Gwinett County, another of the hot spots for the 287(g) in a suburb of Atlanta. Initially the adolescents reported run-of-the-mill problems typical for any young person using mental health services. Stigma, access, costs, and language compatibility were the big ones. Mancini has in place programs to address these. To minimize stigma, he makes it cool to come to CETPA, to hang out, or to join in activities for all family members. He structures weekend events, and focuses on providing services that promote life goals, not just treating an illness.
Cultural sensitivity and language is key in this field where some words simply have no translations. The word "withdrawal" is one, and it is essential to be able to describe the symptoms - sweats, nausea, irritation -- working with people who have a substance use disorder. The bilingual staff at CETPA comes from 14 Latin American countries, each with its unique idiomatic expressions, many with regional dialects. Clients come from 22 different countries. But services are provided in English or Spanish, whichever is most appropriate to the client.
Mancini knows both sides of addiction and treatment. For three years, his addiction drove a wedge in the family, and he credits a judge with his turnaround after he was arrested at the age of 21. Treatment, not jail, led to his recovery and eventually to his career choice. An American citizen born in Colombia, S.A., of Italian parentage, his grandfather opened a pasta factory and his father operated it before the family moved to Miami, later to New York. Urbane, sophisticated, and the recipient of numerous professional awards including the 2010 Provider Award from the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, Mancini is widely admired for his work with adolescents and families.
"As providers we're supposed to open the door and watch them walk through," Mancini said. But that's been more difficult since bubbling fears add a layer to existing clinical challenges treating mental health or substance abuse disorders. In the meantime, he said, all are affected. That's why even he always carries his American passport for identification.