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NC Resettlement Official: 'Zero Tolerance' Stirs Uncertainty Among Many Immigrants Already In NC

By Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At least five children who were separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border have been placed in foster care in South Carolina. In North Carolina, officials who resettle immigrants say they're not aware of any children currently being housed in the state after being separated from their families at the border. But they say the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy is affecting immigrants already here.

By Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks.

Bedrija Jazic is with Lutheran Services Carolinas, one of the main organizations that helps resettle refugees and place children into foster care in South Carolina. She said the five children between 7 and 12 years old have been in touch with their parents.

“Children had an opportunity to talk to their parents and make sure that parents know that their kids are in a safe place and children heard their parents and that communication was extremely important for both,” Jazic said.

But she isn’t sure how or when they will be reunited with their parents, because the order President Trump signed Thursday ending the separation practice didn’t specify the process.

Jazic said the organization has been inundated with offers from people wanting to donate and become foster parents.

Scott Phillips runs the North Carolina office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. As a contractor for the federal Department of Health & Human Services, it helps refugees and immigrants  such as unaccompanied children. Phillips said the recent flood of news about family separation has many clients worried. 

“They’re looking at news sources, and seeing what’s happening,” he said. “And it's raising the levels of anxiety and tension among folks that are already here that may be anticipating arrival from a family member that's fleeing the violence in their home country and looking for safety.”

Phillips says the new zero-tolerance policy - which calls for prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally - and overall tighter enforcement of immigration laws, is making people nervous about their own status. And he warns it can trigger memories of trauma they saw at home and during their trips to the U.S. - especially among children.

“One of the big issues to remember is that people don't leave home on a whim. You're fleeing for a reason,” Phillips said.

Those reasons include violence, gang recruitment, sexual abuse and other situations that leave them in fear, Phillips said.  

“A lot of times there's trauma on the journey. And we are also seeing now a lot of people are being sexually assaulted. You know there's instances of pregnancy when people arrive. We have actually seen high levels of PTSD, of depression, anxiety, self-harm,” he said.

Add to that concerns over what's going on at the border now, and it all affects children, Phillips said. Some are unwilling to leave home, out of fear about what might happen when they're gone.  

Those worries are echoed by other immigrant advocates as well. At a rally outside the Mecklenburg County Jail Thursday, Hector Vaca of Action NC said current immigration policy is chaos.

“We have people in our communities that are afraid to walk the streets. They're afraid to go to school, afraid to go to church, afraid to go to work, because of what's happening in this current atmosphere, and what's happening at the border,” Vaca said.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration's policies may be having a deterrent effect. Phillips said the latest federal statistics show fewer people are arriving at the border to seek asylum.

“I think people are discussing it and I think it's factoring into a decision making process. But, honestly, going back to the idea that, you know, home is home and people don't leave unless it's dangerous,” he said.

For some, the policies may dissuade a trip to the United States, Phillips said. But for others, he said, it's, "No, I'm willing to take that chance to escape death."

Copyright 2018 WFAE

David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.
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