Counselor Helps Save American Dream for Child of Undocumented Parents

June 24th, 2010
Andrea S.

Whether the parent is a citizen or not, the feeling of pride at that moment is the same. When a child graduates from high school, is going to college, and has the chance for a better life that the parent never had. This moment, which mixes pride and poignancy, makes all the sacrifices worth it.

Andrea S. graduated from Caesar Chavez High School in southwest Detroit this spring and will study pre-medicine at the University of Michigan in the fall. She is an excellent student and has overcome considerable adversity to get this far. Her parents are undocumented and face deportation hearings. Andrea and her younger sister were born in the States and are citizens.

“My parents always stressed the importance of education,” Andrea says. “My mom often told me, ‘People can take everything from you, but they can never take your knowledge’.”

Andrea’s parents came to America illegally from Mexico. They worked hard, raised a family, and bought a home in southwest Detroit. Andrea’s father works for a landscaping company. Her mother works in housekeeping for a hospital.

Growing up, Andrea always worried that the authorities would find out about her parents’ status. She feared that she might accidentally say something wrong that would lead to her parents being arrested and deported. She had trouble sleeping. “In our family, family is everything,” Andrea says. “At night I would turn over in my mind: What if I slip up one day and our family is broken apart.”

When she entered high school, Andrea showed signs of depression. She would get mad for no reason and wanted to be alone frequently. In her sophomore year, her parents brought her to Southwest Counseling Solutions. She started sessions with Florys Gonzales-Meredith, a counselor in the Children, Youth and Families program.

“It was a relief to speak to Florys,” says Andrea. “But I felt scared, too, about what other people would think about me if they knew I was in counseling. To my teachers and my friends, I was the perfect student. But I felt that I was living a lie inside.”

Andrea was also concerned that her parents, particularly her mother, would be disappointed in her for not being strong enough to manage her thoughts and feelings.

“I let Andrea know that it’s okay to ask for help and that her parents were not disappointed at all and only wanted the best for her,” Florys says.

Through counseling and medication, Andrea was able to control her depression. Then, last July, her father was arrested outside the family home by immigration authorities. The authorities were alerted when Andrea’s parents applied for legal residency. Andrea’s maternal uncle is a citizen and had agreed to sponsor the application. However, in processing the request, immigration officials uncovered an outstanding warrant against Andrea’s father. The warrant was issued 20 years ago when he was caught entering the country illegally and then missed a hearing.

After his arrest, Andrea’s father was sent to an area detention facility. Authorities began deportation proceedings against both parents.

Andrea felt that her world was coming apart. Her dream of a better life – a gift from her parents that defined her purpose – seemed dashed by events completely beyond her control. She felt helpless.

Florys wrote a letter to immigration officials on the family’s behalf requesting that the father be released from jail to help relieve some of the pressure bearing down on Andrea’s fragile state of mind. After two months in detention, Andrea’s father came home, though the deportation of both parents seemed imminent.

The tension in the household amplified as the family tried to cope with foreboding uncertainties. Then, one night last November, Andrea and her parents had a fierce disagreement. Andrea wanted to go to a party and escape the stress for a while. Her parents insisted that she stay home and help clean the house. During the heat of the argument, harmful things were said by everyone involved.

“My parents said they were very disappointed in me and that if I regretted being their daughter, then I didn’t deserve to be their child.” Andrea says.

Devastated by the words and the sense that her hopes for the future were lost, Andrea retreated to her room and took an overdose of sleeping pills. Her mother found her and Andrea was rushed to the emergency room.

Andrea spent a week in a psychiatric hospital. She and her parents ruefully apologized to each other. “They said they loved me with all their heart and didn’t mean what they said when we had argued,” Andrea says. “They explained how much pressure they were under, including trying to find the money to pay the lawyers.”

In their family counseling after Andrea came home, Florys reiterated the depth of love between Andrea and her parents and helped all three understand ways to cope with the stress that protected each other’s feelings. Florys also wrote another letter to immigration officials, this time asking them to allow Andrea’s mother to remain here until her daughter completed high school, for the sake of Andrea’s psychological wellbeing and her promising future.

Andrea turned 18 earlier this year and is now seeing a counselor in the adult mental health program at Southwest Counseling. She is working with Katherine Raymond and has already developed a close and trusting therapeutic relationship. Like Florys, Katherine is fluent in Spanish.

Andrea is still very apprehensive about her parents’ fate, but she is also more determined than ever to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

“The world really needs doctors to help heal those who are hurting,” Andrea says. “My parents gave me a wonderful opportunity to give back and I will be forever grateful.”

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