When Fear of Deportation Keeps Families From Help After a Shooting

In the aftermath of the El Paso killings, some undocumented immigrants reportedly were too afraid to seek care or help locating their relatives.

Young women comfort each other at a vigil in El Paso.
A vigil in El Paso, Texas, yesterday. Undocumented citizens who have been affected by the shooting have reportedly been forgoing help and aid for fear of deportation. (John Locher / AP)

In the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, yesterday, some reports indicated that immigrants affected by the shooting may have avoided seeking treatment or going to authorities for help locating family members because of their immigration status.

On CNN, for example, the former assistant secretary of Homeland Security Juliette Kayyem noted that according to authorities, it was “clear that there are people who are not reunifying with their family, and there are people they’re worried did not go to hospitals because of their immigration status.” MSNBC also tweeted that “Hope Border Institute is asking to spread word to reach out to them if you, or someone you know, are a migrant and afraid to come forward in relation to the El Paso mass shooting attack, such as being injured or trying to find family members.” (Hope Border Institute did not respond to a request for comment.)

Late last night, the West Texas wing of U.S. Customs and Border Protection tweeted:  “We are not conducting enforcement operations at area hospitals, the family reunification center or shelters. We stand in support of our community.” Still, the episode offers a glimpse into what it’s like to live with the persistent burden of being undocumented in America: Not only does it inject a steady hum of anxiety into daily life thanks to discrimination and fear of deportation, but it also severely limits people’s access to resources in times of crisis.

The shooting at Walmart yesterday is suspected to have been motivated by anti-immigrant sentiments. El Paso is located on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and this particular store is, according to The New York Times, located just 10 minutes from the Bridge of the Americas, which connects El Paso to its Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juarez. Of the 20 people killed, six were Mexican citizens; the Times notes that the Walmart is known to be “a regular destination for Mexican tourists who come to the city to shop and visit family.” Just minutes before the shooter opened fire on Saturday, a long manifesto about a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” appeared on the forum site 8chan, and authorities are investigating whether the suspect—a 21-year-old white man from Allen, Texas, some nine hours from El Paso—authored it.

Whether or not the suspect wrote the manifesto, its existence and the atrocities committed yesterday, even taken separately, illustrate a grim reality: Immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America regularly face discrimination, hatred, and violence—especially at a moment in history when the president himself promotes anti-immigrant and white-nationalist rhetoric.

The hardship is compounded for undocumented immigrants, who often live their daily lives under an ever-present cloud of stress and logistical obstacles. As Sarah Elizabeth Richards wrote for The Atlantic in 2017, the looming threat of deportation in the United States nowadays has had negative effects on the physical and mental health of undocumented immigrants and their loved ones. And as Joanna Dreby, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany SUNY who researches immigration and its effects on families and children, points out, mixed-status families are so common in America today that the threat of deportation for any one undocumented immigrant can be a source of stress, anxiety, and depression for a surprising number of other people who are under no such threat themselves. “I’ve mostly done work with kids, most of whom are U.S. citizens,” Dreby told me. “They’re not undocumented, but they carry around these fears, these anxieties related to their parents or family members’ status.”

Times of crisis are when undocumented immigrants and their families find themselves particularly vulnerable. Immigrant communities are remarkably resourceful, Dreby said; they’re good at forming what sociologists call “informal social-support networks,” which can be great for finding jobs, friends, or child care. “But in a crisis situation, informal social support doesn’t do very much,” she added. When more formal support is required—when people need legal or medical aid, or assistance locating family members or getting treatment after a mass shooting, as has been the case in El Paso—undocumented people are often forced to choose between seeking help from institutions that might put them at risk of deportation or simply going without the care or help they need.

Dreby noted that whether undocumented immigrants and their loved ones feel safe coming forward to seek help or support from authorities largely depends on what kind of relationship a particular community’s authorities have with its people. For most of the past 10 to 15 years, Dreby observed variance between communities; in some places, like so-called sanctuary cities, undocumented immigrants tended to be more comfortable seeking help or care. In the past few years, however, she’s seen a shift away from this, as sentiments become more uniform nationwide: More immigrant communities report feeling fear and distrust toward authorities, Dreby said. “That has largely been due to the national rhetoric that we see, that criminalizes immigrants,” she says. “Which creates huge challenges for local social-service providers and for police forces.

“A lot of police forces want to have good relationships with immigrant communities; I live in a city where community liaison officers work hard at this,” she adds. “But the national rhetoric undermines the work of a lot of people.”