NewsArizona News


Family separation can have lasting impacts, even after being reunited

Posted at 5:58 AM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 09:27:23-05

In his first two months in office, President Joe Biden has started tackling immigration reform.

He's put together a task force to reunite families separated under the Trump administration. At a press conference in February, he said, "I will accomplish what I said I would do...much more humane policy based on family unification."

Eileen Payan knows what it's like to have her family ripped apart after her husband was taken by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents under the Obama administration. Payan says of seeing mothers and children separated, "The families being separated, like it's like, I feel for the mothers, I feel, like all I would give to hold my babies and I can imagine that's what they're feeling."

She says the memory of the day her husband Ivan Martinez was taken in 2014 will haunt her. She remembers she and Martinez had just gotten home from the movies with their young daughter. She says it was a family day filled with love and a lot of fun. But that all changed as soon as they pulled into their driveway.

"We were surrounded by ICE, and I will stay with me forever. They immediately... 'stick your hands out the window,'" she recalls. "As soon as he said his name, they pulled him out of the car."

Martinez was taken in a matter of moments.

"He kept asking, 'Can I say goodbye to my family, can I say goodbye to my family, can I say goodbye to my family?' And I could just hear him repeating that over and over. The officers didn't say a word, they just took him," she says, holding back tears.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Martinez was one of the more than 400,000 people deported in 2014 by ICE. In 2018, when former President Donald Trump implemented his aggressive family separation policy, it was met with public outcry. Payan says seeing the families torn apart made her relive her nightmare all over again.

"I just feel so upset, like they don't realize what they're doing to these families. The damage they're doing you know, like, my daughter was four years old, and she will never forget that for the rest of her life," Payan says.

President Biden took a major step in reuniting those separated families, but psychologist Dr. Martha Muñoz says that's just the first step in healing for these families.

"It's not going to be enough. He needs to start seeing what else is coming after," Dr. Muñoz says.

In a heartbreaking video shown by the ACLU in 2018, you see a mother reuniting with her toddler son, only for him to not recognize her anymore. This video is evidence of what just a few months apart can do to families.

Dr. Muñoz says this is because, "...the first three years in a person is very important, in an infant, it's very important. If they don't develop this bonding with them, it's going to be very difficult. They can develop some kind of attachment...but it's not going to be the same...ever."

Dr. Muñoz has seen the effects in her patients before. She says, "They're probably, they are gonna live their whole life with a hole in their chest, you know...They don't know where it's coming from. It's coming from the lack of affection from the mom or the family around."

And Payan's daughter who was there the day her father was taken, was changed forever in her mom's eyes.

"Before Ivan was taken, like, she was very goofy, outgoing. You know, a kid. And now she's a very... reserved person," she says. "To this very day, to this very day, she is terrified of the police, even though it was ICE, like... they have the same...look as a police officer. So she's terrified."

Dr. Muñoz urges federal, state, and local leaders to make mental health and other services available to those dealing with the trauma of family separations. She says it's the best chance they have to heal and move forward. "They need to do more in order to have a healthy family. To create some kind of department to provide access, easy access, to mental health for the immigrants is what I really think," Dr. Muñoz concludes.

Deportations have not stopped under the Biden administration. Some immigrant rights groups estimate thousands of people have already been deported since he took office. Recently, a judge shot down his 100-day moratorium on deportations.

Payan and Martinez have since had a son since he was removed. He now lives in Puerto Peñasco in Mexico. She said he has no family there but it was the middle point for them so they could still see each other. She travels there and back to visit but she's hoping one day they'll be reunited in Arizona for good.

She's just opened a bakery at Palabras Bilingual Bookstore in Phoenix named "Por Vida Bakery."

She works full-time in addition to her bakery. She's started a crowd-funding effort to help with supplies here.

Dr. Muñoz holds free help sessions on her Facebook page to help as many people as she can. Those interested can visit her page here.