The town of Honey Grove is about a 30-minute drive from the Texas-Oklahoma border. It’s not uncommon to see tractors travel down two-lane roads, cattle grazing farmland and grain silos. (Stella Chavez / KERA)
The day of the raid still haunts principal Tammy Mariani.
On August 28, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, raided a Northeast Texas factory that makes vehicle trailers. In the nearby Honey Grove Independent School District, nearly two dozen children have parents who were arrested and detained by ICE agents.
“We had kids who were scared to death that when they got out of school that day they wouldn’t see their dad again or their mom again,” said Mariani, the principal at Honey Grove High School.
In Honey Grove, about 90 miles east of Dallas, everybody knows each other. Kids grew up together. They go to church together.
So it didn’t take long for word to spread about the raid. Moms called schools, afraid agents were headed to their homes. Students at schools cried. Counselors were called in.
“It was just extremely difficult because it affected everybody,” Mariani said. “[It was a] really hard day.”
Agents from ICE arrested nearly 160 workers at the factory, called Load Trail. It’s about a 20-minute drive from the high school.
Officials said it was the largest raid at a single site in a decade. At Honey Grove ISD, 23 students of the 650 enrolled had parents who were detained.
“To me, like, it just makes me sad knowing that my parents have worked really hard,” said Abigail Rubio, her voice breaking. “It just makes me really sad to see what they have to go through.”
The 16-year-old was at lunch when she heard about the raid from a friend who walked up. Abigail said she thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. Her dad was one of the workers detained by ICE. He was eventually released but his case, like hundreds of thousands around the country, is backlogged.
Six months later, Abigail’s emotions are still raw.
“Imagine if this was happening to you and your family. How would you feel?” Abigail said. “Like, we just need [all] the support that we can get to get through the hard times.”
A lot of that support has come from the school district, in the form of letters teachers and staff have written for her and other students. The letter for Abigail explains to a judge that her dad shows an interest in her education.
District officials have also collected donations and driven families to court.
“In our school, our faculty has always seen this as a human issue, not a political issue,” said Todd Morrison, superintendent of Honey Grove ISD. “Whatever your belief is, when it comes down to it, I’ve got 23 kids that were involved in this and their world’s been turned upside-down.”
Small town, complex issue
Honey Grove ISD sits in the small town of Honey Grove, Texas. Population: 1,668.
In the district, 65 percent of students are white, 20 percent are Hispanic and 8.5 percent are black. Seven percent of students are classified as English Language Learners.
The town is about a 30-minute drive south of the Texas-Oklahoma border. Tractors travel down two-lane roads. Grain silos and cattle dot dozen of acres of farmland.
Like much of rural Texas, Fannin County — where the town is located — is largely conservative. In 2016, nearly 80 percent of Fannin County voters chose Donald Trump for president.
Now, the area is part of the national conversation about immigration, and many are learning just how complex the issue is.
Mitzi Sherwood, principal of Honey Grove Elementary School, said there was one big surprise for her: Many workers, who were detained, are taxpayers.
“A lot of times we think about illegal immigrants and not being productive members of our society,” Sherwood said. “Our parents that were working, they were full-time employees and have been for a long time, and they have been paying their taxes.”
Sherwood said they’re involved in their children’s education and go to meetings and events at school.
State of vigilance
Experts say trauma can last a long time, which is why the way school districts like Honey Grove respond and meet students’ needs can make a difference.
The afternoon of the raid, district officials told students, whose parents or guardians had been detained, to head to the superintendent’s office. The students called home.
“We just didn’t want any of our kids going home, surprised about this situation,” said superintendent Morrison. “We wanted them [to have] the opportunity to process it. We also didn’t want any of our kids going home to empty houses.”
Morrison said he worried some of his students would not get to see their dads again, that they would automatically be deported.
He wondered who would provide for the children and their families if the primary breadwinner was gone.
Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, has researched what happens to children whose parents are detained and deported.
He’s studied U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants and their siblings, some of whom are also undocumented. He said children often know that their parents are in the country without proper documentation.
“These children are always living in a state of vigilance,” Zayas said. “They’re always concerned about the possibility that one day their parents might be detained and deported. It’s a constant ongoing anxiety.”
Some kids, he said, worry about drawing attention to themselves or to their parents. They may avoid doing something for that reason.
“That adds a level of stress that children shouldn’t have,” Zayas said. “We see sometimes that they know their parents so well, that they will know their parents’ arrival time after work. And when the parent is late – 10 to 15 minutes – the child becomes so anxious. ‘Is this the day that my parent gets detained?’ ”
‘We have a bond’
Superintendent Morrison has been a driving force for the families. Literally. On several occasions, he’s driven them to make their court dates in Dallas.
One afternoon last December, he sat on a bench on the 10th floor of the Earle Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas, a grave look on his face. A former student of his sat next to him, his head buried in his hands. Morrison had driven the young man and his father to court that day. He said his oldest daughter and the former student were in school together.
“His family has been a part of the school system as long as my family,” Morrison said. “We definitely have a bond. I was trying to ease his tension as much as possible about the unknown.”
He and his staff have tried easing their families’ financial burden too. Mariani, the high school principal, said just getting to court is one of the biggest challenges.
“If you don’t have that kind of support and you’re expected to travel from a rural area like ours to downtown Dallas, it costs you $25 to park,” she said. “You’ve got to eat something while you’re gone, [and] you’re losing what little you might be making that day.”
Then there’s the fear of being stopped and detained on the way there. Sometimes, Mariani said, individuals are reluctant to accept help.
“Our dads and parents want to work,” she said. “They’re not looking for free handouts.”
Shows of support
Days before last Christmas, Mariani and other staff sat in Morrison’s office.
They were talking about how to help the families affected by the immigration raid. Most of the students affected are children of Mexican immigrants.
As Morrison explained though, the majority of students have been in Honey Grove their entire life. “Mexico’s a foreign country to them,” he said. “And a lot of these kids have never ever been to Mexico.”
Morrison and his staff collected canned goods, clothing and money.
But it wasn’t just the physical things they needed. Mariani said the emotional scars were still fresh for some students. She described sitting in a meeting with an eleventh-grader. The student broke down.
“She said, ‘I know if I have to leave, I’m never going to be taught the way I’m taught here,’” Mariani recalled. “‘I’m never going to get the services I’ve had here.’”
That’s why, experts say, it’s important to encourage and comfort students. Zayas of UT-Austin said they should know the truth, but also hope.
For Abigail, that hope came from her friend Leslie Lopez, a junior at Honey Grove High School.
“While she was going through this tragedy … I’ve been worried about her and trying to give her advice,” Leslie said. “I’ve told her there are many lawyers she can reach out to. And, I prayed that day her dad was detained. I prayed for her.”
Today, life continues inside the school and in the community. On a recent week, a group of Honey Grove teens competed in show choir, Spanish and other events at The Gaylord Texan in Grapevine.
David Gamez, 17, said it’s hard to focus on school when he’s worried about his family.
“Because you start thinking about, you know, what [are] the problems that are going to arise,” David said. “You start thinking about how you’re going to meet your needs. You start thinking about how [family] is being treated and how you’re going to go through life without them.”