Vanessa Barfield choked back tears as her classmates at Sunnyside High School discussed a potential Donald Trump presidency.
“When he said he was going to deport Mexicans, I was like, what’s going to happen to my mom? And if it does happen, am I going to be deported too? Because I’m only half,” the 15-year-old said. “My friends know my dad’s white, and so they’ll say he supports Trump … and I just don’t like that at all.”
Barfield is not alone in her fear and confusion about the divisive presidential candidate, according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center released last month. The left-leaning organization surveyed teachers, finding that Trump’s campaign has caused fear and anxiety among children of color and has inflamed racial tensions in the classroom. The “Trump effect” in schools has led to a fear of deportations and has also perpetuated bullying against Hispanic students, according to the report.
“Students are stressed and anxious in a way that is threatening their health, emotional well-being and their schoolwork. We heard from dozens of educators about young students who expressed daily worries about ‘being sent back’ or having their parents sent back,” the report says. “In many cases, the students are American citizens or come from families that are here legally. It doesn’t matter: Regardless of immigration status, they feel under attack. We heard about students from second grade to high school crying in class.”
He targets my people. But I am very proud to be Mexican. I will never neglect my ethnicity.
17-year-old Stephanie Ocampo
The Valley has a large base of conservative voters in a population where Latinos are the plurality. So Trump’s politics and words establish a natural tension.
Those scenarios are playing out in the Valley. One 8-year-old in Reedley recently came home from school worried that she and her mother would be deported – despite being U.S. citizens – because they are of Mexican descent, and that her white father would be forced to stay behind. The family asked not to be named.
In Merced County, students were caught vandalizing Los Banos High School with pro-Trump messages like “Build a wall” and “Make America Great Again” on Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday. In Madera County in March, a Yosemite High School employee’s car was vandalized with messages like “Trump” and “Go back to Mexico” written in paint and feces.
Nearly 70 percent of students at Fresno Unified – California’s fourth-largest school district – are Hispanic. More than 16,000 students in the district are English learners.
Stephanie Ocampo, 17, of Fresno, is a child of Mexican immigrants. But she says Trump’s rhetoric about immigration – and his plans to build a wall along the U.S. and Mexico border – hasn’t gotten her down; it’s emboldened her.
“He targets my people. But I am very proud to be Mexican. I will never neglect my ethnicity,” Ocampo said. “I am proud that my parents decided to get here for me to have a better life, for me to have a better future for my future children. Many immigrants want to come here for the American dream. In Mexico, the United States is pictured as this beautiful place where people make a lot of money. Wouldn’t you just want to leave everything behind if you had a bad life?”
Lonny Johnson, a politics teacher in the Selma Unified district, said this year’s presidential race has led to many teaching moments, but they are different – and more personal – than in past election years.
“The students used to think (Trump) was hilarious. But now there’s almost a fear of a Trump presidency – of what might happen,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of first generation and undocumented students, and this is very real for them. We talk about why this is happening, where his support is coming from, and also try to understand that these comments that Trump is making have impact. These are real people that are being talked about.”
67 percentFresno Unified students who are Hispanic
Fresno Unified school board member Brooke Ashjian is a staunch Trump supporter, often tweeting “Make FUSD Great Again,” a nod to the presidential candidate’s motto. He was set to say the Pledge of Allegiance at the Trump rally in Fresno on Friday and said that many reports about children’s concerns are due to “lies and deceit” from Democrats out to smear Trump’s name. Ashjian, borrowing words from the SPLC report, said it’s Hilary Clinton that causes him “fear and anxiety.”
“All the Hispanics I know, either legal or illegal, like Donald Trump. They are hardworking people. They go to work every day. They don’t like people on the welfare roll,” Ashjian said. “I’ve been supporting Trump for a long time. And that’s the farthest thing from the truth, that Trump is a racist.”
Miguel Ramirez, a 16-year-old Sunnyside High student, is a Trump supporter even though he thinks Trump is a racist. But Ramirez says he won’t be re-elected to a second term, and he won’t do many of the things he has so far pledged to do.
“I’m Mexican. I grew up in Mexico. He does talk bad stuff about my race, and I do get offended, but at the end of the day, we can’t change that. He’s going to say what he wants,” Ramirez said.
Carlos Calderon, an assistant professor of psychology at Fresno State, said parents and teachers should talk about cultural diversity in the U.S. and address children’s questions honestly.
“The campaign’s rhetoric appears to be exacerbating stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination among adults, and children learn and mirror these dynamics,” he said. “The most vulnerable group of children is those who fear that they or their family may be deported. Having a chronic fear of deportation is associated with a poor self-concept, which results in mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.”
Jonathan Terriquez, a 15-year-old student at Sunnyside High, said he’s worried how Trump’s comments have affected people’s perception of Mexican-Americans.
“Are people actually believing all this terrible stuff?” he said. “Donald Trump started as a joke, but then quickly got serious and became a problem. We can’t take the joke no more. We have to elect someone else.”