In Florida, the 'Trump Effect' Strikes Fear in Immigrant Children

'Will they come to our house at night and take us away and make us leave America?' the author's six-year-old wants to know, as the swing state's votes hang ominously in the balance.

A young girl listens to U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally in Tempe, Arizona, on November 2, 2016.
A young girl listens to U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally in Tempe, Arizona, on November 2, 2016. Jewel Samad, AFP

We’re lingering at the dinner table on a Friday night while the kids build a castle of magnetic tiles on the floor. My 6-year-old son comes back to the table.

“If Donald Trump is elected,” he asks, “will they come to our house at night and take us away and make us leave America?”

My husband and I look at each other, speechless. We know we’ve entered the stage where your kids are listening to everything, absorbing more than you think.

My son is aware that he, his sister and his father were all born in Israel; America is a place we moved to only a year ago. I obtained citizenship for my kids soon after they were born, and my husband became a naturalized American citizen in 2006.

I try to explain these concepts to my son: we’re actually citizens here and no one can “make us” leave. But somewhere along the line, my son has come to understand that Trump hates immigrants and that he’s promising to deport millions of people in America who come from elsewhere. So that includes us, right?

Good luck trying to describe “undocumented” to a kindergartener. The other day, my daughter, a preschooler, told me that Trump will build a big wall and then put all the people who aren’t American behind it, where they can’t get out.

It turns out that what my kids are experiencing is not off the charts. It’s part of a phenomenon called the Trump Effect, which has been documented extensively by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Alabama.

Their bottom line: “Our report found that the campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported.”

Of course, my children aren’t targeted minorities, are in no danger of being kicked out, or at this point, bullied for who they are.

But teaching at a large state university in Florida, I’m around students who do face that prospect every day. Some of them are in school thanks to amnesty programs created by President Obama – amnesty Trump vows to end if he’s elected on Tuesday.

Some have been able to stay in college only because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), also referred to as the Dreamers’ Act. Some of them are trying to become legal, but it’s not an easy process – and not available to everyone.

The status of at least 200,000 students who fall into this category became such an issue across Florida that the state legislature in 2014 passed a law mandating that state universities charge these undocumented students in-state tuition, about a third of the cost of what out-of-state students are charged, to make it more feasible for them to stay in school.

Still, some wonder if they’ll manage to graduate, or be deported soon after graduation. Others might manage to stay, but fear for the parents who brought them here. The prospect of a Trump win is especially worrying for people who are undocumented, says one student at Palm Beach State College.

“It’s like, I get it America, you don’t want me here,” says M. Diaz, who came to the U.S. from Colombia as a child, only learning in her teens that she was considered illegal.

Earlier in the semester, one my own students arrived to class a half hour late. “Sorry, I was in court,” the student said.  “I just got my citizenship.”

The class burst into applause. I read it as a collective sigh of relief for her, as if to say, we’re glad to know at least you won’t be deported. It was moving, and yet since then, the unspoken tension in the room when I bring up Trump is palpable.

I estimate from conversations and anonymous polling I’ve done in class that around 40% of my students are Trump supporters. It means I have to work hard to stay “balanced,” to not bash Trump too blatantly in class so as to make students feel humiliated for supporting the Republican candidate.

When we do get a conversation going, it’s striking how strongly the support breaks down along racial and gender lines. The students speaking out for Trump – or quick to repeat Trumpisms about sending Hillary to prison -- are always white and male.

The women and minorities tend towards Hillary but don’t speak with as much confidence and vigor. Recent polling at Florida Atlantic University’s BEPI, the Business and Economic Polling Initiative, indicates that Trump has a 17% lead in Florida with white voters.

It’s a Friday and I’ve decided to cover a Clinton rally in Coral Springs, not far from where I live. Clinton and Trump have been campaigning in Florida intensively because it’s critical swing state, one which carries 29 votes in the electoral college.

With polls showing Clinton no more than 1% ahead of Trump, a statistically insignificant lead, it’s effectively a dead heat and the campaigns see the state as very much up for grabs.

While we wait for Hillary to arrive, I wander around to find out what people are thinking. One of the first people I meet is Heidi Herborn, a local volunteer on the campaign who immigrated to the U.S. from Chile. For the last two months she’s been registering people to vote, many of them Latinos who will do so for the first time.

“Trump is making fun of us,” says Herborn. “Every time he says something nasty about us, more Hispanic new citizens find their way straight to us,” she says, adding that she prefers using this term – new citizens – to immigrants. This may be a nation built on immigration, but the very word has taken on a more negative connotations than ever, thanks to Trump.

I strike up with conversations with more people with reason to feel a sense of urgency about keeping Trump out of office – oh, and getting Clinton elected: Latinos, Haitian-Americans, Jews and a few plain-old Americans who don’t hyphenate.

But my most fascinating conversation is with a striking young woman named Sameerah Hingoo. A college freshman hoping to go into medicine, Hingoo says that since Trump declared his candidacy last year, things got more uncomfortable for her and her family.

“I’m a Muslim and I’m terrified of Trump,” says Hingoo, who was born in the U.S. to parents who immigrated from Pakistan.

“In my senior year of high school, after Trump said there should be a ban on Muslims, kids in school starting saying, ‘Yeah, let’s put Muslims in concentration camps.’” It was terrifying, she says, but since no one challenged them, she didn’t want to do it on her own.

Meanwhile, in recent months her family has been surprised to see many friends in their neighborhood and social circles express support for Trump. When friends you thought you knew well think Trump is a good candidate for president, well, it has a way of changing a friendship in this election.

“You just feel so put off when you see that, like, a Trump sign on a neighbor’s lawns,” she added. Hingoo also worries about her boyfriend, a Hindu-American serving in the military, would be more likely to be deployed in a war overseas due to what she views as Trump’s belligerent personality.

We decide to vote early, not waiting for Election Day. At first, I was reluctant to do this because I thought it would be just like voting absentee, which I’ve done from overseas in every presidential election for the past 20 years. But I came to realize that the states that offer early voting are pushing this to alleviate the crush of people lining up on Election Day itself. 

And, the numbers could provide a morale boost to your embattled candidate or the undecided. As of Saturday, there was heavier voter turnout in Florida among Democrats than Republicans – but only by about 7,000 people, according to CNN. But it’s probably too early to draw conclusions, and Trump has been edging closer to or beyond Clinton in several other swing states.

In line at the library, I look at other people and size them up as inconspicuously as possible. Something about the fit of the belted jeans, the shirts, the workboots, the body types, tell me the two guys in front of me are for Trump.

I listen to the Spanish-inflected conversation behind me and think, yes, probably Hillary. I’m ashamed at my blatant stereotyping, and yet am aware that most of us are doing exactly this – anxious about whether our neighbors are voting the unthinkable.

We go inside and are directed to sit down to have our IDs checked. The older African-American man behind the desk takes my driver’s license, and seeing that I’m with my kids, gives them a little pep talk about how great it is that they’re here. “This is important for your future,” he says.

“In a democracy we get to decide.” As we move up in line, a polling station volunteers calls out loudly, “We have a first-time voter!”

The woman, a new citizen, looks out a bit bashfully. She’s met with mild applause, nods and smiles. Some just stare. We hand in our ballots and run them through a machine similar to one of those huge old Scantron machines that grade exams done in No. 2 pencils.

Now, we will wait and see if we as a nation have passed the test.