Parents can shield their children from only so much before they catch on that something is amiss. Sooner or later parents must have a talk with their children about an issue that is usually kept quiet.
For a countless number of Kern County families, parents who are in the country illegally confront the reality of telling their kids that one day they might come home from school and find mom and dad have been picked up and deported by immigration agents known as ICE.
"I just couldn't find the words to explain this to my teen-age son who was born here," said a Bakersfield parent who asked not to be named because of what he sees as increased ICE arrests.
He, a fieldworker, and his wife, a waitress at a popular local restaurant, came here from Zacatecas, Mexico, on a visa and stayed after it expired. They are working through an immigration attorney to see if they qualify to stay in the country.
"My son became extremely sad when we told him this. My son said, 'Dad, God willing, that's not going to happen to us.'"
But it is happening to many others. Given the current political climate fanned by the immigration rhetoric and policies of Donald Trump, ICE appears to be stepping up its enforcement actions in going after people who normally would not be considered a priority for deportation.
The talk that ICE would prioritize its efforts on only the most dangerous immigrants with criminal records was just that, talk. The reality is that all people in the country illegally are at risk of being snatched up on the street, handcuffed and hauled away.
Under an executive order Trump signed in January, an immigration judge could deport anyone in the country illegally if in the eyes of the court he or she is a threat to public safety. Just what does that mean?
Another local parent put it this way: "I feel so helpless, so impotent that we have not been able to resolve our situation."
Her husband runs a small business and is doing well to support her and their two small children, but fear they can lose everything with a stroke of bad luck should ICE come calling.
In light of what may happen, these and other parents are preparing for the worst should they get separated. They are signing affidavits under the California Family Code that states with whom their children are to be placed if the parents are deported.
Both parents I spoke with said they would not want their kids placed in foster care and are making arrangements for them to be left with other family members just in case.
And it's not just parents who are addressing this. Schools all over Kern County are encountering concerns from students, worries they have never seen before.
"There was a little girl on the playground and she was crying," said Ana Ruiz, principal at Del Vista Elementary School in Delano.
The third-grader approached her principal and said, "My mom and dad are at home!" The child feared ICE would go to her house and take them both away.
Ruiz's motherly instincts kicked in and assured the child all would be fine. In another instance, a student at Fremont Elementary School in Delano had a most pointed question for Principal Teresa Kushnyr:
"Is it true that they're going to come to school and they're going to take kids that don't have papers?"
That came from a second grader! The insightful question floored the principal. Her response?
"Over my dead body!"
Both Ruiz and Kushnyr said that whenever the issue comes up in class, students' feelings are acknowledged to calm their fears.
"We really believe our district to be very open with the kids and reassure children that they're safe," said Ruiz.
Students' fears about parents being suddenly arrested and deported are not unfounded. Just recently early one morning, two men waiting outside their home for a ride to work were picked up by ICE. Word quickly spread in the community, as one of them left six children and a wife behind.
Kudos to Delano Union School District Superintendent Rosalina Rivera for rallying her staff to aid the families by supplying food and other immediate needs. Actions like this speak volumes, as it lets parents and children know they are not alone in this most uncertain time. Hopefully other districts will take notice.
Along with Delano, Arvin Union School District and most recently Bakersfield City School District have declared all school sites in their districts "safe havens." This means the districts will not share information about a student's immigration status with the federal government, especially ICE, unless directed by a court order.
Nor will ICE agents be allowed on a school site unless granted permission by the district superintendent. Though some consider this a mostly symbolic gesture, parents have expressed their approval of this resolution.
I'm not holding my breath that the Kern High School District will also do this anytime soon. (Did I think that aloud?) But one other school district is going even further.
Sacramento City Unified School District was one of the first in the state to declare itself a Safe Haven district. SCUSD will distribute "know your rights" cards in multiple languages to all students and help coordinate immigration attorneys and providers of other resources to help these individuals at school sites.
District officials also want to reinforce a message that all students are welcome. The district will begin hanging up multi-colored banners and lawn signs at every school site with the message: “Safe Haven: ALL students are welcome.”
It will also run a series of ads and promotional videos on social media to underscore the contributions of students and families in the community who may not be here legally. Parents, teachers and community members will be encouraged to join the campaign by signing pledge cards in support of the Safe Haven effort.
It's a good message for parents wondering how to have the deportation talk with their kids. Said one, "I never thought this would ever happen."