Fifty years ago, my parents, two younger siblings and I migrated to the U.S. as refugees, after being granted political asylum. Unlike many other asylum seekers, my family was not facing imminent danger; my parents simply wanted to live in a society that allowed us to have the freedom to think and speak our minds.
We arrived in Miami after a short flight, with a suitcase full of clothing for each person and not much else. Had my parents arrived illegally by boat (something my dad considered but my mom vetoed), we would have been welcomed into the U.S., just as we were after our short flight. My family’s story is not unique. Many of our friends and family moved to the states or Puerto Rico under similar circumstances, some before us and others, years later.
But this is not the experience of many who are looking to enter the U.S. today, escaping from countries experiencing war and other forms of violence.
Over the past several months, our government’s decision to separate parents and children seeking to enter the U.S. through our southern border has received much attention from media, a multitude of social service organizations, legal advocates, and professional associations. Because of my training in psychology and understanding of the damaging impact of traumatic childhood experiences, I am horrified by this policy.
Research evidence continues to mount in support of a connection between adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and later mental and physical health problems. We know that children who are separated from caretakers experience anxiety and later problems regulating their emotions and forming relationships. For many of these children, these serious mental health issues will continue into adulthood and will likely lead to diagnosable disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide risk and many other negative health consequences.
Family separation and the government’s inability to re-unite many families is not the only problem with our immigration enforcement at our southern border. Plans to detain children with their parents, the growing number of asylum claim refusals and proposals to deny asylum applicants due process are equally disturbing and will further traumatize adults and children. Simply telling people that if they want to avoid mistreatment, they should stay away, will not work because many Central American immigrants today are motivated by fear and the desire to escape traumatic lives.
For me, a particularly disturbing piece of our current immigration enforcement is the dehumanizing language used by elected and appointed officials at the highest level of our federal government and the way the immigration issue is being used to further divide us.
This is not the first time I’ve had to come to terms with conflict between love for the U.S. and feelings of shame about our government’s behavior. I’ve also developed resilience in the face of discrimination, but I am concerned about how our current rhetoric of hatred will affect our youth. Research shows that youth who feel excluded are more likely to drop out of school and develop behavior problems. Hatred and divisiveness also hurt us all and threaten the fabric of our nation.
Rejecting and dehumanizing “the other” is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to the treatment of Latinx or Muslim immigrants in the U.S. today. Our history and our nation’s many examples of structural inequality bear witness to our tendency to categorize and discriminate. We also see similar anti-immigrant rhetoric elsewhere in the world, including Europe, but this is not a reason to accept things as they are.
As socially responsible practitioners we need to act. Get informed, protest, reach out to political leaders, and vote. Advocate by sharing your knowledge and volunteering with the American Psychological Association or other professional organizations to help at the border.
Beyond political advocacy and supportive service, as socially responsible practitioners, we need to focus on using our knowledge to help bridge differences and retain the ideal of WE THE PEOPLE. I strongly believe that our country’s future depends on our ability to fight hatred and divisiveness and defend the ideal of our common destiny.