As part of this idea of prevention, it becomes essential not to forget that the immigrant families are undergoing another forced separation, every day in our communities, as a consequence of enforcement of deportation of undocumented adults, who are the parents of children born in this country or reunited with them at a later time. Thus, these people are taken prisoner from work, or in their everyday activities, perhaps after a minor traffic infraction, and then locked away in detention facilities until the time court determines that they are to leave the country. Children usually have no opportunity to say good-by to their mothers or fathers and sometimes, they may end up court ordered into foster care, with the parental legal custody taken away. The emotional turmoil and pain this brings to the children and the parents is a tragedy, where the children become the innocent by-standers. Even though the government would like to enforce deportation only in cases of undocumented immigrants who have committed criminal offenses, in the real day to day, many people who have no records of such offenses end up deported and parents and children end up separated in a very painful way. (O’Neill, 2012) Thus prevention becomes the political activism of the Latino community, much as it has been with other immigrants before through history, and of its supporters. Hopefully these actions will prevent such unnecessary and inhuman deportations from happening, through persisting in their pressure to the government for an immigration reform that keeps families together in the absence of criminal offenses.
Theater/dance, poetry/song writing and visual arts are all wonderful means that can be utilized with the immigrant youngsters by creative professionals in the school system, or in programs in the community, to help them open avenues of expression to their concerns and painful experiences, as well as pride in their culture. Those experiences could be their losses of loved ones left behind: Psychologist Consoli et als. from the National Latina/o Psychological Association suggest for example a Memorial Wall of the family back home in the form of drawings, or essays, to exhibit in the classrooms, or the bulletin boards in hallways, to communicate the adults’ compassion for their losses, or, for their struggles adapting to a new culture and a new family, or the pains experienced on their road here. I know from my own experience in my school system, how teachers encouraged such stories, collected them and even made them into nice small books, in that way bearing witness to the feelings and giving them a place of importance. In addition, the stories became a tremendous education about the kids for the teachers themselves. The same group of psychologists suggests tying these stories to narrative therapy intervention to help children deal with traumatic experiences. As English is very limited for newcomers, perhaps the youngsters can record the stories in their native language with the help of a bilingual adult and then they can be translated, and “published” with the enclosure of the original, thus the result would be a bilingual product.
In the same spirit of prevention, there is a need to ask from the health authorities of the countries where the youth are coming from, so that they too can take a renewed interest in helping these families do it in a way that diminishes the impact of the separations. For example, aiding in the way the separation is explained to the child by highlighting the losses and sacrifices of the parent and how hard it was for that parent to leave the child. And in focusing on the youngster, stressing the need for him or her to be allowed to express his/her feelings of loss to the new caregiver, while helping them in the best ways to receive that expression so that the child finds comfort, such as offering a hug or sharing in their sadness, all of this as only a natural outcome of the separation and something that will subside in intensity with time. This kind of information is urgently awaiting wider dissemination back at home. Every time I watch a segment in the news about the parents in this country, who joined the armed forces and were sent to the war front and how they are provided with the means to communicate to their children left back home, by reading children books to them via Skype for example, my heart wishes that opportunity was available also to the immigrant parents who left young children at home. Would it be possible for clinics, libraries, churches, or some benefactor to pay for internet time in the internet cafes, for the caregivers to bring the children to be face to face with the parent who is away and listen to a story, either read or oral, or play a simple game with a puppet, or sing some old children’ s songs with that parent? Or, perhaps in the local community center or school in the USA, someone could assist and guide the parent to video tape such an exchange and then send it via internet? All of those extra efforts and care would make an important difference for both the parent and the child in allowing the bonding to keep alive, or at least not totally extinguished. Perhaps it would take a lot of hand holding and encouragement to engage the parents in a project like that, as it would be awakening painful emotions of loss. Perhaps they would benefit to hear that tears are OK, as in that way the child knows it is because they miss them and love them. And, of course the parents’ time is so taxed already; however, I can imagine that with the right encouragement it would become a great experience for the parent and the child. In fact, some immigrant parents who are more technologically savvy are already taking advantage of some of these tools on their own. However, it is still probably a minority.
What a wonderful idea: fun over the border!!! Americans and Mexicans playing volleyball over the border fence.
The reunited immigrant family trying to reestablish the lost bond is in great need of positive and relaxing recreational activities that they can do as a unit, where some guidance and structure may help them overcome any uneasy feelings. Like it has been mentioned before, some hard working immigrant parents may not have much experience with recreation in their lives, or models about doing it just for the fun of it. Their wholes lives and that of their families might have been one of just hard work, therefore they may need guidance and encouragement regarding the kinds of things that can be done in our cities for recreation with the kids; and that might be totally new to them and perhaps a bit scary. Field trips including parents, or special nights of family games are some possibilities that come to mind as possibly helpful in creating these kinds of positive experiences. An idea that might be helpful in motivating their participation and in them finding the time and energy in their stressful everyday lives may be one of creating new and joyful family memories for the child and themselves that will help in bringing them closer. And who knows, maybe they can try something fun and totally new….
The wonderful news is that dissemination of information is beginning to happen in different parts of the country, as for example, a pamphlet that was developed as part of a doctoral dissertation, giving service providers advice to help the mothers on what to do during the separation and during the reunification with the child. (Guerrero, 2005), and, as Dr. Falicov suggests (Falicov (2014), this same pamphlet, or a modified version could be made available directly to the mothers in clinics around the country. It is also evident in the reports of journalists telling the stories of the unaccompanied minors. In these, social workers from the Department of Human Services are portrayed as preparing a parent for the upcoming reunification with their child, who is being sent home after being in their care, by suggesting positive activities to try with the child. One could be for example a reunification party to celebrate the event, an idea suggested again by Dr. Falicov, (Falicov, 2014), and mentioned in one such story, provided the adults involved secure first the permission from the child to avoid causing any additional stress or discomfort. This provision is my suggestion, as I could envision a child or adolescent who is still grieving the separation from his/her caretakers and/or healing from the traumatic experience of crossing the border and who might not feel quite ready for a celebration. The most important thing to do with such a child is to deeply respect and provide a space for the child to express those feelings to the adults welcoming them in a caring unpressured fashion that fosters a sense of security and acceptance. Simultaneously, the parents need support and guidance in putting aside their fears of loosing the love of this child, but rather opening their hearts with patience and willingness to rebuild the relationship slowly, as it has been emphasized and detailed earlier.
Efforts at dissemination are present also in graduate students trying to develop psychoeducational materials as part of their course work and contacting this author/blogger for information. Allelluia!
Another very important instrument in disseminating information could be culturally relevant programs addressing the issue of family separation and reunification to be aired periodically in Spanish TV channels. In fact this has been done in the past in the Greater Washington DC area, as mentioned earlier. Articles in magazines and newspapers, which are popular with the Latino immigrants and other recent immigrant groups, could also help spread information. All of these materials would help not only present populations of youngsters coming to join their parents after a prolonged separation, but also they would help those youngsters who are now adults, moreover, at present, parents themselves. This population has shared with this author, when present now as adults, in workshops on immigrant family reunification, about their ongoing struggles with reconnecting with their parents because they too were separated for a long time. The emotional aftershocks of this separation in their lives and in their relationship with their parents remained still in their lives years after, as some of them stated. These issues connected with separation and trust could possibly affect their parenting and also their couples’ relationship, in perhaps unseen ways, as any unresolved issues affecting attachment to primary figures do for all of us. In fact, the hope of this author in writing this book is to inspire the creation of interventions and materials that can help parents and their children living at present, or having gone in their past through the reunification process and who perhaps still struggle with recovering from this emotional process of building their new relationship with parents. Materials such as pamphlets, short comic books depicting the family communicating in a healing and significant way, which could be waiting in strategic places like medical offices and community clinics where immigrants routinely go.
It feels quite impossible and shortsighted to begin talking about prevention from a counseling perspective without first acknowledging that there is a much larger picture that belongs in the hands of the governments involved both in the countries of origin of the immigrants crossing the border, especially when they are minors, as with the host country- the USA. The need for policies that support prevention of the separation of the family, as well as protection and alternatives for minors and families in environments plagued by violence, poverty and resulting family breakdown calls for a united effort that involves all sides of the equation. This also includes international organizations responsible for creating and overseeing policies and programs affecting refugees and immigrants and providing protection against human trafficking; moreover, religious organizations and the generous contributions by the private sector that can support child welfare agencies and shelters for women and children in the countries where these are insufficient or non- existent. The availability of legal counsel and adequate screening of minors in the immigration detention centers in order to prevent errors in due process that end up sending minors back into dangerous situations and preventing family reunification, as reported in the March 6, 20015 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Programs that can extend services to the adults and children who have been deported back into their countries and separated again from their families, or an expansion of existing efforts in that front, etc. etc. In a previous post in this blog, a statement was made underscoring the importance for people working with this population to examine the Report of the Committee on Migration of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (November 2013). This report makes these elements very clear and eloquently stated, coming up with many important suggestions. Furthermore, it adds information about some programs that are having positive outcomes in preventing minors from starting the dangerous journey to the north, as for example in one of this countries: Guatemala and, which are worth replicating in other countries and regions.
Thus, advocacy in all of these fronts is so needed for improvements to happen in terms of prevention. However, there are also some wonderful things happening and a lot of it has to do with change in the level of awareness on the media and the general population regarding the suffering of the immigrant families, as joyfully noticed by someone like me who has been involved with immigrants for many years. And, surprisingly perhaps for some, when one goes back in history, say the late 1800’s and beginning 1900’s and takes a look at the immigrants that built this country’s cities with blood, sweat and tears, under subhuman conditions of exploitation and discrimination, such as presented in the documentary The Italian Americans, (PBS), one can see that immigrants have never been dealt a very kind compassionate hand and the improvement of conditions came only after a lot of fighting for their rights. And this is probably true worldwide in many other countries.
There is a feeling of esperanza, or hope and gratitude as the new year starts. Some wonderful things have finally happened to the immigrant family with the new immigration reform, the first one in so many years. A road to peace of mind and finding a place in this society has opened to five million of them, who have lived in vicissitude for so long. Of course not all of them will be sheltered in this protective arm from the dangers of separation and total destruction of their lives through deportation (once again, the first: their initial departure) and, for some, it has come just too late. Nevertheless, many are now protected and what could be a more powerful healing gift than that protection for the immigrant family.
The gratitude is not only for a government that allows these changes to become possible, in spite of great opposition, but it goes beyond. It includes the tenacious education and creation of awareness of the general public by many courageous individuals who advocated, youth that marched and came out of the shadows, risking great dangers and wonderful reporters who with great sensitivity presented the real stories of these families again and again in the media. Finally, fear, mistrust and the resulting feelings of even hate became overcome by those of compassion and openness of heart and mind.
And now, as the new year gets rolling, the news of the administration’s guidelines in an open letter to the nations educators that highlight the civil rights of students learning English as a second language. Under the law and in compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, they are guaranteed targeted help and, as every other child in the United States, access to a high quality public education. The programs have to be “educationally sound in theory and effective in practice.” This not only protects their rights, but helps ensure well prepared adults that will become more successful as citizens of this country. In that way the future of this country as a whole is also ensured. Of course, this will be successful only as the public education system provides training, research and guidance to those smaller districts struggling with a population that is new to them. And perhaps if those districts who have years of accumulated experience in this matter share their knowledge and successes with them. And lastly, if the universities step in with their support in terms of research and resulting guidelines.
So, with hope and gratitude I am extending my best wishes for a great 2015 to all the readers and to the immigrants families in this country!