As a Salvadoran immigrant, mother and psychotherapist who has had the privilege of working with other immigrants since arriving in this country in 1999, I could have never, ever imagined the pain and suffering of so many children and families that I am witnessing and literally hearing in the news right now.
Like so many people, I’m finding it almost unbearable to hold the space in my heart and in my whole being for the level of racism, injustice and dehumanization I’m seeing aimed at the Latino community. It is also difficult to hold in awareness the possible repercussions on the physical and mental well-being of all the children who are being cruelly ripped away from their mothers and fathers.
Even before this crisis, I worked with immigrants as a therapist, conducting home visits and providing mental health services in community clinics. I have always thought that if others knew the immigrants’ stories — what they go through in their countries, the reasons why they come here and all the dangers and risks they take in hopes of providing a better life for their families — that it would be impossible not to view the families with compassion.
Some women are victims of rape, domestic violence or involuntary prostitution. Some children are kidnapped, abused and sent to beg for food or sell drugs at a very young age. Sometimes entire families are threatened by gang members because one family member refused to join the group or because he changed his mind and wants out or simply because you know them. In some areas of El Salvador, you can be murdered just because you are gay or because someone likes your decent-looking car.
I not only heard about these events in therapy, but I also wrote about them when I worked as a news reporter. I saw dead children and dead bodies left on the road, entire families killed. When people escape such terror, they also know the very real risk that they might ultimately be deported back to their home country. But for thousands of immigrants, seeking asylum in America is worth it compared to the risk of being killed in their countries.
When I see the now-iconic photograph by John Moore of the little Honduran girl crying while her mother is being searched by border patrol, I can see clearly that this could have been us — my daughter and me. For I can only think of the causes and conditions that made this loving mother travel for months with her child to this country. I was fortunate, but if I had been born in extreme poverty, with a lack of food and other resources, and lack of access to vital medical services and education, I too would probably have thought about risking my life and the life of my child. I too might have tried to cross the border.
I can see clearly that — just like me — this mother and her daughter want to live a life of joy, free from fear and scarcity. I can see that this mother is doing the best she can to achieve that. But what she gets for trying to survive is to be treated like an animal and her child locked in a “tender age shelter.”
What have we become? How do the president and his administration and supporters think that these children are going to cope with life after this new trauma? Crossing the border is already extremely traumatic for families, especially children. Families travel with only a few things; sometimes they don’t eat or drink water for days, or they see others die on the way here. The fear, the anxiety, the nightmares and the post-traumatic stress disorder that they develop, in many cases, take years and years to heal, if ever, assuming they are lucky enough to receive mental health treatment.
Not a day goes by that I am not grateful for the opportunities I have and the life I get to live with my family here in the United States. Life changes in ways that are unpredictable. One never knows if tomorrow we could be an immigrant in another country. I am trying hard to keep my heart open and with compassion toward everyone, even for the people who are blind to the suffering of others. Because I know we all want to be happy and free from suffering, no matter who we are.
I hope that together we can stand against this injustice and advocate for human rights. I hope that together we can stop the madness and keep families together. I hope the children can forgive us for letting this happen to them. I hope their hearts don’t close to the suffering of others, for our future is in their hands.
In the meantime, we can call Congress, join protests, donate to organizations working for this cause, volunteer our time and especially vote to not repeat these immoral acts. A recent article in the New York Times offers an excellent list of things we can do to help. Slate also keeps a comprehensive list, which is regularly updated. I’m speaking up now because I can’t remain silent anymore. I hope our voices will continue to ring out for justice.
Deborah Salazar Shapiro, MSW, is a psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, author and artist who was born and raised in San Salvador, El Salvador. She has been working with children and families for over 15 years. www.DeborahSalazarShapiro.com.