By Patricia Campos-Medina
After a presentation at a college conference, a young college student named Lucia (not her real name) came up to me and asked if we could talk for a few minutes. I love talking with young Latinas so I was glad to sit down with her over a cup of coffee at the student lounge. I thought she wanted to discuss the class, but instead she said she had just one question for me. With tears in her eyes, she thanked me for sharing my story and asked me simply, “How did you make it through college when you had just arrived to the USA? Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong here.”
She began by telling me that just like me, she had arrived to the United States at the age of 15 years old, after living for many years with her grandmother who raised her because her mother left for the United States when she was an infant. She talked about her pain of being left behind, her shock upon arriving to a new country many years later and reuniting with a mother she no longer felt connected to. She talked about missing her grandmother and wanting to go back and about the trauma of being a teenager and not fitting in at an American school. Immediately, my heart began to ache not just because listening to her story took me back to mine but because I knew that her story, 27 years after mine, was the same for thousands more immigrant children who are separated from their parents today.
In the United States right now, thousands of Central American children are housed in detention camps waiting for a judge to decide whether they can reunite with their parents. Thousands more are leaving their countries crossing the border alone and scared. They are children and teenagers who are escaping poverty and gang-violence in their home countries, but who are also trying to reunite with their parents who they have not seen for decades.
For most immigrants, it is common for a mother and a father to migrate to the United States and leave their kids behind in the care of a relative. But for Central Americans and Mexican children, the story of long-lasting separation from their parents has been a fact of life for several generations. According to recent studies, 96% of Central American immigrant children in schools in the US today have been separated from at least one parent, and 80% of them from both parents.
The same studies also demonstrate that this separation has long-lasting psychological and developmental implications in family relationships long after the family has reunited in the United States. Young children who experience separation from their parents experience emotional distress that impacts behavior and their ability to form healthy adult relationships. It also leads to lower educational attainment and higher drop out rates. Other studies link the appeal of gang activity to the lack of strong family structures that can offer the sense of belonging that gangs offer to young teenagers.
Given the lack of a solution for our ongoing immigration crisis in the United States, tackling the issue of family reunification and the long-lasting psychological impacts of it on Central American children seems daunting. Adding to the problem is the increase of deportations of parents of US-born children who are now forced to separate when an undocumented parent is deported back to their country of origin. In this sense, forced deportations are increasing the number of Latino children in the USA who are growing up without a strong family unit.
The DREAMers struggle to fight for their parents right to stay with their families is indeed a worthwhile fight since it has repercussion not just for their immediate lives, but for the future of a strong Latino family unit.
Just like the DREAMers are fighting to keep their families in the US together, we need to fight to advance a solution that eliminates the pushing factors that force parents to leave their kids behind. During my migration in the 1980’s, war tore families apart. Today poverty and gang violence continues to drive the push north in search of safety and opportunity.
As the richest country in the hemisphere, the US has a responsibility to invest resources in the Central American region and incentivize economic growth. But doing so, needs long-term vision for a regional economic growth plan that prioritizes human beings over business interest.
President Obama’s Partnership for Growth in Central America is a good start, but it needs to be focused on working with local governments and institutions to address poverty and job creation. As Latinos in the US who fight for immigration reform, we must also fight for a foreign and trade policy in Central America that prioritizes economic growth so that families can choose to stay together in their homes, rather than choose a dangerous path north.
Lucia’s story is not unique, but it is exceptional because it exemplifies what drives America’s ethos as the land of opportunity. After being separated from her mother since she was an infant, she finally reunited with her and attended high school in NJ. She graduated and is currently a student at the School of Public affairs at Rutgers University. Like many other immigrants, she is determined to succeed and wants to use her education to help her family and her community. She is struggling to fit in, but she is determined to get good grades and get a job in her field. He story demonstrates what fuels economic growth in the US today; the talent of immigrant children who are highly motivated and want to prove they can succeed despite the odds against them.
After listening to her story, I told her that I was certain she would succeed and that she already knew the answer to her own question. How did I succeed in college? I was determined to graduate, because just like her, I wanted to prove that I could succeed in America. Along the way, I found people who wanted to help me and grabbed on to their support. Finally, after a long period of friction, I reconnected with my mother and I learned to forgive her because I knew deep in my heart that her decision to migrate was the only solution she had available at the time. She left to build a better life for her children and because of her I am now able to build a totally different life full of opportunity for my children.
As we celebrate the holidays, stories like Lucia should give us hope that immigrant children are resilient and will meet the challenge of force separation with creativity and determination. The DREAMers #NOT1MORE deportation campaign is an example of youth taking risk and challenging the status quo on behalf of their parents. Their example should inspire adults to be bolder and demand concrete solutions for the crisis in Central America.
And for me, I was glad I spent time with Lucia. Her story is my story and the story of many immigrant children today. We must acknowledge them and build a narrative that reminds politicians that our current immigration crisis is at the core a human crisis.
For more information on the Central American Children Refugee crisis and how to help visit https://www.gcir.org/childrefugeesmigrants. For more information on the #NOT1MORE deportation campaign, visit http://www.notonemoredeportation.com
Patricia Campos-Medina is a labor leader and leadership development professional. She currently leads the Union Leadership Institute at the Worker Institute at Cornell University in NYC. She immigrated to the United States in 1988 from El Salvador at the age of 15 years old.