by Virginia Leigh
My outward working life is as a clinical social worker in school based health centers in Lynn MA. My inward work is as a mother of two Chicana daughters not yet in school. In both of these vocations these days, my heart aches and breaks, rages and cracks open to learn of the separation of families on the border. I lived for several years on the US/Mexico Border in Ciudad Juarez Chih., MX, and El Paso, TX. Listening to the radio, I can picture the landscape, the dust, bright hot sun, the international bridges and the eerie juxtaposition of these two border cities kissing each other along a dirty murky river. Cities so close they should be one, but separated by concrete, barbed wire, bureaucracy and Racism. I started my family there, meeting my husband in Juarez, and I continue to visit each year to see our relatives and friends.
Let me be clear that these acts are state sanctioned terrorism inflicted on the most vulnerable of our fellow humans. The strategy of ripping families apart has been our long standing legacy as a nation since the founding of the country. From the abduction of native children from their parents as we stole land, to the “family based” slave trade of African peoples, to our child welfare and protection system; we have capitalized on the terror and desperation created when we take children from their mothers and fathers and hide them away in places unknown for indefinite periods of time. Using the profoundly biological and spiritual bonds of family as a tactic for control, deterrence and manipulation of black and brown people is and has always been the worst of our calamitous acts as a nation.
Up here in MA, I see the effects of the current climate on my patients. Young people working full time and attending school, reporting nightmares, insomnia, panic attacks, depression. Worst of all, I hear my young clients questioning more and more their worth as human beings under the current regime. One student asked me the other day “Do you think it’s ok for me to go to college? You know, since I’m an immigrant?” Another student who has struggled to graduate manages the impossible challenges of full time night work, school and attending to her many complex medical and mental health problems associated with her life being sexually trafficked. These brave and motivated individuals are not the exception, they are the rule.
As social workers in clinical settings we live so deeply into the individual lives of our clients, learning their fears and worries, hopes and encouraging their dreams. And we are beside ourselves when we think of our students or any other child being ripped from parents arms screaming for the comfort of their family. I hear over and over again from my colleagues that we are in the “trenches” each day doing the micro work, and I sense that we struggle to find our macro voice in all this chaos. Sometimes hearing the news fires us up into action and for others I think we allow ourselves a pass; because we do important individual work, we give ourselves permission not to consider what our wider impact could and should be. And we are tired, very very tired.
But we cannot hide behind our professional identities and our day jobs as a reason not to act here and now, by organizing, calling our reps, educating ourselves, donating, volunteering, and agitating using whatever privileges we poses to eradicate the current administrations assault on human rights and family relationships. We are, in fact, in the perfect positions to speak the truths we learn from our experience with students and to encourage and support our clients in doing the same.
For many years I have spoken with other white people about our racist history in this country. And I often hear the response, “I cannot be held at fault for the acts of my ancestors.” The ways in which the administration is rounding up law abiding immigrants, systematically breaking federal immigration and humanitarian laws, racially profiling, and inciting hatred among its base; is the HERE and NOW. We are in a marathon fight with consequences that will last for decades if not more, especially as we know so well, in the lives of the children currently separated from their families. This, despite the recent executive order which says nothing about the thousands of children currently separated. We must remember that our signatures, our names, our legacies are fused with this moment in time. Our circles of care must extend beyond our own families, clients, and our work day. We must develop ways to simultaneously act out, agitate, learn and resist while also finding joy in the act of living. It is a long road ahead, but if we as “helpers” stand silent now expecting others to take up the larger fight, WE are the ancestors that our future generations will judge so harshly and work so frantically to distance themselves from. Our freedom spiritually, culturally, politically is inextricably tied to the freedom of the families on the border and in every ICE detention facility across the country.
Virginia Leigh is a therapist fighting the good fight in a school based health center in Massachusetts.