Immigrant communities in the United States have always been under siege and used as scapegoats, regardless of who was in power. Post September 11th it was the Muslim community (and those mistakenly lumped in whether Persian or Arabian). Before the most recent threats against Dreamers, women and children immigrating from Central American countries fleeing violence became targets for detention and deportation. The rhetoric during Trump’s campaign and the policies under his Administration effectively vilify anyone from Mexico. This has only escalated during his first year in office.
The current president campaigned on misguided fear, lies, bigotry and modern incantations of white supremacy. His campaign capitalized on the notion of the “white way of life” being threatened and that dominant white culture was threatened due to “out of control” immigration. Therefore, as states have seen shifts in demographics with more diversified populations, Trump ran on a narrative that unless whiteness prevailed, America would be “less great”. The “American Dream” of power and consumption is being threatened by people of color. Obviously he did well by harnessing this sentiment that fueled his electorate.
After his election the collective fear of a Trump administration was instant, especially in immigrant communities. The first thing my 4-year-old daughter (who is half Mexican) asked the morning after the election was, “who won?” When I said Trump, she asked if he was going to send her and her mother back to Mexico. I told her of course not (although I had the thought we might go willingly). When I dropped her off at school, where half of the students are Latino, the fear and concern was pervasive. Children were crying and parents were worried about what was to come. Several parents I spoke to said their elementary-aged school children were scared to come to school after the election. Again, these are kindergartners. Afraid to attend school. Because of a newly elected president. Allow that to sink in.
I feel confident that the Trump Presidency will be seen as one of the darkest times in American history. But we must see the implications of his hatred-fueled leadership as more than newsworthy events. His actions are creating a generation of traumatized children who will be grappling with the pain he has inflicted for decades to come. In January, an article in the Atlantic reported: “In her pediatrics practice in Winston Salem, North Carolina, Julie Linton has seen several young patients who she believes are psychologically suffering from President Donald Trump’s tough stance on immigrants.
One 9-year-old boy came in with headaches, which Linton said started when “he was being told in school that his parents would be sent back to their country of origin.” Another patient, a 15-year-old girl, began experiencing panic attacks in crowds because she feared she would be separated from her parents.” Many schools have reported an increase in bullying and the internet is flush with articles about parents and children adapting their daily activities out of fear of deportation. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be worried all day at school that when you get home one or both parents might be gone.
All of this is absolutely horrifying, particularly for those who are most affected. And although my white privilege protects me, my humanity and ability to empathize and think critically tells me that unless we change course, untold and irreparable harm is being caused to a vast number of people. And of those people, the most vulnerable are children. I worry about how this culture of violence, mainstreamed white supremacy and greed will negatively impact millions of immigrant youth from across the globe when they become adults. And here is where we need to think about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
ACEs is a framework developed by CDC Kaiser Permanente (more information here https://acestoohigh.com/aces-101/) According to the site acestoohigh.com, “ACEs are adverse childhood experiences that harm children’s developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later; they cause much of chronic disease, most mental illness, and are at the root of most violence”. Additionally, “people with multiple ACEs— including but not limited to living with an alcoholic parent, racism, bullying, witnessing violence outside the home, physical abuse, and losing a parent to divorce — have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and alcoholism among other issues.” An understanding of the ACEs is critical for service providers, mental health workers, schools and others working with youth.
Immigrant youth who experience racism, bullying, fear of deportation - (whether their own or loved ones), generational trauma within their families, depression or community violence, are all susceptible to an increase in their ACEs scores. And, according to the study, the more ACEs someone has, their chances increase exponentially for chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, violence and being a victim of violence.
It is well documented that the effects of domestic violence on children are profound. It is common for children who are exposed to domestic violence to experience developmental delays, neurologically and psychologically and to live in a constant state of fear. The exposure to domestic violence increases a child’s ACEs score, which in turn, increases the risk for future victimization and perpetration of violence as an adult (among a host of many other issues). There is now reason to believe that youth in fear of themselves or their parents being deported and those that are targeted and bullied at school for their perceived immigrant status are increasing their ACEs scores. Over 800,000 youth have been approved under the DACA program. They submitted substantial personal information to the federal government as a part of the application process. They have now been told that the program may nowendand they will no longer be afforded protected status. What kind of stress and fearmight that cause a young person? How might that affect someone’s schooling, relationships and sense of the future?
The most recent budget negotiations only stand to further this torment. These young people are being used as bargaining chips, and as if threatening their safety is not cruel enough, President Trump is using this as yet another opportunity to vilify their existence. This can be seen in many places, but of course most visibly on his Twitter when he commented: “Democrats are far more concerned with Illegal Immigrants than they are with our great Military or Safety at our dangerous Southern Border. They could have easily made a deal but decided to play Shutdown politics instead. #WeNeedMoreRepublicansIn18 in order to power through mess!” and “Democrats are holding our Military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration. Can’t let that happen!” As if his white supremacist base needed more provocation to hate.
It is important to note that I have focused primarily on immigrant youth, it goes without saying how other youth of color are faring in light of recent Neo-Nazi and KKK marches. Youth of color have always been at risk for higher ACE’s scores due to structural racism, i.e.well-documented health disparities, the school to prison pipeline, militarization of low income communities and structural inequity in access to basic human rights.
So what does the future of the U.S. look like? Based on the ACEs research, if we continue with the status quo, we are going to have generations of people with increased mental health challenges, addiction and substance abuse issues, whom are also prone to perpetrating and experiencing violence. If we want to see our youth grow into resilient healthy, well-adjusted adults there are a few steps we can take. First, we need to elect officials who will work for Immigration Transformation rather than Immigration Reform. The current system is beyond reform, it requires transformation. In the meantime, maintaining programs that are just and dignified require our advocacy and vigilance like DACA/DAPA and the clean DREAM Act. We must use our access to our elected officials to hold them accountable for the immigration-related legislation that they support. We need to focus on youth leadership development, particularly immigrants and youth of color. We must build coalitions in our communities with community members, service providers, school staff and law enforcement to ensure that all voices are heard. Diverse communities must feel that they are represented and have decision making power, and parents must feel safe with the various systems they interact with. Ultimately we must support an environment for all children that allows them to thrive, learn, develop their resiliency, and enjoy childhood. Their lives and our communities depend on it.