A Counselor Visits the US/Mexico Border By Judith Bachay, PhD on 10/25/18 - 2:06 PM

He sat nestled on a chair, clinging to his father. His quivering 6-year-old body told its story with every tortured word uttered by the man who tried his best to protect him. His father recounted the death of his wife at childbirth and of the life he had created for his beloved son, which included a small business and a supportive community. He recalled how one of his friends and fellow business owners had shared with him that the Mara (a violent predatory gang) had demanded a monthly payment and that he had refused. Two days later, the boy had opened the door to their apartment only to see the mutilated lifeless body of the man who had dared stand up to the gang. Later that evening, the boy’s father was visited by the very same gang who had killed his friend, and who now demanded the same payment from him. They threatened to kill both father and son if the extortion was denied.

Try as I might to engage the child as his father’s pain became more palpably agonizing, he clutched the man even tighter. The father continued telling his story to a pair of young pro-bono law students surrounded by a throng of legal advocates and other fathers recently reunited with their children. He recounted how after the threats, he had gone to the police for help and was assured of his safety and confidentiality. The next night, the child was awakened by the sight of his father being brutally beaten by both the gang members and the police. Desperate and frightened, the boy ran to the neighbors who united to save his father. With borrowed money, father and son fled the very next day. With coyotes on their heels, the journey to safety ended as he held his son aloft to protect him from the bone chilling cold of the Rio Grande.

Amidst the screaming of the men in uniforms, who flashed guns in their faces, father and son were arrested, violently separated with the sound of “How do you like your American dream, now amigo”? Two months later, the father was reunited with the boy at a Texas ICE Detention facility, awaiting probable deportation and the certainty that if he and his son were deported, he would be eagerly greeted by the Mara and killed, leaving his young son alone. If the boy remained in the US and he returned home, his boy would surely be orphaned.

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This story of human beings fleeing from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador was repeated over and over, replete with the most horrific violence imaginable. I thought that I had been prepared for this by my work as counselor in Greece where I bore witness to the trauma incurred by unaccompanied child refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones. I thought I had been prepared by my years of counseling experience, but nothing prepared me for the trauma inflicted upon these helpless children by the United States policy of family separation. I accompanied law school students and faculty who were deeply affected by the inevitable experience of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.

In retrospect, I don’t believe that any educational or clinical knowledge would have adequately prepared any of us for what we encountered. ICE Detention Facilities and places where children are housed separated from their parents, are epicenters of disregard for human dignity, human rights and the immoral infliction of generational trauma on thousands of children. As mental health practitioners, we know this to be true. As lawful people we know this to be unjust. As decent human beings we know this to be immoral.

Mental health practitioners may be completely unaware of a client’s legal status because survival requires invisibility. A child may ostensibly be referred for depression, anxiety or behavioral problems, but be struggling with the pain of separation from their caretakers. Therapists need to learn the intricacies and ever-changing landscape of immigration and asylum that potentially impact their clients, whether directly or indirectly touched by the border separations. Even an otherwise healthy and intact family may in the blink of an eye be devastated by the breadwinner’s arrest and imprisonment. Therapists need to help their affected clients to identify coping skills and obtain grounding in extant and emerging pathways to the assessment and treatment of trauma. The world’s most vulnerable and most invisible will evoke an abiding respect for their unimaginable strength and resilience. If you believe in the inviolable right to the dignity and you are willing to walk the journey together with humility and heart, your client will experience love made visible through a shared humanity.   

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections