Mariana Folco | The immigration “problem”: lost voices in political reform
Guest Column | We need to hear immigrants' stories, not media soundbites
February 27, 2013, 8:36 pm·
The United States has often been referred to as a nation of immigrants, but the ongoing debate on immigration reform is quickly moving focus away from immigrants as people, in favor of immigration as a problem.
We often hear talk of immigration reform, immigration policy, immigration crisis — but what ever happened to immigrants themselves? When did they get taken out of the equation? Lately, the media’s favorite terms — “border security,” “crack down” and “illegal alien” — are thrown around in public discourse with minimal consideration of what actually happens to immigrants when they enter the country.
It was just two months before my fourth birthday when I lost my voice. I had just been plopped into a classroom surrounded by noise. Overwhelmed by my inability to make sense of the muffled sounds that seemed to come out of everyone’s mouths, I decided to keep mine shut for an entire year.
After a few months of living in a nonsensical haze, I learned that those sounds were English words. I had just moved with my family from Argentina, and although my young brain quickly learned the new language, I was overcome by disorientation and distance from my peers.
No one knew what was “wrong” with me. Why didn’t I speak? No one knew what to do with me. I quickly lost my identity as a kid and became a situation, a curious case or a mystery to be solved. Instead of recess, I spent time with the school psychologist. Instead of sharing funny jokes with my peers, I became a silent observer. Scared of judgment and ridicule, I kept my newly acquired and nearly flawless “American” English to myself.
The problem was not that I didn’t speak English. What I didn’t know back then was that I, just like 40,000 other foreign-born individuals living in the U.S., was caught in the third of three known distinct traumatic periods of immigration: the trauma in the country of origin that caused the departure, the trauma of leaving friends, family and possessions behind and finally, the trauma of the arrival and relocation process.
If we look at immigrants as victims of trauma instead of a burdensome group failing to contribute to the U.S. economy, society and high health care costs, we might actually get closer to addressing the psychological and physiological challenges of acculturation that immigrants face upon arrival.
Perhaps we need to learn something from our Canadian neighbors. Immigration in Canada is housed within the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, a title that leaves no doubt about its focus. This consideration of immigration as worthy of its own department has allowed the government to fund programs such as the Canadian Immigrant Integration Program, which prepares newcomers for economic integration in Canada before they even leave their country of origin.
Now let’s come back to Immigration in the U.S., which is housed within the Department of Homeland Security, the same department that handles terrorism. How can we begin to value immigrants as individuals or to explore the challenges they face on a daily basis when we continue to lump them with a violent group that poses a risk for the safety of the country?
If we continue to talk about immigration as a problem, we will perpetuate the dehumanization of immigrants, and political discourse will never change its path. Only when we begin to examine immigrants as individuals — to take a magnifying glass on the single stories of immigrants who struggle to find their voice amidst a whirlwind of change — can we properly begin to support the mental health and well-being of this growing population. Only then can we recognize that those behaviors we frequently jump to classify as phobias or developmental delays may in fact be the direct result of the lack of programs to support immigrants during a period of transition.
Much like in Canada, the U.S. government must ideologically and financially back up the creation and implementation of programs to help newcomers navigate the challenges of the new culture, provide a safe space to share experiences and questions, overcome culture shock and identify signs of trauma.
Our perspective on immigration shapes our policy and our programs. In order to provide the necessary support for immigrants, we need to alter the way we view and discuss immigration as a culture. Only then will we properly integrate immigrants and appreciate the wealth of knowledge, culture and diversity for which the U.S., a nation of immigrants, is known.
Mariana Folco is a second-year Master of Social Work student at the School of Social Policy & Practice. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.