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For Separated Undocumented Immigrants, The Trauma Doesn’t End After Being Reunited

This woman suffered generational trauma from family separation, so she went to the border to help children who were detained.

All photos courtesy of Araceli Cruz.

What motivates you to help someone? Is it a feeling of guilt, sadness? A combination of both?

For Charlotte and Dave Willner, who saw a photo of a crying little girl standing between border agents and her mother, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, the feeling was empathy.

“When we look at the faces of these children, we can’t help but see our own children’s faces,” Charlotte told The Mercury News. Rather than succumbing to the helplessness they felt, they got proactive. On June 16, they launched what has become Facebook’s highest-grossing fundraiser for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).

Although RAICES isn’t the only organization working to reunite the thousands of children that were separated at the U.S./Mexico border under our government’s — now-defunct — “zero-tolerance policy,” they are by far the most recognized and well-funded.

The world was left aghast over the situation at our border, and photo after photo of what these children are going through has provoked a vast national outcry. Celebrities and politicians have shown up at child detention centers or called out the Trump administration on social media. Others have donated a surplus of items such as diapers, soap, and toys — anything to show these families kindness and bring awareness to the harrowing atrocities that our government has caused.

For Alicia Cruz, my sister, the matter of immigration is a bit more personal. She too was left in tears after seeing the pictures of the children in Texas, and just like the Willners, she also felt helpless. But Alicia, a mental health worker in San Francisco, understands what these undocumented kids are facing and what they will endure for the rest of their lives.

“[This separation] is now imprinted on their body,” Alicia says. “It’s in their system. It’s going to be passed on.”

This is known as transgenerational trauma — trauma that is transferred from one generation of survivors to the next and further generations of their offspring. People with transgenerational trauma include those who have endured the things like the aftermath of slavery, the Holocaust, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City. It also can affect those that have faced injustices.

As descendants of immigrants who were wronged by the U.S. government, my family and I suffer from transgenerational trauma dating back the Mexican Repatriation of the late 1920s and ‘30s, when my great-grandmother was illegally deported.

In the ‘60s, my parents came to the U.S. looking for work. Although they entered legally, their struggle was similar to that of the thousands now trying to immigrate here in search of a better life for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, my parents had to leave my three eldest siblings behind in Mexico for about a year while they situated themselves in the U.S. My mother, who was 8 months pregnant with my older sister Alicia, had no idea what her rights were at the time.

My siblings were very young during this period, but the aftereffects of that separation are still present in our family today as anxiety, resentment, and other mental health issues.

Alicia knows full well that just because these children are being reunited doesn’t mean their trauma is over. In fact, it’s just beginning.

She says it wasn’t just her willingness to help that motivated her to help these families, but a spirit much stronger: “Our ancestors were saying, ‘You are gonna go.’”

And go she did, but not before contacting about 50 organizations trying to find out how to help the separated families. RAICES was the only one that returned her calls. While the organization has several volunteer legal aids, they didn’t have mental health specialists. Alicia went to fill that void. She launched her own fundraiser and raised enough money for her and two other women — including my eldest sister — to travel to San Antonio and help.

Geovanie Ordoñez, RAICES volunteer coordinator, says that more than 200 volunteers have helped the organization throughout Texas, including dozens of individuals volunteering remotely from across the nation.

Part of Alicia’s duties included providing Spanish-language translation between families and the lawyers, as well as training.

“I offered RAICES staff a training on how they can help parents and children in this process using a mental health lens,” Alicia says. “For example, I gave them easy tips on how to assist a parent that might become overwhelmed when retelling their story. I also provided psychology education regarding the impact of family separation on both child and parent as well as [the] impact of retelling acute trauma at this early stage.”

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