The psycho-emotional impacts of immigration on our children

Dr. Conde-Frazier, author of a new book on how to care for the psycho-emotional state of the children of immigrants.

Culture shock, role reversals, traumas from being torn from their parents by ICE raids, internalized anger: these are among some of the pychological issues that many children of Latino immigrants are being affected by.  Because oftentimes many of these immigrant families have had very little or no access at all to healthcare either here in the U.S. or at their countries of origin, these are issues that are hardly ever recognized, let alone addressed or treated by professionals.  Not surprisingly, these topics are equally hardly ever being talked about in our Spanish language media, let alone in the English language media outlets.  A new book, Listen to the Children, Conversations with Immigrant Families, seeks to address these important topics.  Project Economic Refugee recently had the opportunity to interview the author of the book, Dr. Conde-Frazier to give a little more insight into what the book seeks to accomplish.

10 Questions with the author of the new bilingual book, Listen to the Children, Conversations with Immigrant Families.

PER: Dr. Conde-Frazier, thank you for taking the time to answer Project Economic Refugee’s questions to help us better understand the psycho-emotional impacts that immigration has on the health of the children involved in the immigrant experience.  Your new book is just fascinating to me because it is the first time that I have seen anything like this, drafted as a guide that gives such practical and useful advice to parents, caregivers, social workers, clergy, etc., on how to minimize the negative psycho-emotional impacts that immigration has on children.  It is definitely an ignored topic that has received very little if any “mainstream” attention in the U.S.

You speak of how oftentimes a series of events transpire that create a sense of crisis for many of these immigrants and so they are left with the one choice they never wanted to make: to uproot their families to seek a better life somewhere else.  It is NOT an easy decision, yet it is portrayed otherwise in our national discussion on immigration policy, especially when it comes to our TV news and radio talk show media coverage of this topic.  Why do you think that is? 

Dr. Conde-Frazier: First of all we need to ask: who is producing these programs?  Who owns these media networks?  There is much self interest involved in this.  Free trade agreements benefit big business but not the average worker in any of the countries.  This is how jobs are outsourced and the cost of local products cannot compete with imports.  Having an informed public about these issues is not good for business.  Instead, we choose a scapegoat; we objectify a group of persons and project upon them the blame and our frustrations.  To do this we must portray them not as real persons that we can identify with but as those who are negative elements and influences in society that we need to eliminate.  A loving parent making a heart wrenching decision to leave children and spouse as the better of two evils- watch them starve or leave them in order to ensure their survival- is not the image that will allow us to continue to project negativity upon them. 

PER: The title of your book is “Listen to the Children, Conversations with Immigrant Families”.  Why did you think it was important to, as you put it “listen to the children of immigrant families” in the first place?

Dr. Conde-Frazier: There have been as you mentioned before, too many confusing images and misinformation about the topic of immigration.  It is a complex subject.  We have become so immersed in its complexity and controversy that we have forgotten the most vulnerable and the innocent who pay the highest price, the children.   In so doing we not only dehumanize them but ourselves in the process.  Furthermore, their innocence begs us to discuss the topic within the parameters of human rights.   It is a reality check of the condition of the conscience of our nation.  It makes us go back to the values we say we represent to the world as a nation and ask if we are accountable to them ourselves.  The stories of the children bring out a reality about the situation and of ourselves that helps bring us back to a place of integrity and creativity and commitment to dealing with the real complexities involved.

PER: The voices that you are able to personify in your book reveal a striking level of identification and intimacy with this particular subject; why were you able to connect so closely to this issue?

Dr. Conde-Frazier: While my parents came to this country as citizens because they were Puerto Ricans, nonetheless we were members of an immigrant groups that has been discriminated against and the journey has some similarities.  The decision making process, the distance of family members until one can become established, the role of the child in leading the family in a new country are things I experienced first hand.  However, the added layer of being a person who is alternately documented, who must enter under very precarious circumstances and then live in invisibility with the threat of deportation and constant injustice is something I learned about by walking with parishioners as pastor and then as a professor of pastors and lay persons who were deeply involved with immigrants or themselves experiencing these harsh realities.  Over the course of thirty years I became very acquainted with them and I internalized them.  It was very difficult to write these stories for they were very real.

PER: While your treatment of this topic has a very practical quality to it and is definitely nondenominational, it does start by classifying a spiritual dimension as basic for human health and in each chapter you open with a quote from the Bible.  What was your intention in taking such an approach?

Dr. Conde-Frazier: As I mentioned in the book, the spiritual roots of a person are a source of strength and resiliency.  However, in the western world we do not openly speak of this so that many of the resources out there right now for social workers, teachers and others who work with immigrant children leave the topic out all together.  This does not represent the fullness of reality and it is a disservice to those who need to engage this dimension of life when working with persons.  While it is my intent to respect the diversity of religious expressions represented by immigrants in our country, I also needed to model how one could use the resources of a religious tradition.   To do this in a genuine fashion I decided to use the sources of my own religious tradition, Christianity.  The Bible has also been at the root of many of our nation’s foundational documents.  The values of the Judeo-Christian tradition have informed our legal and ethical codes.  I thought it would be appropriate for the book to quote from this rich resource.  
PER: The book mentions in passing that some U.S. born children of immigrant parents are not able to participate in government-funded childcare centers.  Can you clarify why that is?  Is it because there are laws that discriminate against these children or simply because their parents are too afraid of deportation and so they try to keep their entire families “invisible”?

Dr. Conde-Frazier: A parent is the most important person in a child’s life.  The cohesiveness of a family is a great resource for a child’s development.  Anything that could present a potential threat to cohesiveness by separating parent from child demands that one make a decision that only those who face such a threat can understand. The law may not discriminate against the child but if it discriminates against the parent then in essence it does discriminate against the child because the parent is the most important resource in that child’s life.  We think so much as individuals that we fail to see the full picture of families and we end up tearing at the fabric of a family making it impossible to cover the child with the law or the resources we had originally hoped to provide.  We need an integrated approach.
PER: You give immigrant parents much needed insight into the psycho emotional impact that migration has on their children but at times you also seem to address U.S. community-based organizations that offer support services to migrants, giving them advice on how these groups could be more proactive and responsive in their humanitarian work.  Who did you initially have as an audience in mind for the book and why? 

Dr. Conde-Frazier: I began by thinking about the children and then asked myself who and what were the most influential forces in their lives.  I used Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological perspective of development to guide me.  He includes the family and institutional forces that shape a person’s life.  This gave me the big picture.  We need a holistic approach.  It does take a village to bring up a child.  This then broadened my audience.   

PER: When speaking to the common occurrence that occurs out of necessity of children having to interpret and translate English language conversations for their parents, you warn that sometimes these throw the child into very adult situations that they should not be dealing with at such young age.  It was extremely illuminating to see how you point to the parent-child role reversals where the authority of the parent is undermined because the child becomes the adult at those moments and the children are sometimes robbed of their childhood.  As a potential solution, you basically advise the parent to find alternates to getting help in translations but you stay away from explicitly telling the parents to NOT use their kids as interpreters.  Does this speak to a larger institutional need to raise awareness in immigrant parents to warn them of the potential harmful effects of using children as interpreters?   

Dr. Conde-Frazier: The awareness is not only for the parents but for all of us who play leadership roles in the institutions that families need to use- medical, education, etc.  Those of us in leadership have the power to make real differences. 

PER: If I may quote from your book for a moment, you had the following observation regarding the communication dynamic that evolves in the relationship between the immigrant parent and the child:

Children may still speak the ethnic language at home, but their skills in the first language typically begin to lag behind their skills in English. Often children begin to communicate by mixing the two languages, which means parents and children are no longer communicating the fullness of their thoughts and emotions. Children don’t have the vocabulary in their parents’ first language to do so, while the parents won’t understand the words and nuances of the children’s English. 

What are your suggestions to alleviate some of this breakdown in communication that is so important to the health of the parent-child relationship?

Dr. Conde-Frazier: Each cultural group that comes to the U.S. has to deal with this.  Groups with economic means are able to have their children take language and culture lessons.  Religious groups have facilitated this or groups that emerge to promote cultural and linguistic maintenance.  On other occasions, religious groups are able to do this by partnering with other faith communities of more means. 

A different angle on this is that ideally, a country that is preparing for a global economy should provide bilingual education for all its children so as to prepare them for a job in the global market.  The U.S. is one of the only top nations that educate citizens to contribute in the present world that are monolingual.  The politics of bilingual education need to be re-informed.  What was once looked upon as a handicap for a student (to enter school speaking a language other than English) has now become an asset for that student for the future in the global economy.  We need to rethink this.

This is dealing with the linguistic part of it.  However, communication is something that demands time and creativity.  Helping parents to find the time to be with children (as they work more than one job to make ends meet) and to make shared time quality time is another way for persons to connect with their children to strengthen their ties.  The conversations that I try to model between parents and children are only the beginning of this.

PER: One of the most heartbreaking scenes that you cover in the book is what happens in the children’s lives in the aftermath of an ICE raid.  The psychological wounds alone that these raids inflict on these children should be cause for great concern because they basically separate them from their parents under very traumatic conditions.  In that context, you speak of how churches are often the first responders to immigrant families to help them cope with such a traumatic event.  Churches and in some cases school districts quickly respond and come to the aid of the children, and you speak of how service priorities need to be made in order to make the most of resources available to facilitate this aid.  In fact, you advocate for the first responders to network more proactively with private social services prior to such emergencies occurring so that everyone involved is equipped to respond as quickly as possible to be able to mobilize others to help.  In your opinion, what systemic challenges must be overcome in order to facilitate such networking and planning for more efficient emergency responses?

Dr. Conde-Frazier: The first barrier is the one where we tell ourselves that such a thing is unlikely to happen in the community we serve.  Those of us with the privileges of citizenship do not live the realities of those without such a privilege and we miss how eminent this danger truly is. The other barriers have to do with policies that are made without these issues in mind so that they prevent us from responding as we need to.  This is why we need to be proactive so that we can identify barriers, identify ways of creating policies that facilitate such work or we can find ways to work creatively within them. The last thing is that we do not always have active relationships with other agencies and networks.  Those of us who work in community organizations know of each other but we do not necessarily have working relationships with one another especially when we compete for some of the same grant monies.  So, we need to be intentional about creating the partnerships so that we can facilitate this type of partnership when needed.

PER: Wrapping things up, the book refers to how oftentimes being part of a spiritual community helps immigrants cope, allowing them to have hope in the midst of such trauma and overwhelming hardships that they have had to endure in their lives.  Sometimes through a church’s volunteer activities out in the community at large, people are able to recognize that it takes a group of people working together to bring about change and that in itself serves as a vehicle for empowerment through collective activism.  However, sometimes a parent is afraid to experience the link between self-empowerment and being active in a community of activists and so they choose to instead keep to themselves.  What do you think keeps them from stepping out of the shadows and dare to, if you will, to not be “invisible” anymore?  How can people overcome that?

Dr. Conde-Frazier: There is no instant answer to this.  The fears that make it difficult for persons to trust are well grounded.  Relationships are difficult enough to form but under these circumstances they are even more difficult.  The stakes are very high.   One stands to lose everything even with one wrong encounter.  It takes great faith to believe that a person can act out of compassion rather than self interest or the hate that seems to be growing against immigrants in this country.  There is also the chance that someone can hurt us out of ignorance even while trying to help us.  It takes informed courage to take such a step.  On occasion it is taken out of desperation.  But let us ask ourselves a different question, what I am doing to prepare myself to be the person someone else can trust?  My hope is that this book can be the beginning of answering that question. 

PER: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with Project Economic Refugee, Dr. Conde-Frazier, your book Listen to the Children, Conversations with Immigrant Families was a pleasure to read.

Dr. Conde-Frazier:  Thank you for opening yourselves to discussing this topic with me.   You have shown your own courage and commitment to the values that maintain the humanity of all.

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier is dean of Esperanza College at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pennsylvania and the author of the new release Listen to the Children: Conversations with Immigrant Families/Escuchemos a los niños: Conversaciones con familias inmigrantes (Judson Press). This bilingual resource invites the reader to eavesdrop on fictionalized conversations between immigrant parents, their children, and their caregivers, offering insight into their emotions, perceptions, and realities.