by PSI Executive Director Mary Ragan, PhD, LCSW
I’ve struggled to write something about my week of volunteer service with American Gateways in San Antonio, Texas, working with migrant families who have crossed the border seeking safety from persecution and a better life for their children. Any entry point I thought of seemed either self-evident, self-serving or repetitive.
Yes, there is a crisis at the border, a humanitarian crisis born of the trauma that ensues from poverty, gang-related threats, gender-based violence and the escalating effects of climate change that are making parts of Central America practically uninhabitable. By law, anyone who reaches US soil has the right to apply for asylum and anyone who has a “credible fear” of returning home is entitled to an asylum interview. The current administration has tried to deter people from seeking asylum by restricting applications, keeping asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border, detaining people in for-profit prisons for extended periods of time and, in the most devastating strategy of all, separating children from parents.
In my week in San Antonio, I spoke with “Maria,” a woman from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, one of the most violent cities in the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. She had just crossed the Rio Grande two days before with her sixteen-year-old daughter, leaving behind four older children. San Pedro Sula is one of three cities in Honduras that accounts for 40 percent of all the homicides in that country. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world for a country not at war. Maria told me about the terror they faced from gangs and her fears for her daughter; her daughter never spoke.
In the South Texas Detention Center at Pearsall, I met “Elena,” a 24-year-old trans woman from El Salvador who was seeking help with her asylum application. She described rejection by her family of origin by virtue of being a “bad influence” on younger siblings and of violent attacks inflicted by gang members because of her gender identity. By age fifteen, she was on her own, in search of safety and security. Paradoxically, her segregation into a trans-only group at the detention center may have provided a strange kind of quasi-relief: She was safe, but she was not free.
The stories of despair and exhaustion, terror and perseverance are legion. But it was the behavior of the children that most caught my attention. Once in the safety of the San Antonio Resource Center, in the care of volunteers from American Gateways, RAICES (The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) and city workers from San Antonio, the children did what children do: They played. A beautiful little four-year-old girl, with a bow in her hair, started playing catch with me with a large yellow balloon, her joy made visible with every successful catch. I now understand that a balloon is the perfect ball for a four-year-old: It travels so slowly that she had ample time to position herself for the catch. I never got her name because we never talked. No need.
And there was “Jose,” all of five years old, intent on rolling a large circular plastic ring in my direction, only satisfied when it was returned to him for the next round of back and forth. He won the game by wearing me down.
And in the park, one block away, children could play under the supervision of the Parks and Recreation Department supervisor. There were pick-up soccer games and hula hoops and jump ropes and badminton sets. And the children had no hesitation to approach me with what amounted to a non-verbal: “Wanna play?” It was fun. It brought to mind a phrase coined by Wallace Stegner that playgrounds are the “geography of hope.” That’s what I felt in the park. Once given the security of enough food and water and a place to sleep, children will revert to their natural state: spontaneous, playful, innocent.
But what of the children who are not on playgrounds, who are separated from their parents at the border, not playing but too often sobbing inconsolably for their mothers? The federal government reports that the number of children separated under the “zero tolerance policy” (since rescinded) is nearly 3,000. The actual number is hard to quantify since the data systems of the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services are not integrated, and the separated children were not tracked. If the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable, we need to remember that children, our most valuable resource, thrive best when connected to family and free to play.