UPDATE: On Friday, President Trump signed a presidential proclamation denying asylum for immigrants who request it after crossing the border illegally rather than at a port of entry.
In a pre-midterms television ad deemed too racist for CNN, NBC and even Fox News, the White House described members of the large group of Central American migrants making their way through Mexico as “dangerous illegal criminals.” Ominous music played in the background of the ad as images of a convicted Mexican criminal were spliced with footage of the caravan.
This description was inaccurate, not to mention illogical ― aren’t hardened criminals and narco-traffickers wily enough to avoid such an arduous and physically taxing journey, and one that has captured such public attention and scrutiny?
The truth about these migrants comes down to the most basic of human needs: survival. Those who have joined the caravan have done so because their reality is simple. In the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where violence is endemic and justice is illusory, it’s a question of life or death.
Trump, in his roiling pre-midterm elections hate-speech tour, painted the caravan as an “invasion,” even though it’s a common occurrence that hasn’t disrupted the peace before. Traveling in a large group is far safer than traveling alone, with a human smuggler or in a small group, and migrant advocacy groups have organized large caravans for at least a decade. But beyond the president and his party’s racist rhetoric, there’s a broad assumption that such an influx of immigrants will both threaten American values and weigh heavily on the American taxpayer.
Like previous waves of immigrants, this group of new arrivals may need help to acclimate to this complex country of ours. Some will need medical care, thanks to years of living in countries with limited medical infrastructure. Others will need counseling to heal from layers of traumatic experiences against the backdrop of horrible violence ― which, lest we forget, the United States played a significant role in creating.
But they won’t need much. If I’ve learned one thing during my tenure as a trauma-focused clinician, it is this: Central American immigrants are resilient. They are driven and strong. They persevere. Despite the staggering hardships and suffering they have endured, they are defined by their ability to “seguir adelante” ― to move forward.
It’s a phrase that I’ve heard hundreds of times ― perhaps thousands ― in my therapy office. Nearly all my young clients have voiced their desire to “seguir adelante.” The 17-year-old boy who witnessed his father’s murder, finding himself alone and in grave danger; the 15-year-old girl who was kidnapped by the Zetas cartel in Mexico and held for ransom for weeks; the 18-year-old boy who served as a lookout for the MS-13 gang in exchange for his sister’s life before fleeing his country.
“Tengo que seguir adelante,” they tell me. I must continue moving forward.
The 13-year-old indigenous child who recounted months of eating “grass soup” when tortillas became too expensive. The 16-year-old who mourns the loss of her brothers ― all three of them, murdered while crossing gang-controlled territory. The 20-year-old working through the night at a bakery, then coming to school filled with energy and endless questions about the workings of American bicameral government.
Tengo que seguir adelante.
While their experiences are varied and diverse, my clients have two things in common. They have been exposed to multiple horrifying traumatic events, and they have an indefatigable desire to heal, grow stronger and move forward.
Trauma is never a desirable experience, or a deserved one. Many Central Americans have seen, experienced and survived more suffering and loss than any human should be asked to bear. But part of the “seguir adelante” mentality is the idea of being a metaphorical phoenix. Instead of allowing repeated traumatic events to crush them, many of the Central American clients with whom I work rise again as stronger, more resilient versions of themselves. While they may suffer from trauma-related symptoms like flashbacks, many are simultaneously able to devote their energy to finding a new sense of purpose in ways that I have not observed as universally in my work with American-born clients.
This phenomenon is illustrative of the positive psychology concept of post-traumatic growth, which posits that those who are exposed to trauma discover or develop new capabilities: closer social and familial bonds, increased resilience, stronger motivation and deepened spirituality.
So if the resilience of the “adelante” mentality drives these immigrants forward in spirit, what compels them to move forward physically? Perhaps they were unable to pay last month’s “impuestos de guerra,” or war taxes, to the local gang as rent for their space in the market. Maybe they refused to join the controlling gang in their neighborhood, despite the near-certainty of death if they stayed. Instead of remaining in Guatemala City, or Santa Tecla, or Tegucigalpa, they wagered it all, picked up and left.
They leave behind their families, their friends, their rich cultures, their language, their homeland. They understand the risks of the journey. They have heard the horror stories of kidnapping, rape, extortion and abandonment in the desert. Despite all this, they have decided to “seguir adelante,” fueled by hope for a brighter, safer future, to be achieved through hard work, determination and unwavering courage. Don’t those values sound reminiscent of those upon which our patchwork nation was founded?
In the end, all the migrant caravan really wants is to move forward. And as a democratic country founded on ideals of egalitarianism, isn’t it time for us to move forward, too?
Stephanie L. Carnes is a bilingual licensed clinical social worker at a large public high school in New York’s Hudson Valley. She was previously a clinician in a federally funded shelter program. She specializes in trauma treatment with Central American immigrant students and culturally competent mental health care.