When I first read the news about four Congresswomen being told by the President of this nation to go back to the countries they came from, my heart sunk and I had a huge knot in my stomach. The image of every kid I have ever worked with and still work with and children I know, immediately with came to my mind—US born kids of color, kids who are immigrants —who could internalize the President’s comments as not belonging or deserving to be in this country. Those whose self-esteem, self-worth and sense of self could be damaged as well as the kids and adults who could replicate the President’s behavior and become bullies at school, work or their communities, something we have seen since he took center stage during the 2016 election cycle.
The night I heard a group of people at one of Trump’s rally chant “send her back,” referring to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, I thought of a group of kids between 6 and 12 years old who were part of a mental health psychoeducation group I co-led, who during the 2016 election cycle had displayed symptoms of anxiety and depression over what they were hearing the new President could do to their families.
I vividly remembered the fear they expressed after President Trump had been elected, of their parents being sent home. I wondered what these children would think and feel if they heard those comments to the Congresswomen by the President and by the chanters. I wanted them to know they belong, they are loved, they matter, our diversity matters and there are many more people who love them and welcome them than others who may not.
For many of us who have been told to “go back to your country or where you belong,” there has been incredible pain we have had to overcome over feelings of not belonging, feelings of confusion, frustration, isolation, and insecurity, among others.
Twenty-four years ago, while in high school and after migrating from Honduras, I was told this phrase over and over again. Back then, I didn’t quite understand the charged meaning of that phrase but the manner, and anger the person displayed when she told me to go back said it all and it evoked a feeling of not being welcomed. It didn’t feel good, it felt threatening and I was terrified to go to school.
Luckily, I had a supportive family to go back to, other friends who looked and sounded like me and many others who expressed welcoming feelings, care and kindness. I rose above those comments, made it through high school and by the end of high school the person who had bullied me wrote a kind message on my yearbook noting that she was glad she had gotten to know me. When I was finally able to understand why someone would say something so hurtful, I came to realize that my former classmate had learned that behavior.
To hear this same racist rhetoric, two decades later by no other than the President, a figure who should symbolize a positive role model and exemplify the American values of unity, acceptance, tolerance, collaboration, inclusiveness, was astonishing, disappointing and infuriating.
The President’s Tweets reminded me of the long work we still have ahead to educate communities on topics like our right to protest as an American freedom, our right to advocate and elevate our voices when we disagree on policies, our rights as women to stand up from the sidelines and be a part of political discourse.
We have our work cut out to gain our democracy back, a democracy where we can both love our country and being an American but still denounce policies we disagree with. This election cycle let our fear and anger fuel our fire to fight for a new and inclusive leader, one that welcomes difference of opinion without attacking, bullying, minimizing and threatening those who oppose him, a leader who is not a threat to our democracy and the values we are teaching our children, a leader who we proudly want our kids to emulate.
Now, part of our role is undoing the emotional damage the Presidents politics of hate has created, particularly with our kids who are shaping their views and behaviors based on what they learn at home, school, their environments, and media. Our role is going back to the essential dinner conversations at home to understand what kids are saying, thinking about and how they may be internalizing and interpreting the information they hear in the news. Kids and adolescents depend on us to make sense and meaning out of information. As long as we are having conversations and checking in, we can create opportunities to debunk myths and misinformation.
For the rest of us, it is more important than ever before to be in community; to take to the streets, to advocate and organize when necessary while taking care of our own emotional wellbeing and seeking support from a professional when the politics of hate and division impact our mental health.
Call to Action
This petition is a collaboration between Social Workers United for Immigration and Social Workers Unraveling Racism with contributions by Hope Center for Wellness, Gardner Associates, and the support of Social Work Helper, Latin American Youth Center, American Federation of Teachers, Undocublack Network, and CASA. The petition was part of a week long campaign of mandated reporters denouncing government child abuse and demanding action.
Please sign and/or share our petition located at http://chng.it/dc2HnCQNT5. Please, take this small step to help us make a difference.
Cheryl Aguilar is a licensed clinical social worker, LICSW, LCSW-C, founder and lead therapist of Hope Center for Wellness, LLC, a multicultural behavioral health and training consulting practice serving DC metro area residents and organizations. She founded and co-leads Social Workers United for Immigration, a DC based network of social workers committed to the well-being and the advancement of immigrants and immigrant rights. She can be contacted at email@example.com.