Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Social Justice: Orphan or Exile

Most of us have voted by now for the next President of the United States. The candidates have been talking for months about many, many issues, but mostly themselves, talking about, and defending themselves.

If this were not an anonymous blog, I'd offer each my card.

Social workers are generally democratic, and highly educated, and when educators get together, some 3,000 educators, as they did last week for the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) annual program meeting in Atlanta, the synapses in the halls of the hotel burn so bright, the place might just burn down. (Social workers like to speak in hyperbole).

When I told my son, who I consider a balanced man, about the topics presented at CSWE's #APM16, he opined,
"Wow, you guys must be the most pinko-liberal educators in the country!"
Maybe. Yet we are a diverse group, not always predictable, and despite the mostly liberal leanings, nobody has it in for social workers anymore, not like the late Mike Royko did. He loved to poke fun at us for our politics. And our codependent personalities.

There are good reasons for the field's politic. Social work missives begin in the here and now; they're reality-based, not like TV reality shows, which are scripted. Social workers hear heart-breaking stories, are personally invited to visit, to see inhumane, squalid living conditions. Poverty. Powerlessness.

The hearts stir. Dr. Luis Zayas, a keynote speaker from University of Texas, Austin, alludes to hearts and stirring in reference to the difference between conservatives and liberals. Cynics and conservatives believe that social injustice is inevitable. Injustice say conservatives, is inevitable.

We say it is intolerable.

This profession is the one that won't accept the many rational reasons, all those whys, why things cannot be done

Once stirred, social workers organize, swing in the direction of protecting human rights, service administration. They invest time and energy, money, to accomplish good things, big things. Maybe even something along the lines of, let's just say it, social justice.

Dr. Zayas is this year's choice for CSWE's Carl A Scott Memorial Lecture.
He's here to teach and to inspire.

So he tells us that social workers, like human rights activists, take on tasks that aren't even immediately tangible. Their work is not all that different from law enforcement professionals, people who run towards trouble, danger, not knowing what they're even looking for.

This teacher is a poet. I'm buying his book.*

He speaks of immigration--without the need to mention Mr. Trump, or his wall. The word bites about the lecture:
The immigration enforcement policy and practices undertaken by the United States in the past two decades has . . .affected the health and mental health of immigrants and their US.-born children and of refugees seeking asylum from the violence and lawlessness of their countries in Central America. . . violating human rights and turning our backs on social justice.
Even more enticing than the hotel pool, which was nice, but not that great.

The veteran social work educator points immediately to President Barack Obama. The President didn't start the deportation mess, but he didn't help it, either. In the past ten years hundreds of thousands, no, an estimated 3 million! families have suffered the consequences of deportation. They had to leave the United States of America. Leave this, their home.

And for every two deportees, one had a child born here, a birthright child. That makes 1.5 million children, at the very least, dispensable.

Liken it, Dr. Zayas humbly suggests, to Sophie's Choice (not the equivalent, but still) or King Solomon's decision, the one about the baby, minus the compassionate ending.** In Sophie's Choice Meryl Streep has to choose which of the two of her children will go to the gas chamber, and which to the work camp. One to an immediate death, the other to slow starvation.

When the unthinkable happens, when a parent is to be deported, citizen children become either orphans, should they choose to stay in this country, or exiles, if they choose to leave with their parents. Orphan?  Exile? Not much of a choice.

Children are the future (someone sings that), but you don't have to be a clinical social worker to know that their past will play a part in that future. Either of the two choices, orphan or exile, will affect their lives immeasurably.
Exiled means not to disappear, but to shrink, to lose the sense of American citizenship. An exile might even associate with another national identity, turn against America. The law, our law, creates the terrorist.
Orphaned implies losing the daily physical presence, love, attention of parents, even if the parents are alive. Who is around for protection?  
Dr. Zayas tells us the history of the deportation process. It doesn't happen overnight. First there is detainment in what are now called "Family Residential Centers." You can find them in the Texas towns of Karnes, or in Dilley. These started as detainment camps, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, cash cows receiving $500.00 a month per deportee from the government.

Our tax dollars at work. Detained there? Over 2500 mothers and children, dispatched to cold, dirty cells, like prisoners of violent crimes. Cold and dirty. Mothers and children. That shouldn't resonate with anyone.

With a bit of research the detainment situation in Texas had come before the courts. Social justice advocates found a precedent, the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997, which governs the standards for the detention, release, and treatment of minors. 
The court ruled for women and children.

But the centers were merely renamed as group homes, licensed child care centers, Family Residential Centers, and the conditions stayed much the same. When this came to light (via social justice advocacy, again) publicity followed. The head of the Texas Department of Child and Family Services resigned. Things are better, now.

If you're a cynic or a conservative, you think things can't change. If you're a social worker, you think: Sure, they can.
A deportation facility (family residential center) in Karnes or Dilley Texas
Immigrants who come to America illegally say that it is a difficult choice. They know that it is illegal, sneaking past authorities to cross the border. Yet they are leaving a world filled with immorality and violence, so leaving that feels like the moral choice for children, a moral decision. And threaded into that decision, some will tell you, is a vow never to break the law again, not once they make it here, after God has granted them a better life, opportunity for their children.

That's the way it is. That is how people think.

It is next to impossible to seek asylum, impossible to prove to authorities, that lives are at risk in Mexico, or Central America, wherever, if you cannot speak the language, have no money for a lawyer. The thinking is that our immigration laws are the ones violating moral principles. We have a legal system in conflict with itself, immigration law versus family law. Family law has always been predicated by the best interests of the child.

So what's an interested activist, a liberal (pink or not) social worker to do? Not necessarily about this, but about anything like this that feels unjust?

Well. . .

Research, if you're an academic. But don't rely on academic publications, no one reads those. Get into the papers, shoot for The New Yorker.   (Dr. Zayas, heads up! Do that! They would love this story!)

Take the issue to congress, condense immigration to a paragraph, perhaps the idea that we are creating terrorists, not harboring them.

Do what you can to educate the public. Blog, write an op-ed, get on the radio. A podcast. NPR. This American Life.

Testify for clients in court, have hard data with you. Or partner with other advocates, get involved in a class-action lawsuits, amicus briefs, testify to your legislature.

These ideas sound so vague, so inaccessible, so out of reach to the average social worker.

But with a little energy, a little time, anything can happen.


*Luis Zaya's book: Forgotten citizens: deportation, children an the making of American exiles and orphans

**You might remember the story. Two women give birth the same day, but one baby dies in the middle of the night. The woman whose baby died grabs the healthy infant. His mother objects and they come to the king. King Solomon proposes that the women slice the baby in half, it is only fair. One woman, obviously the baby's true mother, objects, tells him to give the baby to the other woman if that is the only option. The king knows, now, that she is the baby's mother.

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