August 29, 2009

US Immigration Policy and Family Values

It has been a busy week. Three interviews, two trips to the military airport, plus a series of other meetings. Today, Saturday, I spent the day decompressing, and getting a few small tasks accomplished. I am still dealing with the emotional weight of the interview I had on Friday.

I still haven’t figured out how best to respond when people begin to shed tears during the interviews. It is likely true that crying is therapeutic and that interviewees are processing these emotions. That doesn’t mean that I need to be encouraging this process. I am a sociologist, not a therapist. And, when people do cry, how should I react? Should I look down, look at them, or look away? Should I touch them, hug them, or keep my distance? Should I cry as well? Should I smile? Should I change the topic? Should I keep quiet?

Another thing I realized after my interview on Friday is that I really shouldn’t interview people who have recently been deported. The person I interviewed on Friday has only been in Guatemala for three weeks. His wounds are still wide open. He has a lot of healing to do. The only other person who has refused an interview is a woman I met in Jamaica who had only been back in Jamaica for a couple of weeks.

The emotional stress of family separation weighs heavily on people, and it takes a long time to process those emotions and to figure out what to do with the children.

There was a case in the news recently of a woman in Mississippi who faces deportation, and lost custody of her daughter even before leaving the US. It seems as though the main reason she was denied parental rights is because she doesn’t speak English:,8599,1918941,00.html

Baltazar Cruz is a Chatino-speaking indigenous woman from southern Mexico. When she gave birth in a hospital in Mississippi, the hospital called social services.

“According to documents obtained by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, the hospital called the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which ruled that Baltazar Cruz was an unfit mother in part because her lack of English ‘placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future’.”

It is hard to believe this sort of ignorance continues to exist. As if her inability to communicate in English renders her unable to care for her child. It doesn’t stop there. Hospital workers also offered the excuse that Baltazar Cruz didn’t have the proper implements to care for a baby:

“The social-services translator also reported that Baltazar Cruz had put RubĂ­ in danger because she ‘had not brought a cradle, clothes or baby formula.’ But indigenous Oaxacan mothers traditionally breast feed their babies for a year and rarely use bassinets, carrying their infants instead in a rebozo, a type of sling.”

This short article gives very few details on the case, so we are left to imagine what happened. Did the doctors and nurses see an Indian woman unable to speak English and feel obliged to save the baby, to civilize this new-born by putting her in an American home? Or, were there other, real, indications that this woman was incapable of taking care of a baby? I tend to suspect the former. If Baltazar Cruz was capable of getting herself all the way to Mississippi from her small town in the south of Mexico with little Spanish and no English, and to get a job, I am sure she is capable of many other things. Crossing all of Mexico and then the US/Mexico border illegally is no small feat.


  1. I know you are not a therapist. But for this people, maybe you are the one person willing to hear their story.
    Putting a hand on their shoulder is a sign of support. Do not look away. Do not act as if you are uncomfortable. If they are looking at you, do keep eye contact. Offering a tissue is OK. It gives them something to do. Offering some water will also help get them to calm down. If they smoke, offering a cigarette is part of the social etiquette.
    Crying and getting emotional does not have the stigma it has in the US, where people apologize for crying. Think you are part of an Opera, do people apologize if they cry in an Opera? That's what they are supposed to do. Crying is cathartic but the whole idea of recounting one's story is just painful, so you are doing some healing by just listening. Do not cry as well. After they are done, some comic relief will work well. Just like in an Opera, you cry and then you laugh.
    Good luck!

  2. Thanks; this is helpful. I will put some of this into practice.