I was a frightened immigrant child: We can’t grow numb to family border separations

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Ernesto Rocha, who is an organizer in West Long Beach, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post. Send submissions to [email protected]

On April 2017, I took the stage at Cal State Long Beach to deliver my first TEDx Talk entitled, I Am Not My Status: An Undocumented Immigrant’s Perspective. In it, I spoke about the many struggles I faced as an undocumented immigrant navigating society and how my undocumented status has affected my work and personal relationships.

I closed my talk by engaging in a dialogue with my 8-year-old self. I talk about how on a meditation retreat I spoke to my younger self while on a night hike. My younger self was frightened and sad to leave his country for the U.S. to reunite with his sisters. I asked Ernestito to come forth and see the beauty of the mountains and the sky. I showed him the stars and how the coyotes cry in the distance. I told him to not be afraid. I told him to not worry because a more mature soul can take care of us now. This was a joyful moment.

I ended my talk with this exchange as a way to show how we all have the power to heal ourselves from childhood trauma. The audience saw a transformative moment between a grown adult and his younger self.

What they didn’t witness were the sleepless nights, solitude, depression, counseling sessions, silencing, poverty, emotional breakdowns, broken relationships and alcohol abuse it took for me to get there, all which I believe stem from the trauma caused by my immigrant experience. Believing that you are not wanted in this country is one thing, but being separated from your family by ICE agents, put in a holding facility, caged behind chain linked fences, mocked, and told you are not wanted is another.

As I processed the news and stories about the president’s new “zero tolerance” policies on immigration enforcement I noticed a few things manifest in my body. The first is that I blocked all of it out. I found comfort solely with myself. I did not speak to anyone about this issue—not my coworkers, my family or friends. I scrolled quickly past all the headlines, protest imagines, commentary and activist art posters. I paid attention to the graduation pictures of friends instead. “Felicidades on your graduation” and “yaaaaasss, congrats!” I wrote on their Instagram posts. This was helping, and yet it wasn’t.

The news finally caught on to me this past weekend while I visited Arizona.  As I drove through the desert night I wept with a profound sadness that I hadn’t felt in months. It was painful. I cried for all the children that are currently separated from their mothers by border enforcement. I cried for the scared, helpless 2-year-old toddler with the pink sweater who weeps as her mother is searched at the border in front of her. I cried for their families; I cried for myself. I mumble, “that could have been me, that could have happened to me”; I was inconsolable. The 8-year old inside was triggered emotionally and there was little I could do to calm him down.

I turned to my breathing, inward, to what I know can bring me to the present moment. I began to take deep breaths. I inhaled my sadness, I exhaled my relief. I inhaled my sadness, I exhaled my relief. It took more than 10 minutes of this practice before I calmed.

Even still, stories like these recall the anguish and pain I experienced as a migrant child. No matter how much work I do to reconnect and heal from past experiences, some memories just take decades to transform. I can only imagine the horror and traumatic memories that the nearly 11,000 children in custody will experience because of these immigration policies. Their cries of “MAMI, MAMI!” in recently released audio from one of the detention facilities signal a dark future for their safety and overall wellbeing.

As we continue to dissect and forecast the ramifications of these policies we must see to it that the lives and humanity of those at its mercy be front and center. We have a responsibility to keep families together and keep those in political power accountable for their actions or inaction. We have to demand the human dignity these children deserve at all costs and at every turn of this conversation. We have to believe that these stories are true and not grow numb to the atrocities codified by this administration.

If we are to learn from American history, we must remember that this country has codified the separation of families through centuries of slavery, Jim Crow legislation, extermination of Native people, Japanese-American internment, Chinese exclusion, en masse deportation initiatives like Operation Wetback, among others. We must break this pattern once and for all.

If what I said to my younger self on that stage last year is true, then I have to commit to protect him. I still stand by my conviction to do so, but I must confess that at this time I am weary.

And so, I go back to my breath. Breathing in I am calming, breathing out I am here!

Ernesto, aka @undocubae, is a community organizer, storyteller, transformational coach and TEDx speaker. He is one of the co-founders of Cocoon Storytelling and a long time resident of West Long Beach.

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.