Immigration. Migration. Undocumented. Legal. Illegal. Refugee. Asylum. Border wall. Family separation.
Each one of these words or phrases evokes a political reaction, yet each one gives no clue about the thousands of unique individuals who are behind each term. Whatever your view of the immigration “debate,” it is imperative to acknowledge each person’s dignity as a human being.
That happened a few weeks ago with the tragic photograph of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter lying facedown, drowned, in the Rio Grande. It was reinforced again as we learned about the Office of the Inspector General’s report on the “squalid conditions” at migrant centers along the southern border, describing standing-room-only cells and children without showers, clothes, toothbrushes, or adequate nutrition.
Who are these people crowding detention centers, both public and private, around the country? One of the first things we learn as social workers in training is that we need to try to understand the experience of those we serve — “tuning in” to people whose lives look so different from our own.
As social workers and educators, the lens through which we consider the human dignity of the migrant and refugee is deeply rooted in social work values, humanistic values, and a faith-based tradition of welcoming strangers.
The experiences of migrants making the excruciating decision to flee their homes to risk the journey for the possibility of a better life is an age-old story told over and over again. Community social workers serving immigrants and refugees from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala may hear similar stories of leaving home, country, family, and all that they love to come to the United States. They seek safety, economic opportunity, and a better life for their children.
Life in many countries south of the border reveals unimaginable poverty and desperation. Visit a detention center and you’ll see countless individuals awaiting their asylum interview in a dingy cubicle, almost all with a heart-rending true story. At the end of the day, as you walk back through the metal detector to your car, don’t be surprised if you burst into tears.
Focusing on the individual as a member of a group is elemental to the social work profession. The first two sentences of the preamble of the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics state: “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society.”
As professional social workers, we are called to find the humanity of the people we serve, regardless of our position on the issue, and consider both the needs of the individual and the larger policy questions of why and how we got to this polarized place. How can the security of the country be balanced against the opportunities and possibilities that the U.S. has always offered immigrants? What are the legal, political, and moral arguments for curbing or encouraging immigration?
As we have our national discussion about immigration, let us remember that how we deliberate about it reflects the essence of who we are as a nation and our shared national values. The more we focus on the individuality of each person seeking entry, the more we will be reminded of our own unique nature and purpose.
Katherine Mitchell is an East Hampton resident and a professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York City, where Daniel Pollack is also a professor. Daniel Hartnett is a bilingual clinical social worker in education and community practice in East Hampton.