Of Rights and Resilience: Why Women’s Rights are Key to Thriving in the Age of the “Black Swan”

Laurie Mazur

Black Swan events are proliferating for many reasons—notably climate change and the growing scale and interconnectedness of the human enterprise. World population doubled in the last half-century to just under seven billion people, so there are simply more people living in harm’s way, on geologic faults and along vulnerable coastlines. In effect, we have re-engineered the planet and ushered in a new era of radical instability. Advancing and securing women's rights are a key aspect of the solution to these problems.

This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article is the first in a multi-part series commissioned by Rewire to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions that need to be put in place to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

Welcome to the age of the Black Swan.

The tornado that nearly leveled the city of Joplin, Missouri in May was a Black Swan; so was the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan in March; and the “hundred-year floods” that now take place every couple of years in the American Midwest.

A Black Swan is a low-probability, high-impact event that tears at the very fabric of civilization. And they are becoming more common: weather-related disasters spiked in 2010, killing nearly 300,000 people and costing $130 billion.

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Black Swan events are proliferating for many reasons—notably climate change and the growing scale and interconnectedness of the human enterprise.  World population doubled in the last half-century to just under seven billion people, so there are simply more people living in harm’s way, on geologic faults and along vulnerable coastlines. As the human enterprise has grown, we have reshaped natural systems to meet human needs, weakening resilience of ecosystems, and by extension our own. In effect, we have re-engineered the planet and ushered in a new era of radical instability.

At the same time, the world’s people are increasingly linked by systems of staggering complexity and size: think of electrical grids and financial markets. What were once local disasters now reverberate across the globe.

So what does this have to do with women’s rights, you may ask? A lot, as it turns out. The great challenge of the 21st century is to build societies that can cope with the flock of Black Swans that are headed our way.  Advancing and securing women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, is central to meeting that challenge.

The New World, and How We Got Here

The age of the Black Swan marks a sharp turn on the long path of human history. It is hard to overstate how swiftly and profoundly we have transformed the way we live. Imagine that all of humanity’s existence was compressed into a 24-hour day, with each hour representing 100,000 years. Our humanoid ancestors first appeared at midnight, then spent the night and most of the following day hunting and gathering in small, mobile bands. At 11:56 pm, we invented agriculture. In the last seconds before the end of the day came the industrial revolution, the Pill, and The Jersey Shore.

Also in the last seconds before midnight, our numbers increased sevenfold, and—in the blink of an eye—we former hunter-gatherers had colonized every corner of the planet. Just think: it took from the beginning of human history until 1800 for our numbers to reach one billion. Now, just over 200 years later, there are nearly 7 billion of us. And we will likely reach 8 billion by 2025.

In many ways, the history of our species is an incredible success story. We’ve vanquished diseases, produced staggering quantities of food, and used our ingenuity to circumvent every drudgery and inconvenience. Some of us, at least, live in luxury that could scarcely have been imagined a few generations ago.

I got to thinking how far and how quickly we’ve come when I went looking for information about my maternal grandmother. I found her (on the web) in the painstakingly handwritten records of the 1910 census. There she was as an eight year-old girl, living in an apartment in Baltimore with her grandparents, mother, a couple of siblings, and some random boarders taken in to help pay the bills.

Consider her environmental footprint. Her family didn’t have a car, or electricity, or even indoor plumbing—chamber pots and an outdoor privy sufficed. She ate organically grown, local produce (there wasn’t any other kind; pesticides and synthetic fertilizer weren’t yet widely used). Meat was a luxury. No plastics. No airplanes. No petrochemicals.

Believe me, I don’t idealize the past (I am very, very fond of indoor plumbing). But I am struck by how much our family’s environmental impact has grown in the space of two generations. My family of four lives in a house twice the size of the apartment my grandmother shared with seven others. Between my ailing Subaru, my central air conditioning, and the occasional airplane flight, I produce well over 20 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide each year. My grandmother, burning a few lumps of coal for heat in the winter, likely produced a tenth as much.

Moreover, my out-sized consumption habits are shared by a much larger number of people. When my grandmother was a kid, there were 92 million Americans, today there are 308 million. Globally, our numbers grew from 1.75 billion to nearly 7 billion in that time. While most of the world’s people do not consume resources as rapaciously as Americans (more on that later), it is safe to say that both human numbers and consumption have skyrocketed in the space of a few generations.

The Dark Side

Which gets me to the dark side of the human success story. In our brief stint of planetary dominion, we have done a vast amount of damage. We have replaced the riotous diversity of nature with uniform monocultures. We’ve changed the chemistry of earth and sky—increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent, and acidifying the oceans. We’ve cut down nearly half of the planet’s forests, and destroyed two-thirds of its coral reefs and mangroves. We have brought about the greatest mass extinction of plant and animal life in our history; every year, some 30,000 species become extinct (about three per hour).

Nature is inherently resilient; ecosystems regenerate after disturbances like hurricanes and wildfires. But we have weakened nature’s ability to bounce back by removing key species, by harvesting resources more rapidly than they can renew themselves, and by loading ecosystems with more wastes than they can absorb.

In so doing, we’ve weakened our own resilience. Healthy ecosystems are the foundation of human well-being; they provide a range of essential goods and services to humankind, such as food and freshwater, pollination, and protection from storms. As a result of our chipping away at that foundation, a recent global survey found that the “the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

And, as we have weakened human and natural resilience, we have created new threats. Human-induced climate change has ushered in an unknowable future of intense storms, floods, and droughts. As NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen puts it, “Ten thousand years of good weather is over.” Cue the Black Swans.

Of course, not all humans are equally culpable for this state of affairs. And that illuminates the other dark aspect of our species’ success: staggering inequity. The unprecedented affluence that some humans now enjoy has not been evenly shared; some 40 percent of the world’s people—2.6 billion—still live on less than $2 per day.

Most of the world’s poor have environmental footprints that resemble my grandmother’s more than my own. The average citizen of Tanzania, for example, emits about a tenth of a ton of CO2 per year—about what the average American puts out every 28 hours. But, tragically, it is the poor—those who contributed least to the sacking of the planet—who are most vulnerable to the consequences of environmental decline.

So, to recap: humans have had a good long run, but in the process of establishing dominion over the Earth, we’ve weakened the support systems that have enabled us to thrive thus far. We have altered our planet in fundamental ways, ushering in the age of the Black Swan—a period of instability and suffering—with the poor and vulnerable at greatest risk.

This is, admittedly, a bleak picture. The good news is that it is possible to build more sustainable and resilient societies, and to limit damage to the natural systems that we depend upon. And that is where women’s rights—including reproductive rights—come in.

Sustainability and Scale

Environmental sustainability is, in part, about how a society uses resources. On the simplest level, if resource use is unsustainable, you can’t keep doing it. If you take fish from the ocean faster than the fish can reproduce, you run out of fish. (Of course, affluent countries and people typically get around this problem by helping themselves to other people’s fish.)

But collectively, humans are using resources more quickly than they can regenerate: two thirds of the planet’s ecosystems—including fisheries and fresh water—are now being used in ways that simply cannot be sustained.

Sustainability is a function of the scale of the human enterprise; of the way we consume resources, on one hand, and of the number of consumers on the other. On a finite planet, neither human numbers nor human appetites can grow forever.

For those of us who live in the United States and other countries that devour a disproportionate share of the planet’s resources, reducing consumption is the top priority.  It can be done, with a wholesale shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, greater efficiency, cities and towns built around reliable public transportation, and food systems that encourage us to eat lower on the food chain. Fundamentally, we need to reorient our economy from the production and consumption of goods of dubious value to a new emphasis on meeting human needs.

UN Population projections, High (red), Medium (yellow) and Low (green).

And, as human numbers approach 7 billion, people everywhere need to think about where we go from here.

The United Nations recently published new population projections, which envision a range of possibilities for the 21st century. If fertility rates stay where they are today, we’d pass 26 billion by the end of this century. But that’s not likely: thanks to wider availability of contraception, urbanization, and other factors, fertility rates have fallen steadily in recent decades, from an average of 5 children per woman in 1950 to just 2.5 today. The question is how quickly, and how steeply, they will continue to fall.

In the UN’s low projection, fertility dips to 1.7 children per woman and human numbers peak at 8 billion by mid-century, then decline to 6 billion by 2100. By contrast, the medium and high projections envision slower declines in fertility—and continued growth for the foreseeable future. The medium projection would reach 10 billion by 2100; the high projection, nearly 16 billion.

I don’t believe there is an optimal size for the human population; greater equity and more efficient use of resources would greatly extend the planet’s “carrying capacity.” But, when you consider the resource challenges of the 21st century, and the unpredictable new era we have entered, 8 billion looks more sustainable than 16 billion.

Take water, for example. While there is no global shortage of freshwater, a growing number of regions are chronically parched. And many of those regions—including parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—are also where population is growing most rapidly. The World Bank has identified 45 “water-poor” countries where shortages are especially acute. Those countries have an average fertility rate of 4.8 children per woman—nearly twice the world average. And their populations are expected to double by 2050.

Slower population growth is not a panacea for the world’s water problems. Much can be done to develop better technology and better policies on water use. But slower growth and smaller population numbers could help ease pressure on scarce resources. That’s true for countries dealing with the deadly combination of poverty and water scarcity—and it’s true for the world as a whole.

Population and Women’s Rights

The difference between 8 billion and 16 billion is all about women’s rights. Fertility rates have fallen in most of the world’s countries, but they remain high where women’s status is low.

Less than one-fifth of the world’s countries will account for nearly all of the world’s population growth this century. Not coincidentally, those countries—the least developed nations in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and elsewhere—are also where girls are less likely to attend school, where child marriage is common, and where women lack the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing.

That can change. Nations can raise women’s status by educating girls, by enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage and sexual violence, and by improving women’s access to credit, land, jobs, and training. Where women enjoy these fundamental rights, smaller (and healthier) families become the norm.

At the same time, women must have the means to make choices: family planning and other reproductive health services. Around the world, some 215 million want to avoid pregnancy, but aren’t using effective methods of contraception. Fulfilling that “unmet need” for family planning is vital to ensuring women’s reproductive rights, and to slowing population growth. In this way, the goals of the sexual and reproductive health and rights movement are deeply aligned with the imperatives of environmental sustainability.

A Three-Legged Stool

Achieving a sustainable balance among people, consumption, and resources is necessary and important. But it is not sufficient.

We have entered an era of unpredictable, wrenching, change. Consider the climate: even if we ceased emitting greenhouse gases today, the legacy of past emissions guarantees a future of warming temperatures, stronger storms, and rising seas.

To thrive in the face of these changes, our societies must be resilient—they must be able to absorb disturbance while continuing to function. What makes a society resilient? There is a substantial—and growing—literature on this subject; a few points bear repeating here.

Some characterize resilience as a three legged stool: the “legs” of the stool include a nation’s environmental capacity—the health of its ecosystems; its human and civic resources; and its economic capacity, or wealth.

Women have an important role to play in bolstering each leg of resilience. First, environmental capacity: in much of the developing world, women are primary caretakers of natural resources such as forests and freshwater. Empowering women with property rights and decision-making authority can result in better stewardship of those ecosystems. That’s what happened in Gujarat, India: when women were well-represented on community forest management committees, forest conditions improved dramatically.

Second, human resources. Women’s power, knowledge, and creativity are vital—but underutilized—human resources. Girls and women are often held back; they get less food, less medical care, less formal education, and fewer opportunities than their male counterparts. Investing in girls and women yields enormous benefits. For example, girls’ education is associated with a vast range of positive outcomes, from higher crop yields to lower rates of HIV and better nutrition.

Finally, economic capacity: A growing body of research shows that ensuring economic opportunity for women may be the best way to end world poverty. This is not only because women are at a greater risk of being poor, but also because women in poor countries are more likely to spend their income on food, education, and health care for their children—giving families a lasting path out of poverty.

The growing risk of Black Swan events lends urgency to improving women’s status, because women are among the most vulnerable in times of crisis. In the 2004 South Asian tsunami, for example, three times as many women died as did men. Why? In part because of rigid gender roles; not only did women shoulder the burden of saving children and the elderly, their traditional clothing made it difficult to move quickly, and—unlike their brothers—they had not been taught to swim. Addressing women’s vulnerabilities is a top priority for any effort to build resilience.

Of Rights and Resilience

We can’t know what the age of the Black Swan has in store for us. We have never been here before; the environmental and social challenges we face today are utterly without precedent. But change—sweeping and transformative—is a constant in natural and human history. We can embrace change and prepare for it by building sustainable, resilient societies.

To do so, we need to ramp up our efforts to ensure women’s rights. In an age of uncertainty, no nation can afford to squander half of its human capital. And, where women enjoy equal rights, societies are healthier, more prosperous, and less vulnerable.

At the same time, we need to find a sustainable balance among people, consumption, and resources. That means intentionally downsizing the scale and impact of the human enterprise, by reducing wasteful consumption and by choosing a slower growth path for human numbers. Here, too, women’s rights—especially reproductive rights—are key.

When I think about the paths our numbers could take, I am again reminded of my grandmother. On the 1910 census where I found her name, there were two columns that no longer appear on census forms: “number of children born” and “number now living.” Often, there was a large gap between the two. My grandmother’s grandmother had ten children; five survived. Her mother had six kids; just three were alive in 1910.

Those numbers are a reminder of the brutal way in which human population was held in check throughout most of our history: high fertility was balanced by high mortality. Our numbers soared with the advent of sanitation and vaccines, because more children survived to adulthood. When mortality rates fell, fertility rates often followed, and a new equilibrium was achieved. But that equilibrium remains elusive in many parts of the world, where women still lack the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing.

The numbers remind us, also, that the sustainable, resilient world we seek is in the future, not in the past. We can’t go back, nor would we want to. We can, however, go forward—by curbing our environmental impact, by advancing the rights of women, and by unleashing the intelligence and creativity of every one of the planet’s 7 billion citizens.

Commentary Sexual Health

‘Not the Enemy, But the Answer’: Elevating the Voices of Black Women Living With HIV

Dazon Dixon Diallo

National HIV Testing Day is June 27. But for longtime advocates, ensuring that the women most affected by the epidemic can get and influence care and policy is the work of many years.

I met Juanita Williams in the mid-1980s. She was the first client at SisterLove, the then-new Atlanta nonprofit I founded for women living with AIDS.

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and many women will be tested during the observance. But when I met Williams, HIV was a growing reality in our communities, and women were not even recognized as a population at risk for HIV at that time.

This lack of understanding was reflected in women’s experiences when seeking care. Williams’ attempt to get a tubal ligation had been met with fear, ignorance, and hostility from a medical team who informed her she had AIDS. Not only did they refuse to provide her the medical procedure, the hospital staff promptly ushered her down the back staircase and out the door. Williams was left without information or counseling for what was devastating news.

A Black woman who grew up in Syracuse, New York, she had moved to her family’s home state of South Carolina. Her first major decision after her diagnosis was to leave South Carolina and move to Atlanta, where she believed she would get better treatment and support. She was right, and still, it wasn’t easy—not then and not now. Even today, Williams says, “Positive people are not taken seriously, and positive women are taken even less seriously. People think positive people are way down on the totem pole.”

As communities across the United States observe National HIV Testing Day and emphasize taking control of our health and lives, women’s voices are an essential but still neglected part of the conversation. The experiences of Black women living with HIV, within the broader context of their sexual and reproductive health, highlight the need to address systemic health disparities and the promise of a powerful movement at the intersection of sexual and reproductive justice.

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The urgency of adopting an intersectional approach to sexual and reproductive health comes to light when considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on women of color. Black women account for 69 percent of all HIV diagnoses among women in the South. Advocates also acknowledge the history of biomedical and reproductive oppression that Black women have suffered throughout American history, including forced pregnancy and childrearing during slavery to forced sterilization afterward. Keeping these matters in mind helps us understand how the HIV epidemic is a matter of sexual and reproductive justice.

Taking seriously the perspectives of women such as Williams would amplify our collective efforts to eradicate HIV’s impacts while elevating women’s health, dignity, and agency. This is especially pressing for women living with HIV who experience the greatest disparities and access barriers to the broad spectrum of reproductive health, including contraception and abortion.

The policy context has created additional barriers to advancing the reproductive health of women living with HIV. For example, the 2015 National HIV AIDS Strategy Update neglected to mention family planning or reproductive health services as arenas for providing HIV prevention care. Yet, in many instances, a reproductive health clinic is a woman’s primary or only point of access to health care in a given year. Providing HIV prevention and care in family planning clinics is a way to provide a space where women can expect to receive guidance about their risk of exposure to HIV.

As advocates for women living with HIV, we at SisterLove are committed to ensuring that human rights values are at the center of social change efforts to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and their families. We work to transform the policy frame to one that asserts women’s agency to make decisions that are best for themselves and their loved ones. We draw strength from the resilience and determination of the women we serve.

Several years after becoming deeply involved with SisterLove, Williams became an advocate for her own reproductive health and began speaking out on behalf of other Black women living with HIV. She eventually became a trainer, counselor, and health outreach worker.

Later, in 2004, Williams was the only woman living with HIV invited to be a main speaker at the historic March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has returned to South Carolina, where she teaches other women living with HIV about sexual and reproductive justice and human rights. Williams uses her own story and strength to help other women find theirs.

“Give [women living with HIV] a voice and a platform for that voice,” she has said. “Give a safe place to let their voices be heard and validate them …. We need positive women’s voices to continue to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We tell our stories and reflect each other. I am not the enemy, I am the answer.”

Advocates need strength as we work at many critical intersections where the lives of women and girls are shaped. We cannot address HIV and AIDS without access to contraception and abortion care; health and pay equity; recognition of domestic and gender-based violence; and the end of HIV criminalization. And as advocates for sexual and reproductive health in our communities, SisterLove is working alongside our sisters to support National HIV Testing Day and ensure all people have the information, tools, and agency to take control of their health.

Elevating the health and dignity of people living with HIV calls for special attention to the epidemic’s implications for women of color and Black women, particularly those within marginalized communities and in the Deep South. The voices and leadership of the most affected women and people living with HIV are essential to making our efforts more relevant and powerful. Together, we can advance the long-term vision for sexual and reproductive justice while working to eradicate HIV for all people.

Analysis Human Rights

Family Separation, A Natural Byproduct of the U.S. Immigration System

Tina Vasquez

There are millions of children in the United States born into households where one or more of their parents are undocumented—and thousands of these parents are deported each year.

To honor migrant mothers in detention this Mother’s Day, the immigrant rights organization CultureStrike has partnered with, NWDC Resistance, and Strong Families. Visitors to can pick out a card and write a message to a detained mother, and members of CultureStrike will deliver printed cards to detention centers nationwide.

A card from a stranger on the internet is a small gesture, but one that could have been meaningful to Monica Morales’ mother when she was detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center late last year. Morales told Rewire her mother, usually a fighter, was depressed and that her morale was at an all-time low. She’d been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the border while attempting to escape her abusive ex-husband in Mexico and the gang violence that plagued her neighborhood in Chihuahua. After being deported in 2010, she was trying to reenter the United States and reunite with her family in Amarillo, Texas, but the reunion would never happen.

As an adult, Morales is somewhat able to make sense of what occurred, but she worries about what she will tell her three young children about what has happened to their family. These are hard conversations happening all over the country, as there are millions of children in the United States born into households where one or more of their parents are undocumentedand thousands of these parents are deported each year. And, advocates say, there are few, if any, programs available to help immigrant children cope with their trauma.

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“There’s Literally Nothing We Can Do”

On any given day, there are 34,000 people in immigration detention. Prior to the “border crisis” that brought thousands of Central American women to the United States seeking asylum, the Women’s Refugee Commission reported that 10 percent of those in detention were women. Since 2009, that figure has likely increased, but the exact number is unknown.

Morales’ mother was one of them.

Though they were both located in Texas at the time, Morales said getting her mom’s phone calls from Hutto was heartbreaking and that she couldn’t have felt further away or more helpless. Morales hit her breaking point when one day, her mom called sobbing, saying she and seven other women were forced to spend the day in a room covered in urine, blood, and excrement. It was shortly after that Morales’ mom decided to participate in the hunger strike Rewire reported on earlier this year.

“My mom would always tell me that dogs at the pound are treated better than they are in Hutto and other detention centers,” Morales said. “At least at the pound, they try to help the dogs and they want them to get adopted. At places like Hutto, they don’t care what happens to you, they don’t care if you’ll get killed if you get deported. If someone is sick, they don’t care. If someone is suffering, they don’t care.”

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit private prison corporation, runs Hutto. The company has come under fire many times for human rights violations, including at Hutto, which was once used to detain immigrant families, including children. The Obama administration removed families from the facility in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, including, according to the Texas Observer, “accounts of children suffering psychological trauma.” In 2010, there were also multiple allegations of sexual assault at the detention center.

Morales’ mother was not aware of Hutto’s history of abuse cases, but Morales told Rewire that after the hunger strike, her mother and other women who participated believed they were being retaliated against by Hutto officers because they had brought more bad publicity to the facility. Morales’ mom was deemed by detention officers a “dangerous detainee” and had to wear a different color uniform to identify her as such, Morales said. She was also placed in solitary confinement for over a month before she was transferred to another detention facility.

Six weeks ago, Morales’ mother was deported back to Chihuahua where she must remain for 20 years, because those who have been deported once before and then attempt to reenter the United States within a period of “inadmissibility” automatically trigger a longer ban.

Advocates have told Rewire that transfers to other facilities and solitary confinement are common tactics used by both detention and ICE officers to retaliate against those who go on strike.

During the time of the hunger strike, ICE denied allegations that it was retaliating against detainees in the form of transfers and solitary confinement. A spokesperson said in a statement to Rewire that it “routinely transfers detainees to other facilities for various reasons, including bed-space availability or to provide greater access to specialized services needed by particular detainees.” The spokesperson added that Hutto “does not have solitary confinement areas.”

As Mother’s Day approaches, Morales told Rewire that her head is heavy with thoughts of her mother. The chance they will be able to see each other anytime soon is slim. If her mom attempts to reenter the United States a third time and is caught, she will be permanently barred. Morales is a DACA recipient, which means she qualified for an immigration policy put into place by President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a work permit and exemption from deportation renewable every two years (but for only as long as the DACA program is in place). It also means Morales is unable to travel outside of the United States unless there is an emergency, and for obvious reasons, those are not the conditions under which she wants to see her mother.

“We can’t see my mom for 20 years and there’s literally nothing we can do,” Morales told Rewire. “I can’t go to Mexico. The only way I can go is if something were to happen to my mom, and I pray I don’t have to go in that situation. And honestly, I would worry if the [Border Patrol] would let me return to the U.S. even though I’d have my paperwork in order. I’ve heard that happens. If you’re in my situation, everything is so risky and I can’t take those risks. I have three children. My youngest child has health issues and he needs medication. My second child suffers from tumors and he needs yearly check-ups. I can’t risk my status in the U.S. to go back.”

Like her mother, Morales is a domestic abuse survivor and she is upset by how immigration laws have impacted her family and offer little recourse to women who are attempting to escape violence. If nothing else, she said, this anger has moved her to be more politically active. Not only has she started a campaign to get Hutto shut down, but she is doing interviews and other activities to shine a light on how the U.S. immigration system further traumatizes survivors of domestic violence, the mental health issues that arise when being forced to navigate such a “horrible” system, and the family separation that has become a natural byproduct of it all.

“I don’t think Americans know what this does to our families or our communities,” Morales said. “I wonder a lot that if people knew what happened to our families, if they would even care. Moms [are] in detention for years just for trying to give their kids a better life. Parents [are] being deported and killed and their children have to be raised by other people. Do people even care?”

The Morales Family

Morales and her sister are working together to pay for bi-weekly psychiatrist sessions in Mexico for their mom, who is struggling with being separated from her only support system and who Morales strongly believes was severely traumatized by her experiences at Hutto.

“She can’t work; she can’t reintegrate herself into society. She can’t leave the house by herself; she can’t be in the house by herself. After being detained, my mom was treated so bad that that I think she started to believe she deserved it. My grandma says my mom can’t sleep at night, she paces. My grandpa asks her what’s wrong and she just says she feels like she’s suffocating. She can’t calm down. She has a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. She’s different than she used to be,” Morales said.

The Impact of Immigration Policies on Families

Wendy Cervantes is vice president of immigration and child rights at First Focus, one of the few children’s advocacy organizations in the country to focus on immigrant families. Cervantes told Rewire that if adults, much like Morales’ mom, struggle mightily with family separation and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from trauma experienced in their countries of origin and exacerbated by navigating the U.S. immigration system, what must it be like for children?

While it’s certainly true that all immigrant families fear family separation, the challenges faced by mixed-status families like Morales’ are unique. “Mixed status” is in reference to a family comprised of people with different citizenship statuses. A parent, for example, may be undocumented, but their children are American citizens or are “DACA-mented.”

A report from Human Impact Partners, Family Unity, Family Health, found that “nationwide, an estimated 4.5 million children who are U.S. citizens by birth live in families where one or more of their parents are undocumented.” And when deportations occur on the scale that they have under the Obama administration, not only do they separate families, but they have overwhelming an effect on the health and well-being of children. Besides being more apt to suffer poverty, diminished access to food and health care, and limited educational opportunities, children suffer from fear and anxiety about the possible detainment or deportation of their family members. This leads to poor health, behavioral, and educational outcomes, and sometimes results in shorter lifespans, according to Family Unity, Family Health.

In 2012, Colorlines reported that about 90,000 undocumented parents of American citizen children were deported each year. The number has declined since then. In 2013, government data showed it was 72,410, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) only documents the number of parents with children who are citizens, not cases in which parents with undocumented children are deported.

“If a kid has to go back to a violent country they’ve never been with their deported parent or if they have to stay behind without a parent or go into the child welfare system, none of it is ideal,” Cervantes told Rewire. “The constant fear your parent will be detained or deported has very large consequences on children, who are showing signs of PTSD at younger and younger ages. The immigration system can really take a kid’s childhood away from them.”

Who Will Address Their Trauma?

The American citizen or DACA-mented children of undocumented parents suffer from things like anxiety and depression because of fears their parents will be detained or deported, Cervantes told Rewire. Furthermore, there are well over one million undocumented children in the United States and to her knowledge, there are no services provided for these children to cope with their trauma.

According to the American Psychological Association, “research indicates that unaccompanied refugee minors experience greater risk of mental illness than general populations.” Based on work she’s done with unaccompanied minors from Central America, Cervantes said the levels of PTSD in these children is “on another level,” which is part of the reason why she said she’s so appalled by the administration’s aggressive approach to the Central American asylum-seeking population, which she said is greatly lacking in empathy.

“I’ve met unaccompanied kids who have told me horrendous stories. They witness horrible things on their journey here, but they were also escaping horrible things in their country of origin. An 8-year-old witnessing a girl he knew from his neighborhood getting gang-raped as part of a gang initiation and seeing his best friend getting beheaded by a gang on his way to school,” Cervantes told Rewire. “How many years of serious counseling and professional help would it take for an adult to be OK after seeing such violence? Now consider we’re talking about a child. It’s so disturbing, and then these same kids get placed in facilities that are like jails. How are they expected to function?”

While counseling is offered in detention, those services have been highly criticized by pediatricians, therapists, and advocates as inadequate at best, especially considering that the counselors in the facilities often only speak English. It’s also important to note, Cervantes said, that these services are only offered while the child or parent is detained. Once they’re released, there isn’t a clear federal program that offer assistance to directly address their trauma.

Rather than sitting around and hoping a program will eventually be created, advocates are currently working on gathering a team of psychiatrists to visit detention centers and assess the mental health services offered. Next week, First Focus will also be launching a TV and radio campaign about family separation spanning eight states, using donated airtime valued at $1 million.

Over the years as she’s worked in immigration, Cervantes is routinely surprised by how little most Americans seem to know about how the immigration system actually works and the very real ways things like detainment and deportation rip families apart, traumatizing people of all ages. She told Rewire that she hopes the upcoming campaign humanizes the issue and helps people understand that family separation isn’t a rarity and that it happens in every community in every state.

“I’m actually very disturbed by so much of the immigration process, especially how we treat families who are seeking asylum and who have risked their lives. I have to believe that if Americans came to understand this, they’d be disturbed too,” Cervantes said. “I just wish I knew why we can’t be compassionate to people who really need our compassion.”

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include new details about the First Focus program, including that the campaign will span eight states, up from three.


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