Consider these stories:
• Last December, an Asheville man was pulled over, found to be driving without a license, and was arrested. At this writing, he is still in jail, awaiting a late-September court date. He hasn’t seen his family or his newborn son in more than eight months.
• A young family that’s worked in Asheville for 15 years—they have two lovely, well-behaved children, ages 4 and 8—live as fugitives. Although they’ve faithfully paid their taxes and live like model citizens, they fear arrest whenever they leave home.
• Recently, 59 undocumented workers were arrested during a raid on a plant in Weaverville. They face certain (and, in some cases, almost immediate) deportation. The event sent a fear-laced, traumatic shock wave through the area’s Latino community.
These are real situations that are happening now; all of the people described are Latinos.
But in the rush to judgment concerning immigration policy, it’s easy to forget that actual people with real lives are the ones who get caught in the maelstrom. Yes, these people are here illegally: They did not ask permission before they came.
Instead, they looked across the borders, looked back at their squalid surroundings, and did what any reasonable person might do: They dared to leap, seeking a better life for themselves and, especially, for their children.
What parent would do otherwise?
But the price of that leap is high and getting higher. These days, they lead fearful, anxious lives, constantly scanning their surroundings, looking over their shoulder, hoping and praying each day that they won’t get caught.
Just what are we trying to accomplish here?
Meanwhile, our fearmongering immigration policy is creating an unintended consequence: The increased anxiety and depression resulting from constricted, fear-driven lives are spawning additional mental-health problems here in our land of the free. The emotional toll on both children and adults is significant.
Yet amid the discussion of fences, economics, deportation, protecting American jobs for Americans and similar throwaway phrases, the toll on these families is so easily lost.
And, humanitarian concerns aside, these people are now consuming significant community resources:
• The man in jail has received all his food, lodging and health care at taxpayer expense. Before his arrest, he was working and paying his own way.
• His family is likely to develop longer-term psychological and physical difficulties caused by the constant, unaddressed anxiety and fear, which sow the seeds of chronic psychological trauma.
• Families throughout the region are being affected by the rippling fear of capture and deportation. This means higher and more intense levels of anxiety, coping challenges, and even the potential for increased family violence due to the extreme stress their situation creates.
We tell people they can’t have driver’s licenses and then jail them for months on end because they drive to work without one. They drive to work at jobs where they pay taxes and gain the ability to care for their families and live stable lives—and for this, we put them in jail.
Somewhere in our sanctimony, we have to find room for compassion. Somewhere in our rigidity, we have to create a more flexible path to citizenship.
Call it forgiveness. Call it amnesty. Call it whatever you want.
Playing political games with other people’s emotional lives is creating problems that will be much harder to address than the lack of a driver’s license.
As long as they’re not free, none of us is.
[Stephen Snow is a licensed professional counselor in Asheville specializing in chronic, complex trauma and family violence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]