Op-Ed

Lexington doctor: I know the fear of fleeing a violent nation for family safety

Helen Rodriguez Agurcia, 29, an asylum seeker from Honduras, prays with her husband and four children while waiting on the Mexican side of the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge near Brownsville, Texas, June 26, 2018. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)
Helen Rodriguez Agurcia, 29, an asylum seeker from Honduras, prays with her husband and four children while waiting on the Mexican side of the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge near Brownsville, Texas, June 26, 2018. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times) NYT

My family is an immigrant family. I grew up in a violent Latin American country, and used to live in fear. As a kid, I got used to hiding under a table whenever I heard an explosion. Armed security guards with semi-automatic rifles at the mall and stores and military security checks in the city were the norm.

Nobody in my family was a gang member, nor did we live in a bad part of town; however, I had family members and friends kidnapped and murdered. I was a middle-class kid with college-graduated parents. My family had the means and education to afford coming to this country to escape from violence. After many years, I became an American citizen.

What I value the most about living in the United States is that I feel safe. A wall does not surround my house, and my windows do not have bars. My kids can go to school, and I am not concerned they may be kidnapped. I am thankful that my children are growing up in a place where they can be kids.

As a pediatrician, I enjoy working with immigrant families. In the last 10 years, I have witnessed how resilient, hardworking, tenacious and humble they are. They do not take any privileges for granted. They are willing to do what it takes for the sake of their children.

Like many people, I have asked myself the questions: Where are the families being detained at the southern border coming from? Why are they leaving their countries, endangering their lives and their children’s in the journey?

Contrary to what most people believe, the current immigration crisis is not due to an increase in immigration influx, nor are all immigrants from Mexico. The number of people crossing the border has decreased over the last two decades, as reported by Stephanie Leutert in her Lawfare article “Who’s Really Crossing the U.S. Border, and Why They’re Coming.”

In 2017, 50 percent of the immigrants were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Honduran and Salvadorian families come mostly from urban areas with high levels of gang violence.

They suffer from local level extortion, which means death if they fail to pay fees. Gangs recruit children as lookouts, and teenage girls and women are forced to become member “girlfriends.”

Guatemalan migrants are fleeing from gang violence in the cities, but many are from indigenous origin and come from rural areas affected by frequent natural disasters and droughts. The humanitarian crises in their countries is what fuels their desire to escape, to survive.

As an immigrant, I can say that leaving your home is not easy. It breaks your heart to leave behind your home and all the people you care about, for a place that is completely unfamiliar, where people do not even speak your language. Migration can be a scary and challenging experience that some people have to go through in order to survive.

The families that are migrating now to our southern border do not have the privileges my family had to migrate to the United States. Yet against all odds, they are crossing multiple countries to get here seeking asylum. Sadly, these families fleeing from violence and extreme poverty are being placed in detention facilities, and the thousands of children already separated from their families have not been reunited with their parents.

Immigrants in detention facilities suffer negative physical and emotional symptoms including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Multiple community, social and scientific organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have opposed family separation and family detention.

As Americans, we must continue to advocate for a dignified treatment of these families and a humanitarian resolution of this crisis.

Dr. Janeth Ceballos Osorio is assistant professor of pediatrics with UK Health Care.

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