Immigration is and has always been a complicated topic. But it seems to have become even more complicated since the 2016 election. Whether or not you support the current administration, the reports surfacing in the past week have been particularly harrowing due to the family separation that is happening at the U.S-Mexico border. There are photos, audio recordings, and videos of children who are being torn away from their parents and living in cages. As all of this happens, many parents are wondering how to talk to their kids about immigration and the family separation that is causing a border crisis today.
As an immigrant myself, and someone who came to the U.S. at the age of 8, my heart breaks over and over again whenever I see those photos or hear the cries of the kids who are separated from their parents. I can't help but think that this could have been me. My parents came here not-quite-legally, though we were able to easily get political asylum because my father is Cuban. It's practically automatic for us Cuban citizens to receive political asylum when landing on U.S. soil, but not quite so easy for the families coming across the border today who face just as much violence and poverty in their home countries in Latin America. Had my family come through today just as we had 24 years ago, I am sure that we would have been separated all the same.
Whether or not you are a more recent immigrant, like me, or are second or third or tenth generation, the reality is that the United States of America is a nation of immigrants and, unless you are Native American, you have immigrant roots. So when it comes to the topic of immigration and deportation, it is important to handle it with care — especially when talking to your children. Even if they are very young, they probably have questions about this tricky subject.
According to TIME, how you talk to your children about immigration depends on their school age. For elementary school kids, a good palce to start is by explaining that almost everyone living in the U.S. today comes from an immigrant background.
"A good start would be discussing their family’s history of migration to the U.S.," William Perez, Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University and author of Americans By Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education, tells TIME. "Why did they first come? What were the conditions in the country of origin?”
You can also widen the discussion to include some information about contemporary migration and "the reasons families decide to live in a new country." Some of those reasons could include that their countries of origin are dangerous, they were not able to find work there, or that they came to the U.S. for a visit but had to stay for various reasons.
"As the grandchild of Jewish immigrants who fled to the U.S., I grew up with stories of my father's parents stuffing socks in the mouth of their baby sibling to silence crying so they wouldn't be caught by soldiers as they escaped," Susan M., 46, tells Romper. "I connect the story of our family to the plight of current refugees so my 9-year-old son can relate. He reads our copies of The Economist and soaks in everything he hears on the news, so my job is not to tell or simplify the information but to help him process and humanize it. But I admit, I don't yet have a solution for my 5-year-old."
The conversation should not stop there. You will want to teach your kids that people are not illegal, and instead use the word "undocumented." You can also explain that some people do not want undocumented immigrants coming into the country because they believe that they will hurt people, but point to the statistics that indicate that immigration does not increase violent crime. When it comes to details about what is happening today, with families being separated and children traumatized by being torn away from their parents, the conversation still needs to happen — even if it's difficult and heartbreaking to talk about.
According to Mother magazine, you should begin to talk to your kids about the border crisis by listening to what they already know, and then sharing your own thoughts and feelings and allowing them to do the same. You should also talk to them about empathy, acceptance, and respect, mention again your own family's immigrant roots, and talk to them about how you as a family may be able to help the immigrant children being separated from their families.
Your children may very well want to do something, and you should not be afraid to help them partake.
"My daughter and I went to a 'keep families together' rally yesterday in Lancaster, PA," Jamie Beth S., 42, who has a 9-year-old daughter, tells Romper. "Lancaster takes in more refugees per capita than anywhere else in the United States. We had talked ahead of time about what is happening on the border, but at the rally local issues were brought up as well. We learned that the day before five fathers/husbands had been deported by ICE. As we left the event, my daughter asked me to explain it to her. So I did my best. And she cried, and I cried, and I reminded her that no one was coming for us, so it was our job to stand up for those who were more vulnerable."
You can also do more as a family. Whether you call your congressman or donate money, make sure your kids are participating in the process and you are explaining to them why you are doing what you are doing. Have them help you pick an organization that your family can donate money to or consider your volunteer options. And, as Jamie Beth has done, you can go to a protest together. Families Belong Together is putting on events all across the country on June 30th in order to oppose "the cruel, inhumane and unjustified separation of children from their parents along the U.S. border with Mexico and at other ports of entry into the U.S."
Whatever your family decides to do, the one thing we truly cannot afford to do as a nation is to ignore the border crisis. I say this not only as an immigrant, but as a human being. No mother or father, and certainly no child, deserves to be ripped apart from their loved ones simply because they are seeking a better life. Immigration reform is needed more than ever, and our children deserve to know what is happening in their home country.