Panel Explores Injustice of U.S. Immigration

PANELISTS SHARE PERSONAL EXPERIENCES OF WORK SUPPORTING IMMIGRANTS

By BEN DOHAN

Speakers discussed the painful and sometimes tragic experiences of immigrants seeking new lives in the United States during a Nov. 15 panel in Dana Auditorium, titled “Trauma and the U.S. Immigration System.” 

The panel featured University of Vermont College of Medicine Professor Dr. Andrea Green, Albany Law School Professor Sarah Rogerson, Migrant Justice activist Marita Caneda and Hannah Krutiansky ’19, who worked as a summer intern with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). 

Meron Benti ’19, who was born in Ethiopia and moved to Italy before making her way to the United States, served as the moderator. She opened by talking about her own experience as an immigrant and her 18 month wait for asylum.

Krutiansky shared her experiences working with RAICES, a non-profit based in San Antonio, Texas, where she spent time in detention facilities and worked directly with detainees to provide legal support. She focused on injustice faced by indigenous migrants that she observed during the job.

What they really need is counseling, but what they’re going to get is interrogation about the most intimate, traumatic, events of their life.”

— Hannah Krutiansky ’19

“I was in a courtroom where the mother and the interpreter clearly were not understanding each other and the judge just said, ‘Please give your best interpretation,’” she said. 

Krutiansky’s work with RAICES gave her a first hand perspective of the trauma that immigrants endure. 

“They’ll be told that they need to sign a paper that might be in English and if they ask what they’re signing a very typical response could be, ‘Do you think I have time to explain this to you?’” she said. “What they really need is counseling, but what they’re going to get is interrogation about the most intimate, traumatic, events of their life.” 

In one incident, she and other RAICES staff were forced to leave the holding facility without explanation. 

“We exited visitation and we were met by a literal army of ICE officers, it was probably anywhere from 30 to 50 officers in bulletproof vests, guns, shields, handcuffs,” Krutiansky said. “This was just to terrorize this population.” 

After this incident, 16 fathers were randomly selected and put in solitary confinement for a day with no explanation. One of the fathers tried to commit suicide. 

Krutiansky witnessed the effect that this attack had on the children whose fathers were taken away with no explanation. 

“One seven-year-old boy whose eyes were completely glazed over after the incident, bloodshot, you could have put your hand in front of him and he wouldn’t have flinched,” Krutiansky said.

Rogerson elaborated on immigration from a legal perspective and described a variety of legal terms. She also described traumatic experiences helping 300 refugees who had been flown to a county jail in Albany to be detained. 

“No one ever told them where they were, so the first thing that the lawyers did when they went in was draw a map of the United States and show them where they were, and where their family members were in some cases,” she said, describing many of the refugees as “incredibly disoriented.”

The Trump administration made the decision to limit asylum claims for people who were fleeing gang violence and people fleeing domestic violence.”

— Albany Law School Professor Sarah Rogerson

Rogerson criticized many recent changes to immigration policy. 

“The Trump administration made the decision to limit asylum claims for people who were fleeing gang violence and people fleeing domestic violence,” she said. 

She also emphasized collaboration with law enforcement. 

“We’re creating our own system of humane immigration system enforcement and we’re using law enforcement allies to do it,” Rogerson said. 

Dr. Green, a pediatrician with experience serving refugees, focused on the physical effects of trauma and immigration, especially on children.

“Young people, they will trade sex for their basic needs,” she said, calling it “survival sex” which leads to sexually transmitted infections, in addition to other diseases and injuries acquired through the arduous process of coming to the United States as an asylee or refugee. 

“The bigger issue, in addition to all those health issues, is the effects of trauma,” she said. “Stress, trauma causes inflammation in the body, and that inflammation in the body affects health in the long term, and actually changes your genetic makeup.”

The effect at a broader level is a higher suicide rate among immigrants. Green spoke about her own experience serving Bhutanese refugees in Vermont, which has twice the suicide risk of the general population.

“That trauma affects that parents ability to parent that child,” she said during discussion of parents coming to the U.S. to get a better life for their children. “That trauma is now a multi-generational trauma.” 

Caneda, a Migrant Justice activist, gave a brief overview of the organization’s current work. She spoke about its mission to protect Vermont dairy workers with the goal of improving lives of migrants and advancing human rights, and highlighted that immigrants do not have the same human rights as others. 

“Since 2014, a lot of members of migrant justice have been arrested” she said. “Nine of those detentions have clear evidence of retaliation for coming in and speaking out about human rights.” Caneda added that many detentions and arrests by ICE also involved illegal cooperation with the DMV. 

Caneda emphasized that not all immigrants are necessarily fleeing violence, but also lack of opportunity and unsafe working conditions. 

“When the only options to work are for a fracking company or for an oil company or joining the army, a lot of people don’t have those values and they come and migrate here and end up working on the dairy farms” she said.

“When you work at a dairy farm you live on the farm, you become a 24/7 worker” Caneda said, pointing out food safety concerns. “When you live on a farm, especially up north, you depend on others to bring you food, sometimes it’s every 15 days, so if day 13 you run out of food, you don’t have an option and you spend two days without.” 

Right now in Vermont anyone can get a driver’s license regardless of your immigration status, which was a big change because now people could start driving cars, going to stores, not depending on others for food.”

— Migrant Justice activist Marita Caneda

In a positive moment, Caneda explained that this condition has improved. 

“Right now in Vermont anyone can get a driver’s license regardless of your immigration status, which was a big change because now people could start driving cars, going to stores, not depending on others for food,” she said. 

This panel fit within a larger national conversation around immigration. The narratives of the speakers stood in striking contrast with the president’s recent military response to the alleged “migrant caravan” of immigrants approaching the border from Central America. 

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Panel Explores Injustice of U.S. Immigration