Systems that inflict identity-based, systemic trauma on marginalized populations are deeply ingrained in the United States. National Director of Citizenship and Immigration Ken Cuccinelli’s recent commentary on the pending vetting policy for domestic immigration is a clear example of such injustice.
Earlier this month, Cuccinelli announced that those immigrating to the U.S. will be subject to rejection based on their potential need for social welfare access. To support this statement, Cuccinelli drew upon the conventional sentiment that the U.S. is only meant to be home to those who can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”; an inherently oppressive belief assuming that the occurrence and intersection of race, socioeconomic status, gender identity or any other number of marginalized identities does not impact one’s ability to become financially independent in a capitalist society.
Not only is this concept egregiously untrue, it is propagating institutionalized, identity-based trauma to those targeted. Many groups, either residing in or attempting to immigrate to the U.S., have been impacted by this trauma, far prior to the development of this specific policy.
Hala Khouri, a trauma informed social justice advocate and founder of Off the Mat, Into the World, explains: “Social injustice is traumatizing. This needs to be named in trauma work. When this doesn’t happen, individuals can be blamed for behavior that is a natural response to an overwhelming or untenable situation. There can be a subtle, or not so subtle, implication that it is their weakness or lack of resilience that got them where they are, not a larger system that sees them as disposable or doesn’t even see them at all.”
Attempting to assimilate to a country that is deeply entangled with racism, among many other forms of bias, is certainly an “overwhelming or untenable situation” according to Khouri’s description, particularly for immigrants of color. The president’s recent commentary directed to four congresswomen of color has been called racist. Discrimination is palpable and impacting policy development in the U.S. today.
Groundbreaking research has revealed that those with complex trauma histories experience adaptive physiological phenomena, such as the “fight, flight or freeze” response in a maladaptive way when there is no threat to safety. It is considerably intuitive to understand how this biological overactivity might occur in the body and brain, given that those who have faced chronic trauma are forced to access this fear response more than the body is evolutionarily prepared for. This physiological imbalance is demonstrated to impact the long-term health of those with complex trauma, in that chronic illness is correlated with trauma history.
The identity-based discrimination that occurs in current systems such as immigration and criminal justice, among others, provides substantial reason for persistent activation of the physiological response to fear in those experiencing oppression. These systems inflict the harm of complex trauma on many of those who theoretically should benefit from them. It is reasonable to wonder how one might “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” when weighted with the mental and physical health issues imposed upon them by inequitable procedure.
Social welfare policy has been implemented to assist those in need; not to be held against those who are faced with the significant challenges associated with trauma and injustice.
Cuccinelli’s suggested policy will add to other institutional systems and perpetrate trauma through discrimination based on class, race, nationality, gender, and several other characteristics inherent to identity that may correlate with economic inequality and, therefore, the need to access welfare. This must be opposed by elected officials who wield the power to impact U.S. immigration policy.
Through interlacing trauma-informed language and concepts of social justice, it is possible to more fully understand the inextricable relationship between policy, mental health, and physical health; the commonality is trauma. Healing from this trauma requires policy change in the direction of equity.
Hilary Thibodeau of Portland is a student in the University of Maine Graduate School of Social Work.