KENNEBUNKPORT — This has been a painfully reflective time for all of us, and especially for those directly threatened by recent changes in immigration policy.

Over the last several weeks, we have witnessed a seismic shift in American policy and its impact on immigration. President Trump signed the executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Entry into the United States by Foreign Nationals” – or what has also been referred to as the “Muslim ban” – on Jan. 27. That order has since been frozen, but the president has promised to announce its replacement later this week.

Much of what was authorized in the presidential order echoed back to June 1939 when the German ocean liner St. Louis was turned away from the port of Miami. The ship was forced to return to Germany, where nearly 250 of the 937 passengers died in the Holocaust. Similarly, the order conjures up traumatic memories of the 1942 presidential order that forced Japanese-Americans to leave their homes and relocate into detention camps.

With the possibility that our borders will again be closed to these new immigrants hoping for a better life, we can only surmise what their futures might be as they wait, feeling powerless and without hope.

These shameful acts from our past and the one we are now experiencing have short- and long-term impact. They create fear and uncertainty; perpetuate stereotypes and false assumptions about faiths, people and nations, and impart legacies of historic trauma perpetrated by a nation that prides itself on “liberty and justice for all.”

Immigrants come to our country to escape present-day violence and degradation. Many experience historical trauma that is transmitted across generations, through unrelenting brutality perpetrated against them by people who have forgotten or do not know why they hate. The wounds of trauma affect emotional, physical and psychological well-being across ages and groups.

We witness its effects in programs such as the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, where youth enact the unresolved grief and pain of their families as well as their own. At the same time, these children and families testify to their resilience. They teach us the power of culture, custom and connection.

The Portland group Kesho Wazo, a grass-roots ensemble of Portland’s multicultural youth, are making efforts to find commonalities and bridge gaps of misunderstanding across cultures and faiths. Like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, they view every person as a vital part of our “national fabric.”

They bring people of all ages together to dispel myths and build alliances between people; those who speak languages other than English and dress to custom. They are welcoming but at the same time they ask us to examine our assumptions and mistrust of others; to learn with and from each other to broaden understanding, combat discrimination and create a culture of inclusion for all people.

For now, broad-scale mandates are most notably affecting Maine’s immigrants and refugees. But as history tells us, any group or population may be subject to direct and indirect discrimination at any given time. As a social worker for 40 years, I know that the current mandates and rapid-fire changes shake everyone to the core.

As a profession, social workers have an ethical obligation to combat discrimination and work with people and populations subjected to hate, intolerance and inequity. However, I would argue that as citizens of the world, we all have a moral obligation to refute such actions.

We are responsible for the safety and quality of life of this nation. Freedom allows us to speak our mind, empowerment permits us to have choices – freedom and choices now denied to one population by the recent policy mandate. When we do not use our voice alone or collectively, we are equally culpable for acts against humanity.

The values and tenets of the social work profession compel me to challenge contradiction and to advocate publicly for those who are excluded – those who may not be able to speak for themselves and those who need support to find their voices. Compassion, tolerance and kindness, however, cut across job roles, as do curiosity, understanding and humility. Action begins with a strong voice, one that resonates with all of us.


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