Walking Alongside the Trauma of Family Separation
An interview with Gena Thomas on trauma and resilience amid family separation.
Posted October 29, 2019
At times, the sheer scale of disasters and humanitarian crises can tempt us to approach them as theoretical “issues”—especially when politics get involved. A prime example from the past few years is the crisis of family separation at the border.
If you’re looking for a way to wrap your head around the complex issues surrounding this tragic reality that is centered on the people living it, I recommend Separated by the Border: A Birth Mother, a Foster Mother, and a Migrant Child's 3,000-Mile Journey by Gena Thomas (InterVarsity Press). In this powerful book, Gena helps us enter into the reality of an unimaginable crisis—a recent study showed that nearly 5,500 families have been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border since July 2017—by sharing the story of one family living through it.
In this interview, she shares about her experience fostering a 5-year-old girl separated from her mother at the border, how her family walked alongside the trauma as they worked to reunify her with her mother in Honduras, and what she learned about resilience by being part of their story.
JA: How did you end up writing a book about family separation at the border?
GT: My husband Andrew and I became foster parents to 5-year-old Julia—who had been separated from her mother at the U.S.-Mexico border—in February of 2018. Over the next four months, we worked closely with social workers and the Honduran Consulate to get Julia back to her mom, Lupe, who had since returned to their home in Honduras. In July of 2018, Lupe and Julia were reunited.
Lupe and Julia were separated at the border by the smugglers the family paid to bring them across. The smugglers took Lupe as a hostage, and she was exploited sexually until she escaped a few months later. However, the smugglers allowed Julia to cross the border with her stepdad, Carlos.
But on the U.S. side of the border, Carlos and Julia were also separated from each other. It’s unclear why exactly they were separated. It could have been because the Honduran government has a different definition of stepdad than the U.S. government does.
It could also have been because of the zero-tolerance policy that was officially announced in the spring of 2018, though reports have shown that the policy actually started as early as June of 2017. According to the Department of Justice, on April 6, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new zero-tolerance policy wherein the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice would partner for the sake of prosecuting illegal entry into the United States.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple,” said Sessions. “If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.”
Six weeks later, almost 2,000 children had been separated from their parents at the border after the new zero-tolerance policy took effect.
I wrote this book as a way of sharing this intertwined story of Lupe, Julia, and myself.
JA: In your relationship with Lupe and Julia, you walked very closely alongside people who had experienced and were experiencing significant trauma. What did that look like for you? What does it look like to do that well?
GT: I can’t say I was prepared for this, or that I did this well. We were trained as foster parents for the basic trauma that foster children/families go through (we were not therapeutic foster parents), but we weren’t trained in the trauma of being separated by violent forces from one’s parents who are now separated by country borders. To be physically forced into that separation is incredibly inhumane, and we all knew this at the time, but reports are now showing how this government-inflicted trauma is affecting long-term PTSD for the children and the parents.
It was challenging for us (and the social workers) to find the right therapist for Julia. The first layer was finding a therapist who spoke Spanish. But even when we did find one that spoke Spanish, we were concerned the therapist wasn’t seeing the deep trauma we knew Julia had experienced. We were also on a sporadic timeline of getting everything checked off the list before Julia could return to her mother.
It felt impossible to plan ahead. Which meant we were unable to find a different therapist in time. However, we did have some great people in our lives who knew how to recognize patterns and triggers. They spoke into the situations we were faced with, and they really helped us see that our home could be a safe space for meltdowns, rather than seeing our role as one of preventing all meltdowns from happening.
Not being afraid to have the tough conversations was a big part of working through this. Lupe and I had some very candid conversations when we were visiting her home in Honduras. I explained that Julia would deal with reverse culture shock, and eventually, maybe remember some of the trauma she had forgotten from her time at the border.
I’ve also tried to hold space for Lupe to process some of her own trauma while holding the tension that I can only go as far as a friend can. I’m not a trained professional, and I have to be very clear about my own capabilities.
JA: How do you understand the concept of resilience differently now than you did before?
GT: Resilience wasn’t really a necessary word in typical Gena jargon prior to this experience. But I must be honest about why—I am very privileged as a white woman. What I am not saying here is that no white people have to have resilience. But what I am saying is that as a white woman, American society automatically offers me comforts that my nonwhite brothers and sisters do not receive. And those comforts trump my need to be as resilient as others.
What I most learned about resilience is that it’s the people on the margins of society who have long learned resilience, and I have much to learn from them.
JA: How can Americans on this side of the border help contribute to the resilience of children, parents, and families living in these incredibly difficult realities?
GT: There are refugee foster parents living in our communities. There are refugees living in our communities. There are immigrants living in our communities.
Churches can reach out, offer services, connections, and listen and learn from immigrants and refugees. If we can recognize they have as much to offer us as we do to them, we fulfill the scripture that talks about each of us being different members of the body of Christ. We need each other, and our collective resilience will increase as we seek communal justice: a life of right relationship together.
JA: What do you wish Americans better understood about the current issues at the border?
GT: First and foremost, that every “issue” has real people with real bodies, and spirits, and minds behind them. Most of all, I wish we would be better about fighting for humanity rather than fighting our political standing ground. If we cannot demand our politicians uphold human dignity in the midst of their policies, then we hold a piece of the blame.
We’re prideful about this being the “land of the free and home of the brave,” but there are a lot of people who are being crushed by our nation’s policies, and rather than being brave and standing up to the oppression, we just continue on with our daily lives. “None of us is free until all of us are free” — that means we aren’t yet the land of the free. But we can advocate and fight for that.
I wish that Americans understood that seeking asylum is legal. I wish we understood that the United Nations told us our zero-tolerance policy was inhumane, but we continued with it. I think it’s easy for those of us who are privileged and who grew up with a certain picture of what America is just to assume that America does the right thing—that our checks and balances and policies will follow international human rights laws—but that simply is not the case. We must pay attention, we must hold our authorities accountable, and we must take responsibility for who we elect in all areas of civic life, from our county judges to our school boards to our governors to the highest office in the land.
A few more things for Americans to note: Lupe didn’t come to the U.S. fleeing violence in Honduras. She came for short-term economic opportunities in order to pay for medicine for her grandfather. The violence she experienced was in Mexico. (This is especially important to remember as the Department of Homeland Security’s program known as Remain in Mexico “has returned tens of thousands of asylum applicants to violence-plagued Mexican border cities to await hearings scheduled weeks or months later.”)
The push factors for why people come to the U.S. vary. In some cases, it’s an economic opportunity; for others, it’s economic survival; for some, it’s fleeing violence; for others, it’s preempting the need to flee violence. But it is true that Honduras is an especially violence-prone country in that “75 percent of homicide cases are not investigated, and 88 percent never reach a judicial resolution.”
For most people, the decision to leave or stay is deeply difficult. Most people don’t want to leave their homes, their culture, their neighborhoods. For Lupe, she never intended to stay in the U.S. for very long; for her, she wanted to stay for a few months and save up enough money for her grandfather’s medicine and then return to her family in Honduras. She loves her hometown and doesn’t ever want to leave it if she doesn’t have to. I think it’s important to understand how nuanced and difficult these decisions are.
 Department of Justice, “Attorney General Announces Zero-Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry,” April 6, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-announces-zero-toleranc….
 Tom Dart, “2,000 children separated from parents in six weeks under Trump policy,” The Guardian, June 16, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/16/children-separated-pare….
 Tim Keller, in his book Generous Justice, gives the definition of the Hebrew word tzedakah as “a life of right relationship.”