In our county, according to a 2015 census, our foreign-born immigrant population is 32% of the population. That is an enormous number. In that community, it is not uncommon for parents to immigrate years before their children join them here. Sometimes, as many as ten years will have passed before the family can be reunited. Everyone has such high hopes for the reunion. They imagine joy and belonging and solidarity and family. What they encounter is often quite different. Ten years is a very long time, especially in the life of a child. By the time the child is brought here, they are being asked to settle in with people they do not know. They come to a new country very far away from all that is familiar. They do not speak the language and they have not yet made friends. They left their friends and their life behind. They do not know these people whom they are expected to call mom and dad. Mom and dad do not know their child either. There are a lot of growing pains during the settling-in process and sometimes, the turbulence leads young people to strike out on their own. They may or may not leave home, but they live their own life and do their own thing, no matter what the parents say. In some cases, parents who are at their wits end, trying to connect with a stranger and instill respect and discipline, begin to abuse their long-lost child as a means of exerting control. This leads to more distance between child and parent, hard feelings, and rebellion.
Here is what concerns me most. That rebellion against parents who don’t understand, and the deep-seated desire to connect with peers, leaves the minor horribly vulnerable to gangs, trafficking, and all kinds of evil. Please do not misunderstand. I am not insinuating that immigrants are criminals or trouble-makers. Quite the opposite. I am actually expressing concern for an unprotected and particularly vulnerable segment of our community.
My former spouse, N, immigrated from Asia at 13 years old. N’s parents came over first and it was 13 years before N was brought over and the family was reunited. N suffered many things as a result: being brought here without any say, not knowing the language, not having any friends, and not knowing the parents. N never wanted to leave home; never wanted to come here at all. N had to attend summer school for all 4 years of high school, struggled to learn English, struggled to connect with parents, and struggled to find a place to fit in. N’s parents were fluent in English by the time N arrived and N was not. That lead to N being isolated from all the other kids and spending lots of time at home. That fostered further resentment in N and eventually lead to child abuse. As N had no grasp of the language, cultural/societal norms, or the law. The situation was ripe for many bad things. Who was N going to tell? N took up smoking and drinking, got involved with a gang, got arrested for drunk driving, spent time in jail, married 3 times, had multiple adulterous affairs, moved around the country, got evicted from home, let debts go delinquent, and eventually went back home. I have always wondered if N’s story might have turned out differently if someone had known about the risks during this vulnerable transition time. What if someone had seen N’s fear, loneliness, and isolation? Could anything have been done to set N on a more solid and more productive path?
Let’s not lose sight of this precious pocket of our community. I might be the one who knows someone I can help. It might be up to me to make a new friend, tutor someone in English, or connect a struggling person with community resources and outreach. There are many NGO’s and charities in this county who exist to serve the immigrant population. They are aware of the vulnerability of young, new immigrants but they cannot fix the problem by themselves. They need all of us to look around, notice the people around us, and help. Why should we be content to allow this segment of the population to fall into the hands of gangs and traffickers when we can stop it?