The Current Migrant Crisis Is a Collective Trauma

In 2023, unprecedented numbers of Venezuelans migrants crossed the border into the United States. More than 50 thousand Venezuelans crossed the border in September 2023 alone, according to data from U.S Customs and Border Protection, followed by another 85 thousand arrested at the border in October and November. These figures dwarf the 2022 high of nearly 34 thousand in a single month. As a result, in October 2023, President Joe Biden announced that his administration will begin deporting Venezuelans who have illegally come into the country and have “no legal basis to remain.” Since then, the U.S., along with Mexico, has started repatriation flights to ease tensions at the Southern Border, thus creating even more chaos with the Venezuelan refugee population.

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Immigration has always been a polarizing and fragmenting topic, especially when we talk about illegal crossings, eliciting such questions as “What would cause a mother to send her children across the border alone?” and “Why would immigrants risk rape, death, arrests, and the possibility of deportation to escape their homeland?” 

The fact is, the Venezuelan people have been suffering individual and collective trauma for decades, enduring years of oppression, poverty, violence, and colonization. According to the Department of Homeland Security, “Venezuela continues to face a severe humanitarian emergency due to a political and economic crisis, as well as human rights violations and abuses and high levels of crime and violence, that impacts access to food, medicine, healthcare, water, electricity, and fuel, and has led to high levels of poverty.” There seems to be no end in sight; the government’s commitment to free and fair elections was not upheld as Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro moved to dismantle the election of an opposition candidate during the most recent election.

Read More: The Stories of Migrants Risking Everything for a Better Life

I know this plight personally: I am the daughter of Jewish immigrants who escaped from political, religious, and social persecution and settled in Venezuela where I grew up. As a result, I can deeply resonate with the horrors the Venezuelan people have endured. I later immigrated to the U.S. where I became a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma and post traumatic growth. In my 25 years of practice, I’ve helped hundreds of immigrants and refugees who have experienced the horrors of fleeing their country to pursue a better life in the U.S. and the ones who have left voluntarily. What I’ve come to recognize is that the migrant crisis is in fact a “collective trauma”: when a community, a group of people, or a whole culture experiences chronic, ongoing injustice and suffering with no resources to navigate it. Although individuals within a given group may have very different reactions to the same traumatic event, collective trauma centers the group experience—its shared ethos. The group is more than a gathering of individuals; it is a collective consciousness with its own identity. And during trauma, this identity is shattered and broken in the face of the challenges of mass migration. As a result, the very fabric of Venezuelan culture has been torn apart.

At the core of collective trauma is a lost sense of belonging, ripping asunder the idea that community is a place for safety and support. While individual trauma is a “rupture in meaning” that shatters our own assumptions about the world and our place in it, collective trauma is a “crisis of meaning” that calls into question the identity and belief system of an entire group of people. Collective trauma is the fragmentation of a culture’s shared collective history; it causes division and isolation and the disintegration of the very fabric of the culture. For Venezuelans who immigrate to the U.S., it’s the feeling that their culture, their belief systems, and their tradition—their very existence—don’t matter. Their distinctiveness, cultural pride, and the richness of their collective history have become a liability instead of something to honor and celebrate. For example, many of the Venezuelan refugee women I’ve spoken with personally tell me they are experiencing a loss of their professional identity, of their role as mothers, daughters, sisters within their family structure, and they no longer know how to define themselves and their purpose in life.

It’s from this intense level of suffering, injustice, and terror that parents will do anything to protect their children, even if that means crossing the notoriously dangerous and deadly Darién Gap or the Rio Grande into El Paso, Texas. Some may criticize Venezuelan immigrants as careless or fearless, but I see it differently. Their traumatized state overrides normal fear responses in favor of survival. And when they make it across the border, the trauma within them continues as they attempt to settle into a new country, where they are already stigmatized as “illegal aliens.”

Read More: 7 Things That Would Fix Immigration in the U.S.

Collective trauma requires collective healing. But collective healing can only happen when the country of origin and the host culture—the new community— acknowledges, recognizes, and validates the trauma of the immigrants’ experience and provides a sense of safety. And that’s not been the experience of many of the immigrants and refugees I have worked with over the years. Instead they face retraumatization, as they endure prejudice and racism and, regardless of their immigration status, the real threat of deportation—often daily. If they’re lucky to find work, many must accept subpar, demeaning conditions and suffer through multiple acts of abuse with no means of fighting back. They live in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, fearing for themselves and their families.

So what is the most compassionate way forward? First and foremost, it’s important to remember that these refugees cannot go home again without dire consequences. The U.S. government must provide Venezuelan immigrants with basic emotional, psychological, and systemic support to prevent retraumatization. Without such help, the inability to feel safe, secure, and seen in a new country can overwhelm already fragile nervous systems recovering from compounding trauma experiences. In addition, the government needs to fund local organizations—NGOs and nonprofit agencies—that can help the refugees come together, share  their stories, support one another, rebuild interconnected communities, in order to begin the healing process—individually and collectively. 

What I know to be true is when we validate, acknowledge, and recognize the history of oppression Venezuelan immigrants have experienced, we give them the gift of hope. When they feel a sense of safety and belonging—a part of a larger community—they can contribute gladly and mightily to their new home.  

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