What is it in the phrase “for the least of these” that inspires people to take action? What is it that strikes a chord in us when we hear the words, “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” etched on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty? In following the stories of the detained young migrants from Central America as they are shuttled from place to place, in seeing the outcry from the folks in Washington and the larger public, I’ve been asking myself, “How to we react to people in vulnerable situations?”
Vulnerability seems to be the essence of what rallies communities together. Vulnerability is the foundation of social contracts. It is the starting place of policy. The policies created by the Trump administration and the ones from our already troubled immigration system, have exacerbated vulnerability rather than alleviated it. Policy is supposed to protect. The question is for whom and for what.
Where we are all global citizens, we are all inheritors and protectors of the planet we live on. Land is connected to our sense of personhood, and with that understanding we are afforded, in the U.S. unalienable rights. According to federal law, it is required that “all children on American soil receive a free public education, regardless of their immigration status” . This shows that the framers of the laws that we enjoy as freedoms had in mind what would it mean to compassionately respond to populations in distress.
While, yes, the point can be and has been made at education, like much of our social institutions, are centers for assimilation and social codification, in moments of crises, people need to know what is going on--on both sides of the issue. The migrant children need to understand what they are about to experience. The constituents and their representatives need to know how to best respond to the needs of the families entering their borders.
Policy debates on immigration, at the core of them, are really about acknowledging vulnerability.
Connecting the vulnerability experienced by one population to that of another gets us to focus on less of the hot button issues and to the heart of the matter: How to care for one another?
Familiarization is one way to create a feeling of care. The curriculum that the migrant children are being taught includes a focus on American civics, government, patriotism and geography . That is familiarization in terms of landscape. Health and Human Services requires assessments on “linguistic ability” as well as “cultural diversity and sensitivity” for children in shelters ; this includes children domestically already in foster care. On the part of the care providers, getting a baseline understanding of the children’s individual needs is part of familiarization.. Getting to know one another better takes vulnerability as it alleviates vulnerability.
Both groups are experiencing what it feels like to be in flux, to lack a safe and stable home environment. Coming to agreement on how to care about the intersecting needs of migrant and homeless populations includes tapping into what it means to be in a vulnerable position, what it means lose a safe haven.
What a social contract is erected to protect is vulnerability. Appealing to vulnerability is a way to help refocus debate on immigration or homelessness into something that we all can relate to: the precariousness that comes with living. What would it mean to approach policy from a care-centered approach?
People in vulnerable situations often are more responsive when people show they care. They find resonance in care-centered approach. They feel seen. When we notice that others notice our struggles, it creates a heart to heart connection that allows for healing. That kind of healing can last for years, especially for migrant and foster care children. I know this personally. I’ve been through it.
During my foster care experience in the third grade, my social worker taught be how to thrift store shop. When children are removed from their homes into foster care, there often is little time to grab all, if any, of their belongings. Clothing is often the first thing they need. State agencies have tight budgets and have to be creative in meeting the needs of children in distress. Thrift stores provide a valuable resource. They are super affordable.
Some thrift stores have dressing room; some do not. My social worker taught me a quick way to see if pants or a skirt would fit me if there wasn’t a dressing room by taking the waist of a garment and wrapping it around my neck. If it fit, edge to edge, then it would fit around my waist. It worked. This is how I still shop.
How many kids did she teach this skill, knowing what they were going through? How has her approach shown years of care and understanding of migrant and foster children’s challenges? My social worker did not make me feel like a “ charity case.” She taught me with stoicism and grace of a mother showing her kids what it means to be living.
Because someone cared enough to show me a strategy for shopping on a shoestring budget, I was able to buy work clothes for interviews or a normal day at the office.One moment of care rippled out into a strategy that has helped me during tough economic times.
What if we thought of policy not as some thing or regulation we had to follow or enact but a representation of a care-centered approach we get to offer?