Some of my clients have called their immigration journey, the immigration nightmare. One noted, “everyone talks about the American dream but nobody talks about the American nightmare.” This nightmare has become a real every day experience for many of them.
Children crying and terrified after a stranger, an immigration agent, separates them from their parents when they arrive at the US border. Young adults living in limbo in a life that feels uncertain to them, not knowing whether in a few years they will continue working where they are or studying their university programs because of the nature of their temporary Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Parents worrying that if they get deported to their countries of origin their children will become foster kids because they will have to make a hard choice to leave them behind in the United States rather than to bring them back to countries plagued by violence, poverty, and hunger. Scholar and social worker Dr. Luis H. Zayas refers to these children, impacted by immigration policies of family separations, as the forgotten citizens.
These are just of the few stories that represent the plight that immigrants who are undocumented or have temporary status face in the United States. In the last year, we have seen increased political efforts to seize migration and punish immigrants who chose to migrate in the only way they could, creating feelings of insecurity, trauma, depression among community members affected by these policies.
As social workers, it’s crucial we become well-versed on the challenges that existing immigrants and a new generation of newcomers face and that we follow our National Association of Social Workers (NASW) code of ethics to support them and treat them with dignity and worth of a person regardless of how they arrived to this country, nor our political views.
Going Beyond the Headlines, Facts about Immigration
Over the last year, we have been inundated with countless stories of immigrants arriving in record numbers through the Mexican border. Some of the media stories have focused on the illegality of migrating through the border; other outlets have reported on the reasons why immigrants are knocking on our doors but with little emphasis on why immigrants “choose” to come through the border. Reasons for coming include fleeing violence, political unrest, and persecution among others.
From testimonials of lawyers, service providers, and human and immigrant’s rights organizations who are working profusely on the ground at border towns, we know that most of the immigrants who are arriving can qualify as refugees. Noting this difference is important because refugees seeking asylum have a right to seek asylum in the United States and have certain protections. The UN Refugee Agency defines refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries,” (UN Refugee Agency, 2019).
We often hear questions like “Why can’t they come the right away?” or “They need to get in line?” The reality is that our immigration system is broken. To come to the United States legally, individuals have to either have a family member who is a Citizen or US Resident petition for them, or be sponsored by an employer through a work visa, most employment visas are usually for high skilled workers, or apply to a lottery system, for the “lucky” opportunity to obtain a visa. It sounds simple, right? Just apply and you should be fine. Not so much!
There is a restriction of the numbers of visas granted each year. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are about 140,000 work visas per year and family sponsored preferences are limited to 226,000 visas per year. There are currently two types of backlogs impacting the issuance of US Resident cards, which allows people to come to the United States and stay permanently.
“The first is due to visa availability, not enough to go around and meet the demand. The second is due to processing delays of applicants’ documents. A brief illustration of that is that in February 2019, the U.S. government was still processing some family-sponsored visa applications dating to August 1995, and some employment-related visa applications from August 2007,” (Migration Policy Institute, 2019).
This means that a mother who is concerned that gang members have infiltrated her neighborhood, and are looking to extort her each month for a sum of money that she does not have or she and her family will be killed, who may not have a US Resident or Citizen family member or an employer to sponsor her, has no other way to enter the United States as a refugee seeking asylum. She and scores of others do not have another choice.
When working with immigrants is important to remember that while there are some similarities in the immigration journey for some, not two stories are alike. This is our opportunity to allow the client to be the expert of their story and have them guide us in their experience.
Community members who are in the United States without an immigration status or a temporary status or are seeking status may face many challenges as they adjust to a new environment or simply work towards surviving it. But their distress or trauma may not be new or their first trauma. Clinical psychologist Dr. Cecilia J. Falicov reminds us of the pre-trauma, during trauma and post-trauma immigrants can experience during their journey. Trauma sometimes begins before people leave their countries of origin. Understanding what their experience was prior to coming to the United States is critical during clinical or initial assessment or throughout work with clients.
Immigrants may experience trouble with acculturation, getting used to new norms, traditions, food, and language. Most importantly and often overlooked is the grief and loss they may experience for having left (or lost) a place they knew, friends, family members and things they are familiar to.
Aside from the trauma, kids who are separated from their parents may experience, attachment to their parent or caregiver may suffer, making it harder for them to have a healthy reunification at a later time.
Furthermore, immigrants may face discrimination, racial profiling or bullying in their community, at work or school, which can lead to stigma about immigration status or passing to hide their immigration status. They can experience abuse at work or exploration, such as earning low wages while working long hours. Perpetrators of abuse can threaten victims who are undocumented to call immigration authorities on them. Often times victims do not call for help out of fear of being deported and what they may not know is that there are actually certain protections for victims of violence or crime who are undocumented.
Immigrants may realize the limitations of their immigration status such as not being able to obtain driving licenses (some states do grant licenses to immigrants who are undocumented), not being able to obtain in-state tuition (some states have passed in-state tuition laws for students who are undocumented), not being able to travel and little or no access to services, resources or benefits.
These and other challenges can lead to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which are the three main diagnoses that impact immigrants. And media news about immigration policies that may impact their life may exuberate symptoms.
While someone’s immigration status can represent a social determinant of health, not all immigrants want to address challenges regarding their status in their work with social workers right away or sometimes ever. Teenage immigrants sometimes just want to talk about dating; parents want to talk about parenting, DACA recipients want to talk about their dreams and aspirations. We must be mindful and respect the client’s self-determination and not impose our own agenda to address what we think the client “should” address and meet the client where they are at in their journey.
The Social Work Response
I propose a comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of our immigrant clients composed of clinical, psychoeducation or supportive services, mezzo (support groups) and advocacy. In my work with immigrant clients whose goal is to address their distress connected to their immigration status, I use a psychoeducational, skills building and processing approach where I incorporate:
Psychoeducation on the impact of politics in everyday life such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD; identifying feelings, emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and overall mental health symptoms.
Processing emotions, verbalization of feelings, normalization and validation through empathy, reflective listening, etc.
Skills building including stress and anxiety management, behavioral activation to combat depression, self-care, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness (focusing on present moment and grounding). Strengths assessment and positive qualities. This activity entails helping clients re-discover or discover their strengths by reviewing all they have accomplished so far, including getting here. For many, the journey of getting here is a demonstration of determination, risk-taking, and survivorship.
Fostering a sense of safety, building safety plan (to address fears like “what if I get deported,” etc.)
Empowerment: gaining control over what we can control.
Building Awareness: providing know your rights information, connecting clients to local resources, and providing information analysis.
In addition to the work we can do through our own agencies or places of work, effective interventions include providing services for community members at their schools, churches, and community based organizations.
This requires us to partner with entities and cross collaborate. Not too long ago, several colleagues and I were going to schools to talk to immigrant parents about stress management. The local school system and the organization I worked at then formed a partnership to bring awareness during “drop off kids and coffee time.”
The clinical response and mezzo responses are just some ways of helping clients address their distress. But we know that our client’s distress is connected to environmental issues and as long as there isn’t a solution to that can aid the millions of lives impacted by the broken immigration system, our immigrant community currently in limbo will continue to suffer. This is when micro becomes macro. We have plenty of opportunities to engage right now on important fights including the passage of the DREAM and PROMISE ACT and decrying the family separations that are impacting children and are a form of children neglect and abuse. This is when we join together to fight for social justice as our NASW code of ethics calls us to do.
Falicov, C. J. (2014). Latino families in therapy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Gilford Press.
Zayas, L. H. (2015). Forgotten citizens: deportation, children and the making of american exiles and orphans. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Zong, J., Zong, J. B., Batalova, J., & Burrows, M. (2019, March 14). Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states
What is a Refugee? Definition and Meaning. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/what-is-a-refugee/
The Untold Migration Story – How Improved Policies Can Benefit Both Receiving And Sending Societies
From the U.S. travel ban to the rise of anti-immigrant populists in Europe, politicians often decry migration in times of moral and economic crisis. Controversies can easily preclude a balanced understanding of what migration means – not only for immigrants and their new societies, but also for the places migrants leave behind.
Recent waves of migration from Africa and the Middle East are related not only to civil wars but also to unprecedented changes in climate and the environments where people live. Migrants often risk their lives when they step into a boat or take their first step into a desert in search of opportunity. Their stories spark heated debates in the media and in the public arena about who these people are and what the future holds for them. Politicians use them as bargaining chips in domestic negotiations and international collaborations. But for every immigrant who makes it to the Mediterranean Sea or to the tightening borders of Europe, there are hundreds who do not make it and will stay behind. Their stories are never told, and their struggles are often forgotten amid discussions about those who actually can migrate.
Migration and Climate Change
When people migrate as respond to climate change, it is generally assumed that things go even worse for the people who stay behind. In most cases this is true. People who stay behind face major changes in their livelihood — when agricultural yields go down, sea-levels go up, and severe weather threatens the life and health of all those who cannot afford to leave.
Sometimes, however, there are delightful twists to this doomsday scenario. When climate changes, skilled and educated people are usually the ones who can afford to migrate. The economies they leave behind are in increasingly dire need of skilled labor. In my research, I show that migration can actually help those remaining behind by creating strong incentives for them to develop skills. Unfortunately, this narrative is often left out of the immigration debate. Migration may not only be beneficial for those who leave, but more so for those who stay behind.
When more fortunate people leave a community to migrate in search of opportunities, others often look up to them in search of better life – for their children, even if they cannot afford it for themselves.
To study the impact of climate change on migration and population dynamics, I develop an overlapping generations model that considers two economic sectors: agriculture and industry. I also model two types of individuals: high skilled and low skilled. This allows me to study the impact of climate change not only on each sector but also on the parental decisions about the number of children to have and the quality of education provided to them. My results shed light on several aspects of climate change migration that are usually overlooked in migration debates and academic studies:
- High-skilled labor migration can create greater demand for higher education in the origin society.
- High-skilled labor migration can induce a rise in low-skilled wages and therefore help close the inequality gap in communities that remain.
- To maximize benefits at both ends of a migration stream, merit-based policies on the receiving end that favor skilled immigrants should be coupled with improved educational program at the sending end.
Migration is a powerful adaptation mechanism but it has its limitations. The impacts of climate change on the origin country can be only moderately alleviated – not abolished – when people choose to leave. Therefore, migration policies need to be carefully designed to bring most benefits for both sending and receiving countries.
Toward Improved Migration Policies in an Era of Climate Change
My work shows that migration has possible benefits for migrants’ origin countries, including by encouraging more people to strive for education. But motivations alone are not enough to break the “trap” and free local communities from suffering the severe impact of climate change. The international community, and host countries in particular, have moral obligations to climate-affected communities where many people will remain who cannot afford to migrate.
- Migration policies should be eased for skilled and educated immigrants – for instance, with more student visas and work permits. But even when it becomes easier for skilled people to migrate, only a small fraction of those who could migrate will actually do so. Of course, sending communities can face problems even when just a fraction of their most skilled people leave. But at the same time, those communities can gain by encouraging education and drawing new people into jobs that require knowledge and skill.
- The perspective I offer here implies that migration policies should be discussed and coordinated between sending and receiving countries. Unilateral polices do not work; often, for example, restrictions at the receiving end simply lead to the rise of human smuggling networks. Receiving societies could do better by facilitating the migration of qualified applicants – and at the same time working with the sending countries to improve investments in education and economic wellbeing for those who do not migrate.
Read more in Soheil Shayegh, “Outward Migration May Alter Population Dynamics and Income Inequality” Nature Climate Change 7 (October 2017): 828–832
Emotions and Politics: Our Role to Undo Damage of Hateful Politics
When I first read the news about four Congresswomen being told by the President of this nation to go back to the countries they came from, my heart sunk and I had a huge knot in my stomach. The image of every kid I have ever worked with and still work with and children I know, immediately with came to my mind—US born kids of color, kids who are immigrants —who could internalize the President’s comments as not belonging or deserving to be in this country. Those whose self-esteem, self-worth and sense of self could be damaged as well as the kids and adults who could replicate the President’s behavior and become bullies at school, work or their communities, something we have seen since he took center stage during the 2016 election cycle.
The night I heard a group of people at one of Trump’s rally chant “send her back,” referring to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, I thought of a group of kids between 6 and 12 years old who were part of a mental health psychoeducation group I co-led, who during the 2016 election cycle had displayed symptoms of anxiety and depression over what they were hearing the new President could do to their families.
I vividly remembered the fear they expressed after President Trump had been elected, of their parents being sent home. I wondered what these children would think and feel if they heard those comments to the Congresswomen by the President and by the chanters. I wanted them to know they belong, they are loved, they matter, our diversity matters and there are many more people who love them and welcome them than others who may not.
For many of us who have been told to “go back to your country or where you belong,” there has been incredible pain we have had to overcome over feelings of not belonging, feelings of confusion, frustration, isolation, and insecurity, among others.
Twenty-four years ago, while in high school and after migrating from Honduras, I was told this phrase over and over again. Back then, I didn’t quite understand the charged meaning of that phrase but the manner, and anger the person displayed when she told me to go back said it all and it evoked a feeling of not being welcomed. It didn’t feel good, it felt threatening and I was terrified to go to school.
Luckily, I had a supportive family to go back to, other friends who looked and sounded like me and many others who expressed welcoming feelings, care and kindness. I rose above those comments, made it through high school and by the end of high school the person who had bullied me wrote a kind message on my yearbook noting that she was glad she had gotten to know me. When I was finally able to understand why someone would say something so hurtful, I came to realize that my former classmate had learned that behavior.
To hear this same racist rhetoric, two decades later by no other than the President, a figure who should symbolize a positive role model and exemplify the American values of unity, acceptance, tolerance, collaboration, inclusiveness, was astonishing, disappointing and infuriating.
The President’s Tweets reminded me of the long work we still have ahead to educate communities on topics like our right to protest as an American freedom, our right to advocate and elevate our voices when we disagree on policies, our rights as women to stand up from the sidelines and be a part of political discourse.
We have our work cut out to gain our democracy back, a democracy where we can both love our country and being an American but still denounce policies we disagree with. This election cycle let our fear and anger fuel our fire to fight for a new and inclusive leader, one that welcomes difference of opinion without attacking, bullying, minimizing and threatening those who oppose him, a leader who is not a threat to our democracy and the values we are teaching our children, a leader who we proudly want our kids to emulate.
Now, part of our role is undoing the emotional damage the Presidents politics of hate has created, particularly with our kids who are shaping their views and behaviors based on what they learn at home, school, their environments, and media. Our role is going back to the essential dinner conversations at home to understand what kids are saying, thinking about and how they may be internalizing and interpreting the information they hear in the news. Kids and adolescents depend on us to make sense and meaning out of information. As long as we are having conversations and checking in, we can create opportunities to debunk myths and misinformation.
For the rest of us, it is more important than ever before to be in community; to take to the streets, to advocate and organize when necessary while taking care of our own emotional wellbeing and seeking support from a professional when the politics of hate and division impact our mental health.
Call to Action
This petition is a collaboration between Social Workers United for Immigration and Social Workers Unraveling Racism with contributions by Hope Center for Wellness, Gardner Associates, and the support of Social Work Helper, Latin American Youth Center, American Federation of Teachers, Undocublack Network, and CASA. The petition was part of a week long campaign of mandated reporters denouncing government child abuse and demanding action.
Please sign and/or share our petition located at http://chng.it/dc2HnCQNT5. Please, take this small step to help us make a difference.
Inhumane Immigration Policies: Separating Children from Parents
As of May 6th, 2018, new harsher immigration policies have been implemented with the sole intention of instilling terror to act as a deterrent to other immigrants attempting to enter the United States, regardless of the reason. This comes as a result of “zero tolerance” policies enacted under Jeff Sessions.
Sadly the most vulnerable, the children, are impacted the greatest by this policy when they are now being routinely separated from their parents at the border while the parents of these children are being portrayed as criminals and being called animals by the President of the United States.
Kirstjen Nielsen has equated their attempt to enter the United States as the same as an individual that breaks into your home and has their child taken away as a result. The reality is far different. While a large number of individuals come because of economic push factors many of the individuals entering, particularly those with children, are fleeing violence and are legally seeking asylum in the United States for themselves and their children.
One woman from Honduras described the heart-wrenching experience of giving her 18 month old son to immigration authorities, and even strapping him in his car seat for them, despite following the proper protocol in presenting herself to immigration authorities to seek asylum. More than 600 children have already been separated from their parents in the first few weeks since the new policies were enacted.
Even before these new policies were officially implemented, there was another case several months ago involving a woman from Congo and her child who were separated at the border for four months, despite passing a credible fear test, and were later reunited as a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
These immigration policies are meant to maximize suffering of those entering the country in order to act as a deterrent to future immigrants. This is in stark contrast to our values as a country, as well as our legal responsibilities.
The American Bar Association has condemned this new policy, citing increased inefficiency in the immigration court system as well as the psychological trauma of separating children from their parents. Sadly, many of the policies surrounding immigration have been archaic and draconian even before these new changes, including toddlers representing themselves in immigration court unless they have the ability to pay for a lawyer.
As social workers, we know the impact of early childhood adversity, and the NASW has spoken out against this new zero tolerance policy. Many of these children have faced great adversity prior to coming to the United States including witnessing or experiencing physical and sexual violence, living under threat due to violence in their communities, or being targeted specifically because of who they are—aside from the possible trauma experienced on their journey to the United States.
Research demonstrates the incredible resiliency of children in being able to bounce back from adversity, and one crucial component to that is in having one stable adult in their lives. This current immigration policy seeks to traumatize the families and potentially takes away the one resiliency factor the children have.
What can we do to help? There are several agencies that are working to help this population that you can connect to. It is crucial to apply pressure on elected representatives and vote in upcoming elections.
Most importantly, we must fight against the notion that it is ok to dehumanize immigrants.
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