Looking for a new way of life, thousands of people travel each year to the United States hoping to become American citizens. Yet, escaping what they left behind, war, torture, famine and poverty, is only the first step in carving out a new future. Often, the trauma of what they experienced leaves scars both physically and emotionally that can impede their moving forward with their lives and even, at times, with their legal cases for asylum.
The De Novo Center for Justice and Healing, a Cambridge-based non-profit that provides legal and counseling services for low-income people, works with immigrants, representing them in bids for asylum and with evaluations and counseling that are sometimes required.
Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with Paul Goldmuntz, Psy.D., clinical director, and Lauren Shebairo, LICSW, MPH, associate clinical director of De Novo to talk about the work the center does as well as opportunities for psychologists to volunteer to help this under-served population.
Tell us about De Novo:
Paul Goldmuntz (PG): From the beginning, it was an agency that “employed” volunteers to provide services to people with low incomes. The legal program currently does four areas of law: housing law, family law, disability law, and immigration law and the counseling program works with adults doing psychotherapy.
In 2002, I was contacted by one of the immigration attorneys who said that it looked like there would be an evolving need for evaluations of immigrants seeking asylum and since then, we have done about 550 of these evaluations.
And you are staffed mostly by volunteers?
PG: We have two and a half full-time employees on the counseling side, soon to be 3.5. But, as that aspect of the program evolved, we started to realize we had to train people and recruit volunteers who would be interested in doing evaluations.
Currently, we have 15 or so professionally trained licensed clinicians doing evaluations. In recent years, the immigration program has grown quite a bit so right now we do between 30-40 each year.
Lauren Shebairo (LS): To give some context on the types of cases we do, some are evaluations based on humanitarian grounds, so that includes asylum. Others may be U Visa cases, which is for victims of crime [here in the U.S.] who have cooperated with police, and VAWA, which is for immigrant victims of domestic violence.
Has the system gotten more difficult to navigate in recent years?
LS: In the last several years, there has been a lot of change within immigration so that has had an impact on clients and legal strategy. One of the biggest challenges is the backlog; I am working with clients who applied for asylum in 2014 and 2015 and they still are waiting for their first interview.
That is a long time to wait.
LS: It leads to the uncertainty of trying to get established here but at the same time knowing you don’t have a permanent status. Often people who have fled persecution in their country of origin may have young children or spouses back home who may also be in danger. Once you are granted asylum, you are able to petition for reunification with your family, so a delay in getting that status is also a delay in getting to reunify with close family members.
There are a lot of layers to what clients are going through and many ways they are impacted by these different systems.
You mention the danger they faced at home, and that their family members are continuing to face. Is that typical of the clients you work with?
PG: A lot of it depends on where they are from. We work with some clients from Africa who experienced torture of the most appalling kind.
LS: It is important to highlight the level of trauma the clients have experienced that caused them to flee their country of origin. We work with a number of clients who also went through detention at the border and then they live in this uncertain situation once they arrive here in Massachusetts. Just an understanding of that and the levels and layers of trauma that many have experienced is important to note.
PG: We also consult with attorneys who ask us for help with a client so that they can get the information they need in order to represent them effectively. Sometimes, the attorney will ask, “What happened?” and the client just breaks down and falls on the ground in tears.
LS: It can be important for the person to be able to engage in therapy just so that they are able to say what happened to them because that is essential to their legal case.
PG: And, sometimes when clients have to appear at a hearing, the dread is tremendous so we can accompany them for support.
LS: The legal process itself can be re-traumatizing for people, having to retell your story to so many people and not in a therapeutic kind of way.
Do you continue to work with immigrants after their legal cases have been settled?
LS: We do. Their ability to see a counselor is not tied to their legal case one way or another. We have expanded in the last 10 years or so serving more immigrants with ongoing therapy.
PG: Often, there is a need not just for psychotherapy but for casework and connecting up with various kinds of services like housing, insurance, or hospital visits or accompanying people to court hearings, etc.
LS: When people are first arriving and they don’t have work authorization or access to a lot of services or food security, it can be helpful to address those needs first. That helps to build trust and that foundation that is so important for therapeutic work. Then, what we would term more traditional therapy can grow out of that foundational relationship.
Does it help reduce the stigma in immigrant populations when they are introduced to counseling through a service like yours?
LS: Once someone has had that experience, it can help to break down stigmas within communities. Many times, I am working with clients who don’t exactly know why they were referred to me by their lawyer. They maybe don’t have an understanding of what therapy is or there is a real stigma around mental health.
It is important to be mindful of the language you are using. You may not want to use the term “mental health,” for instance.
For a psychologist who may be interested in volunteering with you, what is the time commitment?
LS: For helping with the on-going counseling, we look for a commitment of at least one year at a minimum of about five hours a week. There is more flexibility in the evaluation project because there are some volunteers who do one evaluation a year and some who can take on one per month.
PG: It takes about 10-15 hours to do an evaluation and the volunteers, for the most part, do it from their own private home office. People who volunteer to see clients have to be willing to come in (except during the pandemic, of course.)
Why is this work important?
LS: It is a population that has traditionally been under-served and have had difficulty and, more recently, fears about accessing services. It is so important having people who are trained to be able to work cross-culturally and with cultural humility.
PG: I think in general you are trying to help people who are going through a lot of suffering, to help them come out at the other end with a degree of comfort and interest in moving on with their lives.
What is very striking to me is just how kind and grateful they are when they finally get legal status. They are just so happy and generous and appreciative, so for me that makes this work really rewarding.