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Advocating for asylum-seeking children is traumatic, new research finds

Restrictive immigration policies hurt both minors and those caring for them

A U.S. Border Patrol agent processes asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors in Penitas, Tex., after about 70 migrants crossed into the United States from Mexico on March 17. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
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So far in March, the United States has taken more than 3,500 unaccompanied minor migrants into custody. With an additional 10,000 expected by May, the Biden administration will find it challenging to uphold the president’s promise to implement a more “fair and humane” immigration policy than that of his predecessor.

Scholars and advocates have revealed how punitive immigration policies and procedures harm the health, safety and well-being of children held in U.S. federal custody. These effects extend well beyond the border, into the lives of immigrant families and across their social networks. Sociologists Cecilia Menjivar and Leisy Abrego refer to this as “legal violence,” a term meant to describe immigrants’ experiences with labor exploitation and family separation, as well as the fear, anxiety and hopelessness brought on by immigration policies.

That also affects the adult service providers, such as attorneys, educators and counselors, who serve asylum-seeking children in cities across the United States. My ongoing research finds that they share immediate and long-lasting physiological and mental health challenges. These health conditions stem from pressures to meet the needs of vulnerable child migrants targeted by restrictive immigration policies.

Unaccompanied youths in the U.S. immigration system

Unaccompanied minors and adult migrants from Central America have been at the southern U.S. border seeking asylum in high rates since 2014. In response, the Obama administration created a process called “expedited removal” of undocumented immigrants. The Trump administration followed up by tightening the rules for granting asylum, dramatically reducing the number of migrants who qualified. Immigration court backlogs rose from fewer than 200,000 cases in 1998 to more than 1,200,000 in 2020 — with 2021 on track to beat that. In 2005, the Bush administration introduced Operation Streamline, which had immigration officials prosecute upward of 80 migrants in court at once. In 2014, the Obama administration employed “rocket dockets” to prioritize removing unaccompanied children. After the unaccompanied minor crisis of 2014, Operation Streamline made it difficult for advocates to explain a child’s or teenager’s individual circumstances to be considered in the judge’s decision.

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How immigration policy inflicts “legal trauma”

Since 2014, I have conducted in-depth, one-time interviews with 45 service providers and advocates about their experiences. Thirty of those are in Los Angeles County, and 15 others are in Harris County, Tex., the two counties where the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement has been resettling the most unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

I refer to the experiences service providers describe as “legal trauma.” By that I mean both incidents of vicarious trauma from indirect exposure to traumatic events, and/or the secondary trauma that they feel if they themselves have previously suffered a traumatic event.

Attorneys, paralegals, case managers, health-care professionals and educators work together to help child and teen migrants prove that they are eligible for asylum under today’s narrowed rules. That involves demonstrating that the children cannot return to their countries of origin without facing persecution or threat of harm and that they show promise as a contributing member of U.S. society.

A family counselor in Houston told me that some young asylum seekers must repeatedly review their reasons for leaving as their attorneys work to “craft the ‘perfect victim,’” whose story will be sympathetic in court. Having to relive those ugly experiences can set off post-traumatic stress disorder. Another Houston-based counselor said that this process was essentially a “a theater for survivors [because] attorneys and judges want to see kids cry.” In prompting children to do this repeatedly, service providers become desensitized to the children’s trauma, dehumanizing both.

Crafting the perfect victim also takes an emotional and mental toll on service providers. In July 2020, an attorney and legal clinic director explained that she

knew that working with immigrants would be emotionally and mentally taxing, but sometimes it really makes you sick. You’re always thinking about it and sometimes I ask myself, ‘how much longer can I stay in this field?’ It’s the burn out, the compassion fatigue, the PTSD from hearing full, vivid details. All of that stays with you.

Throughout 2020 and into 2021, study participants expressed worry over the consequences of social distancing mandates. The Trump administration’s pandemic response included long-term work-from-home orders and government facilities closed to the public. Legal advocates could not meet with apprehended children to give “Know Your Rights” presentations. Case managers could not visit released children in their homes. Teachers were unable to engage children face to face in the classroom. These service providers felt helpless and frustrated under such constraints.

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Living with legal trauma

One Los Angeles high school college adviser tearfully explained to me that she takes on much more than college applications and financial aid, in no small part because she herself is a migrant and a daughter of undocumented immigrants. Partly because women are expected to deliver more care than their male colleagues, she said, she becomes a general counselor for migrant children, discussing family and friendship dynamics and access to food and clothing. She extends herself to students who are not college bound, including recently arrived asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors. For months, we spoke of her migraines, gastrointestinal pains and tension with her partner, all of which she associated with the stress of her work.

Such experiences deeply affected participants’ personal and professional lives. One paralegal in Houston in her mid-20s told me that to cope,

I was drinking alcohol, lots of alcohol, at first. I started venting to her nonwork friends, but I thought I can’t put that kind of burden on the people that I love so I stopped doing that. I leave work at work. I try not to take it home.

A second-generation Mexican American attorney in Los Angeles began practicing entertainment law after two years of civil rights and immigration law work, saying, “It’s too much. It’s too hard. You take that s--- home and, you know, it’s you, it’s your family. It’s too much.”

Where to go from here

Of course, service providers’ legal trauma is dwarfed by what migrant children experience. As the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border climbs, the Biden administration may wish to find ways to respond humanely to these children in a timely way to prevent still more such trauma.

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Stephanie L. Canizales (@stephcanizales) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced researching Latin American-origin unaccompanied minor migration and integration in the United States.

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