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Immigration and Mental Health

On Behalf of | May 26, 2023 | Immigration

In the spirit of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought a short missive on the connection between immigration and mental health would be appropriate.  And when I refer to mental health, I’m speaking to both attorneys and their clients.

Many years ago, I was asked to serve on a local board of directors for all the wrong reasons. They wanted a lawyer on their Board.  I, being much younger than I am now, thought that was a compliment, so I agreed. That was almost 25 years ago.  While the reason I joined that board no longer resonates with me, the reasons I have stayed on it do.  The organization provides services in many important areas, including mental health services.  And I think everyone would agree that mental health is front and center in our national ethos right now, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.

The practice of law can be very stressful for both attorneys and their clients.  In the immigration realm, and perhaps most specifically (although certainly not exclusively) in the area that I refer to as “humanitarian immigration” (e.g., asylum, removal proceedings, crime victims, VAWA, etc.), issues surrounding mental health for both attorneys and their clients are numerous.

Not everyone who enters (or tries to enter) the United States does so for employment, to go to school, to start a new business, or to reunite with family. Some come because they need to escape an environmental catastrophe, persecution, or sometimes even war.  Those seeking asylum, those applying for crime victim visas, and so many others, often struggle with significant trauma.  Indeed, matters that many immigration practitioners think of as routine in their practice (e.g., filing a simple extension for a client’s permission to work, etc.) are often very stressful for our clients.

I’m not a medical professional, but I read a fair amount.  There are various forms of trauma.  Some of our clients experience trauma in their home countries (e.g., family members being killed by gangs, watching a sibling being sexually abused by a rogue police officer, children being neglected and even abandoned by their families, and the list goes on).  We, as lawyers, often experience secondary traumatic stress (sometimes called “vicarious trauma” or “compassion fatigue”) when working with our clients who have experienced such trauma. It’s caused by being indirectly exposed to someone else’s trauma, like our clients when they tell us their stories so that they can, for example, include them in a declaration for an application for asylum. Dealing with one case is bad.  Dealing with several or many can take it to a different level.

Our clients need to take care of themselves.  We do our very best to help them.  But we also need to take care of ourselves.  The secondary trauma that we experience as a result of our clients’ experiences, more so than the day-to-day stress that happens in the ordinary course of our law practices (and our lives), can make it hard to manage the myriad details involved in an immigration practice.  Stress impacts our clients’ memories when they try to tell us their stories.  Stress impacts our own memories, among other cognitive functions.

My wife always says, “You should try some breathing exercises.”  She’s right.  The practice of law, especially as a solo or small firm practitioner (and one that works in the area of humanitarian immigration) can be incredibly stressful. The key is to eliminate some of the stressors in our lives and our practices and, as my wife would also say, build resiliency for the stresses that cannot be changed.

Likewise, immigrants need to understand that they likely will require mental health support throughout their immigration journey.  Although research does show that immigrants tend to be very resilient concerning mental health issues, they still will often require both legal and emotional support if they want to properly manage those challenges while maintaining their legal right to remain in the United States.  In most instances relying on a well-focused and experienced immigration attorney to assist with their immigration journey can free up an immigrant to focus more fully on his or her health and well-being.  But that’s not always the case, and consequently, our clients’ mental and emotional health cannot be ignored.

Immigration attorneys are keenly aware of the reality that seeking a desired immigration status is a very stressful process for their clients, even when everything seems to be going smoothly (as far as we’re concerned). Immigrants may end up waiting for months for responses to applications and petitions for benefits, like asylum or even permission to work.  Or they simply don’t understand what is often a convoluted process. They may feel as though their entire family is depending on them to not make a single mistake so that they can get through the process without any lasting repercussions. Again, our clients’ mental and emotional health cannot be ignored.

But we too must take care of ourselves.  We often find ourselves in the middle of our clients’ stories, many who have and continue to experience heart-wrenching trauma, and then have to deal with an overly stressed and bureaucratic government system and its workers.  This leaves us exposed to burnout. Immigration lawyers (and other types of victim advocates) need to take care of themselves as they deal with “compassion fatigue” and the secondary trauma that results from it.

There are tons of resources for lawyers in general who are experiencing various health problems, including mental health.  Do yourself a favor.  Don’t ignore the symptoms.  Take care of yourself as well as you take of your clients.