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Facing the Fear of Deportation, Part 2: Creating Safe Spaces

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

USC-MSW logoThis blog was written by staff at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and was originally published here. The authors have given express permission for the blog to be republished by the National Latin@ Network.

Providing the necessary mental health interventions to undocumented communities can be a challenge for social workers. Many families are fearful of accessing critical mental health services due to the risk of exposing a family member as undocumented. Additionally, Latinos and immigrants attach a social stigma to mental health challenges.

“The culture is kind of a double-edged sword. It’s protective in that you’re insulated by a culture that is generally collectivistic and family-oriented, where faith and hope are huge protective factors,” said Barrio. “But on the other side of it, there is such a misunderstanding and a lack of adequate information about mental health and mental illness that it interferes with timely help-seeking and being open to receiving help.”

To better address the needs of families facing mental health challenges, Dr. Barrio and her colleague Dr. Paula Helu-Brown partnered with the Mexican Consulate of Los Angeles to create a first-of-its-kind mental health counseling program which offers free services on site for clients regardless of immigration status. USC has now developed a smaller program at the Consulate General of El Salvador in Los Angeles.

“Families facing stress and anxiety related to their documentation status can learn to cope by relying on each other.”

“We are hoping to also create a culture where people feel comfortable in utilizing mental health services,” said Dr. Helu-Brown, who serves as a clinical coordinator and community liaison for the program.

Participants in the programs meet with a USC intern, under the supervision of a licensed social worker, who is trained to conduct speedy mental health evaluations. If a case is manageable, interns provide brief cognitive behavioral therapy where they focus on teaching coping skills and teaching adults how to deal with anxiety and depression.

If a person has more severe mental health conditions, interns will refer that individual to a community provider for a higher level of care. USC is also planning to provide telehealth treatment for children in 2018.

Dr. Helu-Brown hopes to see social workers implement lessons learned from their experience over the past year by working with consulates, where programs are available for those facing deportation, and community centers to support immigrants.

“[These programs] are trying to provide job opportunities. They are trying to provide health related services; school for their children; legal support. That can help ease some of that anxiety,” Dr. Helu-Brown said.

But she also noted that families facing stress and anxiety related to their documentation status can learn to cope by relying on each other.

“What I tell them is to always try to draw on the support they get from their community,” she said. “It is important to stay together and to support each other. If they are religious or spiritual, draw strength and hope from that. And understand how politics are kind of like an ebb and flow. Things might be a certain way now, but hopefully as time moves on and people learn from experiences things might be a little different.”

MPI and the Urban Institute offer a comprehensive list of recommendations for health and human services providers working with immigrant families and children based on successful interventions in a number of cities, including: Relying on organizations such as schools and universities, as well as community-based, faith-based and advocacy organizations to fill in service gaps. For example, the list notes that staff at schools in Los Angeles were able to incorporate community mental health programs into their services, while high schools in Chicago hired counselors specifically for immigration-related issues. Immigrant advocacy organizations across the country have also helped to establish support groups for families impacted by deportation and have rallied to provide short-term financial support to mixed-status families.

Strengthening trust in service providers by working with organizations with deep ties to communities. Families with undocumented immigrants are more likely to trust organizations that have been proven advocates for their communities, share the same religious affiliations, and employ staff that have the same background as the communities that they serve.

Developing an understanding of the various immigration statuses and connecting with immigration specialists for their expertise in order to help assess relief options. For example, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) offers state social workers training sessions on immigration issues at an annual conference and created a handbook for social workers that offers explanation on immigration statuses and how that can affect child welfare.

Coordinating with child welfare agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and foreign consulates to ensure that children’s rights are protected, make certain that parents maintain contact with children, and plan for family reunification. For example, the Illinois DCFS has successfully worked with the Mexican consulate to locate parents after deportation and conduct home visits in Mexico to ensure that children who are reunited with their parents are in a safe and secure setting.

Click here to read Facing the Fear of Deportation, Part 1, which was published last week. In it, we discussed the harmful effects of deportation on children using concrete examples of trauma.

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