By: Jessica Gorelick, LCSW and Janine Martinez Salazar, LICSW
As social workers, we are often the first line of communication for our clients when they are struggling emotionally. We work with asylum seekers, many of whom must wait months and sometimes years to obtain authorization to work. As a result, they often lack access to basic needs items like food, clothing, and hygiene products, and are frequently homeless.
Most have experienced unspeakable horror, persecution, and torture in their home countries. Though many are exceptionally resilient, they must still cope with the emotional wounds and scars these experiences have left behind.
Panicked phone calls are our norm. It’s what we signed up for when we got into this line of work. What we did not expect, though, was for our federal government to stir up an anti-immigrant fervor that would strike fear into the hearts of our clients. A fear we have not previously seen.
Shortly after Donald Trump took office in January of this year, his administration put his campaign rhetoric into action, starting with an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” on January 27th, and a revised order on March 6, 2017. The orders are rightly called Trump’s “Muslim Ban” because they attempt to limit Muslims’ travel to the United States and block access to refugee resettlement. Both were met with extreme outrage and a series of lawsuits challenging their legality. Two of those lawsuits currently block aspects of the new order worldwide, though several parts remain in effect.
Immediately after the first order was signed, we began receiving phone calls from our clients asking what would happen if they were stopped and detained by law enforcement. Many said their children were frightened to go to school and demonstrated high levels of separation anxiety.
Terrified rumors circulated within the communities, exacerbated by the confusing way the order was applied. The distress and anxiety that many of our clients experience due to past traumas were more amplified than we have ever seen.
Since we are a refugee-focused program, nearly all our clients either have been granted protection-based immigration relief or have pending applications for such status. Though many do come from countries targeted by these executive orders, most should currently be safe and are not being sought by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
We consistently remind our clients of this reality, but their anxiety expands unabated. We’ve led phone calls, meetings, and group presentations to address these worries. Though some fears diminished as legal aspects of the executive orders were clarified, our clients’ terror lingers.
During a support group for asylum seekers and asylees, a young man from West Africa questioned the checks and balances of our government and talked about the fact that he feels like an unwanted outsider in this country even though he had to flee his own country to save his life. A single mother from Central America, whose family was already granted asylum, missed work to come in and talk with a program social worker to make sure that she and her children would not be deported. Many of our clients’ children reported bullying by classmates, who taunted these vulnerable children by telling them that they will be sent back to their home country.
Being a refugee in a new country is already an enormous challenge, and these executive orders have added to that already heavy load.
As social workers, we are trained to look at the whole person when providing support and intervention. Most of our clients experienced severe trauma and suffer from the after-effects of these experiences in the form of emotional difficulties. It is not rare for our clients to struggle with anxiety, depression, nightmares, and the like.
One of the most common aspects of a traumatic experience is unpredictability. Typically, an individual is without agency and control during a traumatic experience. Whether it’s an oppressive regime that arrests and tortures citizens without explanation, an abusive partner who flies off the handle without warning, or the forceful implementation of bizarre rules and regulations of an occupying gang—unpredictability is a common thread in these scenarios.
President Trump’s executive orders set off a widespread ripple of unpredictability and an increased feeling of danger within immigrant communities throughout the country. This sense of unpredictability has caught hold for many of our clients and exacerbated the emotional difficulties they already face.
Our clients are the brave ones. They had the tenacity to save themselves and, often, those they love from horrifying situations in their home countries and find their way to the United States. Many left family, friends, careers, and flourishing lives back home to seek a life of freedom in the United States—a country they identified as a place that one can live free from persecution and terror.
In our role, we often become one of the few constants in our clients’ lives, a source of reliable support amid the insurmountable uncertainty. Now, more than ever, we continue to stand by them as they work to rebuild their lives in their new communities. As champions of social justice, we fight with them for a bright future for themselves and their families. Even if their hopes for the future have been temporarily dulled by Trump’s executive orders, their resiliency shines stronger than ever.