Centering Humanity within Dehumanizing Spaces: Challenges in Trauma-Informed Immigration Work

By Laurie Cook Heffron and Ana HernándezConnecting the Dots: Feature Article

This article was originally published on the website Youth Circulations on October 7th, 2019. To learn more about their work, visit their website.

Against a backdrop of increasing dehumanization and criminalization of migrating families, social work students aim to address trauma within a setting that often serves to reproduce trauma, the Karnes immigrant family detention center.

The role of the United States government in the dehumanization and criminalization of migrating families is by no means new, yet recent changes in policy and practice [1] facilitate its expansion. On any given day, more than 50,000 migrating individuals are detained and incarcerated in one of a variety of facilities funded by and operating within an entanglement of governmental and private entities, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and private prison corporations, among others.

A GEO Group flag flies alongside the United States, Texas, and Department of Homeland Security flags at the immigrant detention center in Karnes, City, TX. Photo credit: Laurie Cook Heffron
A GEO Group flag flies alongside the United States, Texas, and Department of Homeland Security flags at the immigrant detention center in Karnes, City, TX. Photo credit: Laurie Cook Heffron

Immigrant detention may last a few days or be indefinite, and the consequences of either are often long-lasting. The harmful impact of incarceration is well documented and includes increased risk of self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, depression, traumatic stress, and anxiety. Detention also causes disruptions to the family unit, can create role reversal between parents and children, and undermines attachment relationships critical to child development and family wellbeing. When considering this impact within the context of longstanding and recent acts of interpersonal violence and systemic oppression, the result is even more harmful.

As Texans and social work students and professionals, we live in a region heavily impacted by this context. Set against the expanse of Texas-Mexico borderlands and the high number of detention facilities in the state, we work closely with clients, friends, and families enduring the direct results of detention. We are also working within a profession whose code of ethics and professional directives require us to be informed about, engaged in, and actively resisting inequity and oppression. In the same breath, we recognize that our profession has been complicit in and facilitated the creation and maintenance of oppressive structures and are mindful to not repeat such errors.

Over the last several years, a central site of this struggle has involved working with parents incarcerated with their children at the immigrant detention facility in Karnes City, Texas [2]. The first team of social work student volunteers began work in the winter of 2016, with the goal of supporting the efforts of RAICES (involved in this work since 2014) in providing parents with information and resources, helping parents understand the system they were navigating, and identifying and protecting any options and choices available to them. In particular, volunteers provide information about the purpose and logistics of the Credible Fear Interview process and assist in identifying and acting on any indication of abuses taking place. Over time the two separate but parallel projects (graduate and undergraduate student engagement and faculty supervision from both social work and law) merged into a joint effort with shared coordination. The goal is to build capacity, cross-train, and utilize legal expertise coupled with honed attention to the backdrop of trauma.

Inter-disciplinary team of social work students and law students stopping for breakfast tacos in Seguin, Texas, on the way to Karnes immigrant detention facility. Photo credit: Ana Hernández
Inter-disciplinary team of social work students and law students stopping for breakfast tacos in Seguin, Texas, on the way to Karnes immigrant detention facility. Photo credit: Ana Hernández

Overall, the project aims to embody a trauma-informed approach. Approaches and settings that make recovery from trauma possible (including those endorsed by federal agencies) clearly involve the elimination of practices of seclusion and isolation. These elements are decidedly not existent, nor possible, in the contexts of detention in which we work. By centering the knowledge that human connection and relationships can be healing in and of themselves, we work to provide a sense of support and wellbeing in a space that so often cannot feel safe for those detained. Building off recent research and the experiences of social work student volunteers, we explore four main aspects in which volunteers operate in a trauma-informed manner despite a setting that is isolating and often serves to reproduce trauma.

First, physical and psychological safety, as defined by those who’ve experienced trauma, may not be possible in the detention center as a result of the constant threat of deportation. Frequent intercom calls for individuals by their inmate number, nighttime bed checks, and regular cases of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and deaths in detention enhance the climate of instability and danger.

One example of promoting wellbeing in this hostile environment is the simple strategy of grounding exercises, techniques designed to respond to trauma survivors who may feel distress, re-experience trauma, and have difficulty regulating their responses. Grounding activities aim to help someone find calm, to center oneself in the current time and space, and to prepare for re-entering a fear-inducing system. Volunteers also engage in safety planning and resource identification with those who will be returned to their home countries and face considerable danger upon arrival. Finally, this work also offers an opportunity to identify abuses within the system (alongside a larger network of advocacy organizations and immigrant detention visitation programs).

Second, a trauma-informed approach also necessitates actively pursuing the goal of building and maintaining trust and transparency. Frequently shifting policies and procedures within, and external to, the detention context create a setting in which those detained often do not know who they can trust. Those detained also receive little to no reliable information from immigration officials about immigration procedures, applications, hearings, and timelines.

Our volunteers always explain their role, limits to their role, and the purpose of the interaction with women at Karnes for maximum transparency in the process. Additionally, our work at Karnes exists within a larger patchwork of efforts by outside NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] whose goal is to provide information about rights and immigration procedures, individual case consultation, preparation for release from detention, preparation for deportation, and referral to low-cost immigration legal services.

Sunflower along Texas-Mexico border. Photo credit: Ana Hernández
Sunflower along Texas-Mexico border. Photo credit: Ana Hernández

Third, tending to trauma also involves promoting and protecting empowerment, voice, and choice. Traumatic experiences may have left people feeling as if they have little choice or control over what happens to them, coupled with incarceration in an atmosphere that removes most choice from daily living (when to wake up, which side of the hallway to walk on). Particularly around parenting, this setting inhibits mothers’ authority and decision-making related to sleeping, feeding, clothing, and disciplining, and restricts their responses to the social, educational, and medical needs of their children.

We work with women to navigate the new contexts within which they are situated. Our work within the detention setting aims to recognize and give choice and control – where to sit in a visitation room, when and what part of their stories to tell, whether or not to have a child present. Information-giving is connected to this effort to give choice and remove barriers to self-advocacy.

Finally, a trauma-informed approach must utilize a cultural, historical, and gender lens by actively resisting bias, providing gender-responsive services, supporting traditional healing practices, and recognizing historical trauma. In detention, cultural stereotypes are often enforced through insults by guards, and the considerable gender-based violence previously experienced by many asylum-seekers remains unaddressed. Likewise, the short- or long-term historical context that contributes to families’ trauma exposure and the dehumanization and criminalization of migrating families is largely unrecognized by the system.

In supporting women to prepare for their credible fear interviews, volunteers are mindful of the opportunities and limitations within asylum law and ever-changing federal policies regarding asylum claims. By incorporating an understanding of historical trauma, cultural differences, and gender-based violence, volunteers are able to validate the lived experiences of oppression while providing guidance for how women can understand their unique history within the limited context of immigration law. To validate one’s fear as “credible” regardless of policies is a hugely important reinforcement of their humanity and rights.

Ultimately, the individuals we have spoken with around the country who aim to support those in detention often feel that they are not able to see enough people, do enough, or circumnavigate physical and legal barriers in effective ways. We also cannot dismiss the toll on volunteers of entering such oppressive spaces or witnessing the undermining of human rights that occurs in detention centers on a daily basis. While immigrant detention is a particularly challenging space within which to implement trauma-informed practices, it is important not to minimize the powerful impact of every positive human interaction – no matter how small it may seem. This is the underpinning of trauma-informed work and it is the basis upon which our volunteers can understand the impact of their efforts at a fundamental level. Out of the dozens of volunteers who have gone with us to detention centers, we now have a group of social workers armed with the knowledge of the detrimental impact of immigrant detention and determined to make systems change. We know they will do this through individual clinical work; community organizing; and policy advocacy in order to create a system that does not rely on immigrant detention and instead creates trauma-informed integrative systems of support for those seeking refuge in this country.

[1] While the population of those incarcerated at Karnes has recently shifted, it has been primarily used as a family detention facility during our work there.

[2] These include, but are not limited to, challenges to the Flores settlement, a host of family separation practices, changes in eligibility for asylum, expansion of expedited removal, and the Migrant Protection Protocols/Remain in Mexico program

Laurie Cook Heffron, PhD, LMSW is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at St. Edward’s University. Her research and social work practice focus on the intersections of interpersonal violence and immigration and the impacts of immigrant detention on survivors of violence.

 Ana Hernández, MSSW, MA is the Program Coordinator of Girasol at the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing at the University of Texas at Austin. Her advocacy, social work practice, and research are centered around work with immigrants in detention and the immigrant community in Austin, Texas.