How Mental Health Professionals Can Support Asylum Seekers

By Alix Mammina, Communications Specialist at the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing

At Girasol Texas, we’re building a network of trauma-informed professionals to support the health and wellbeing of all immigrants. Our team, housed at the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing, trains students and professionals statewide to meet the needs of immigrant families.

 In 2019, we launched the Mental Health Collaborative at Girasol to support asylum seekers in Austin. Nearly all of our immigrant clients report fleeing their home countries after experiencing violence—ranging from threats of homicide to persecution based on their politics, religion, or race. The Collaborative trains mental health professionals to strengthen immigration cases by validating the impacts of persecution. Our team also coordinates cases for immigration attorneys whose clients can’t access mental health services. 

The Collaborative has trained more than 100 mental health professionals and students and created a database of licensed mental health evaluators with the support of our partners RAICES, American Gateways, and the Texas Bar Foundation. Over the past five years, the Collaborative coordinated assessments for 70 cases involving immigrants seeking asylum and other forms of legal protection against deportation.

“We created the Mental Health Collaborative as a way to build a connected network of professionals supporting immigrants,” said Ana Vidina Hernández, Girasol’s Program Coordinator. “Our clients rely on these services to help demonstrate the emotional and psychological harm they’ve experienced and present persuasive cases to avoid deportation.”

Navigating the Asylum Process

The process of navigating the U.S. immigration system is overwhelming on purpose. In the U.S., individuals seeking asylum must express a fear of returning to their home country to avoid deportation. They then must prove that fear through an interview with an asylum officer and a presentation of their case before an immigration judge.

If asylum seekers don’t have a good translator or don’t understand the questions being asked of them, there’s a strong chance they won’t pass. And for those who do, most have to represent themselves before the judge—because immigration court does not guarantee the right to an attorney. Most asylum seekers without legal representation are denied, while nearly half of those with representation are successful in their application.

“Imagine having to stand in front of an ICE officer and having to tell them the most horrible things that have ever happened to you—things like sexual violence, that are rooted in shame,” said Dr. Monica Faulkner, director of the Texas Institute on Child and Family Wellbeing. “People who have never spoken about or processed the violence they experienced are now asked to explain what they have experienced to a stranger who decides their fate. It’s completely understandable why people struggle with this process and why mental health professionals can play a role in helping.”

Girasol’s Mental Health Collaborative strengthens asylum cases by training mental health professionals to conduct mental health evaluations. Our trainings also teach professionals how to write testimonial letters to judges speaking to the fear and trauma experienced by clients. For most of the cases coordinated through the Mental Health Collaborative, the professional working on the case evaluated the client and wrote a letter discussing symptoms, trauma history, and their professional recommendation to the judge.

“We’ve created a system for coordinating and training folks on how to write letters of support for immigration relief cases, and we’ve worked hard to provide a stipend for trained Collaborative members to compensate them for their time,” Ana said. “These services are vital for helping both attorneys and clients present their cases.”

Up until last year, these mental health assessments took place in the Austin community or detention center settings. That, like every other aspect of daily life, shifted drastically for the Girasol team last spring.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Collaborative

 When the March 2020 Stay-At-Home order took effect in Austin, detention centers closed their doors to outside visitors.

 “April 2020 was an interesting moment for our organization,” Ana said. “We’d  just figured out the process of getting folks together to write assessment letters for detention cases. That typically meant we had to drive four hours out to a detention center with the hope that we could see our client.” From there, mental health professionals would have to set aside another two to eight hours to conduct the mental health evaluations that informed their assessments.

For Girasol, the Stay-At-Home orders meant they had to get creative to advocate for immigrants in detention. “The shutdown made it harder to get to people but easier to conduct remote evaluations,” Ana shared. “Because providers were forced to go virtual, all of a sudden there was an evaluation system for us to use that opened up all different types of accessibility. We could help more people in more places because we could reach them by phone. We no longer had to drive for hours to talk to our clients.”

The pandemic offered a new opportunity for extending the reach of the Mental Health Collaborative. Over the past two years, Girasol has hosted regular online workshops and trainings for professionals. Mental health evaluators in the network benefit from free one-on-one and group consultation sessions with Girasol experts. The Girasol team also created a trauma-informed workbook to help women in detention.

As the Collaborative expands throughout the pandemic, the Girasol team has kept its focus on building a supportive network for both clients and professionals. “We really want our Collaborative members and prospective volunteers to know that they’re not alone in their work, and we will support them at every step in the process,” Ana said. “Regardless of the outcome in the courtroom, the family you advocate for with your words can tell their story. That is something we’re proud of.”

To learn more about how to join the Mental Health Collaborative, visit the Girasol website.