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Expert Voices

Resiliency at the U.S. Southern Border: Legal Service Providers Get a Self-Care Boost

Published July 21, 2021
A tall fence with barbed wire at the bottom and top, the fence extends further than the horizon.

Authors: Andrea Cárcamo, senior policy counsel, Leora Hudak, staff wellbeing and mental health specialist, Urmy Shukla, program evaluation advisor, and Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva, New Tactics training officer

The U.S.-Mexico border has historically been a point of arrival for asylum seekers looking for refuge in the United States. While pre-Trump policies encouraged deterrence – discouraging families and individuals from coming into the United States – the Trump administration was particularly cruel. The suffering of asylum seekers was exacerbated through Trump-era policies, including the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, more commonly known as ’Remain in Mexico’) and metering, both of which forced asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities for long periods of time, where migrants have faced dangers such as extortion, sexual assault and even death. As a result, thousands of potential refugees have been subject to uncertainty, limited opportunities to access legal services, and continuous trauma while waiting on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Over the past two years, CVT has been working to understand how we can contribute our knowledge and expertise in mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) to the unfolding migration crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. “We knew we had to do something,” said Curt Goering, former CVT executive director, to Carlos Aceves, CVT clinical advisor for mental health, in a conversation about our work on the Southern border.

A multi-disciplinary team of specialists (mental health, organizational development, legal policy, and research and evaluation) conducted several assessment visits to various border entry points (San Diego-Tijuana, Calexico-Mexicali, Tucson/Nogales-Nogales, El Paso-Juárez) in January-March 2020. Through these assessments, along with virtual conversations with organizations in the Rio Grande Valley (Texas), it became evident that, besides asylum seekers themselves, legal services providers were also experiencing increased stress, burnout and exposure to secondary trauma.

We heard stories of legal service providers overwhelmed by their work at the border, and others who felt unable to serve their clients due to the vagueness and ever-changing Trump-era policies. Many did not feel capable of providing definitive advice for their clients, which created an additional level of stress and burnout. “This job destroys you from the inside out,” one attorney said. The need to work overtime due to lack of service providers at the border coupled with the desperation of their clients meant that legal service providers may have little to no time to attend to their own self-care, nor time to build resiliency and secondary trauma mitigation skills.

CVT’s Response

How could CVT best support legal service providers to continue their work? As a result of the assessment, CVT joined efforts with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to create a project to address the secondary trauma and resiliency needs of legal service providers on the U.S.-Mexico border. Through both financial support and partnership connections with UNCHR, CVT developed a series of online trainings and remote support for legal service providers. To date, CVT resilience trainers have supported legal service providers from San Diego, the Rio Grande Valley, Tucson, El Paso and several cities in New Mexico. All services were provided in collaboration with the Center for Survivors of Torture (CST, Texas), Survivors of Torture International (SURVIVORS, San Diego), the El Paso Child Guidance Center and the International Rescue Committee (IRC-Tucson).

Each week, participants gathered in online spaces with CVT and partner facilitators to learn about concepts related to resilience and secondary trauma, discuss the impact of the work, practice new coping skills and tools, and connect with peers. CVT provided interactive workshops, facilitated peer discussion spaces, led meditation and relaxation groups, and provided one-on-one sessions to individual providers seeking additional support. The project reached immigration attorneys, paralegals, organizational leaders and individual practitioners. Many said it was important to have these spaces facilitated by CVT, an organization that knows intimately the direct work on the ground.

Despite recent policy changes by the Biden administration, including the termination of MPP, the situation on the border will be slow to change, as asylum seekers continue to arrive at our border, and many others are still in limbo and attorneys are working to find feasible solutions. Nonetheless, legal service providers who participated in CVT’s secondary trauma and resiliency training expressed that this support allowed them to incorporate self-care and resiliency strategies in their day-to-day work.

Others have found ways to support one another. As one participant put it: “I’ve found myself being kinder to myself when things have been tough, knowing that I’m not alone and it’s okay to feel that way.” One participant stated that the most useful thing they learned “is the importance of mental health not only on staff, but with every human being out there. Self-care might be a term used to spoil ourselves every once in a while, but in the long run we must incorporate it as a part of our lives.”

Through this project, CVT hopes to help keep service providers healthy and able to continue to do the incredibly important work of representing asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border. Migration to the U.S.-Mexico border is expected to continue as the situation in the Northern Triangle, and other countries in the world, leaves individuals no option but to leave their homes. We know it will be important for resiliency-based organizations like CVT to develop stronger communities of practice for self-care of legal service providers, and to work with organizations and leadership to better integrate resiliency strategies into organizational culture.

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