Counseling for the Undocumented
By Mary Lou Pierron
Several years ago I was asked to perform psychological evaluations of two elementary school-aged children whose undocumented mother was in danger of being deported back to Brazil, where she hadn’t lived for 15 years, had no family and where she would have no means of supporting her family or of getting the medical and educational resources her children needed. An evaluation substantiated that the children, who are U.S. citizens, would suffer “more than a typical child” as a result of their special psychological needs if their mother were to be deported.
Any child facing separation from a parent and involuntary relocation of the entire family to an unfamiliar and very grim living situation would be severely stressed. Although their parents, wanting to spare their children the anxiety such a situation would engender, had not told the children about the threatened deportation, children know when their parents are distressed and were themselves showing signs of severe separation anxiety, clinical depression, anxiety and learning disabilities, which may have been intrinsic but could have been caused or exacerbated by the effects of ongoing trauma.
This was just one situation of many in which I was involved having worked in a community mental health center in Somerville, Mass. I was grateful to have been able to provide some assistance to this family, who, apart from the mother’s lack of documents, had been model citizens throughout their time in the United States, starting a cleaning service that employed several other persons, paying their taxes and helping their children get extensive educational assistance from other family members.
Pushing our current legislators to work together to make humane treatment of immigrants, documented or not, an ethical mandate, is one long-term avenue to change. But for many of us, the need to have a more personal impact now has led to a variety of assistance efforts. These have included direct provision of the goods and services people need to survive and legal aid.
Another more controversial form of assistance involves providing sanctuary. More than a year ago in the greater Boston area several faith communities followed the example of other faith-based groups by establishing the Newton Sanctuary and Solidarity Collaborative (NSSC). Supported by others in the area, NSSC has established a temporary sanctuary home provided by the Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, where I am a member and sanctuary volunteer. Renovation of that space to make it legally habitable, providing life maintenance services, such as grocery shopping, laundry and transportation of the children to school, and on-site and assistance accessing off-site health care, also are provided by volunteers. Legal and spiritual counsel, English as a Second Language lessons and companionship also are available.
So far, being a sanctuary companion, apart from handling a few medical and environmental emergencies (an emergency surgery and a time when the sanctuary space flooded during an unusually heavy rainstorm), mostly has involved maintaining readiness to mobilize all the essential responders if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should appear at the door. Documenting (via phone video) the behavior of ICE agents, stalling to get the family to the safest place in the sanctuary space, along with notifying the rector and warden of St. Paul’s, translators and legal counselors must happen rapidly. For me this movement provides sanctuary not only for undocumented immigrants, but also a sort of sanctuary for those of us who feel our humanity is under attack. When I need encouragement to continue doing what I can to right the egregious wrongs being perpetrated against these vulnerable families, it’s helpful to me to be able to put the faces of the children and their parents on the label undocumented aliens. I know that they’re seeking only what I seek for my own family, what is guaranteed to every American: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.