How one group is addressing the mental health needs of undocumented immigrants facing deportation.
By the time Pedro Avila arrived at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia in late August last year, a small crowd had already begun to form on the sidewalk. They were mostly members of Roxborough’s Mishkan Shalom Synagogue. And they were full of nerves, waiting for him.
As Avila held a large box of case files tightly to his chest, the group gathered around him as Mishkan member Michael Ramberg led the prayer. “A verse from the psalms: How good and how good pleasant it is when brothers and sisters come together…”
It was a big day for Avila, who’s undocumented, because he was finally going to learn whether or not he would be deported to Mexico, the country he left over 15 years ago as a teenager.
In 2013, the U.S. deported more than 130,000 undocumented immigrants who were living in the country. This marked the first drop in deportations after four straight years of steady increases and record levels under the Obama administration. To support Philadelphia families facing deportation through their time of crisis, an interfaith immigrant rights organization called New Sanctuary Movement has been pairing these families with local congregations, under its accompaniment program.
As one of these pairs, Avila and his family have been working with Mishkan Shalom Synagogue for the past few years. Not surprisingly, it’s been difficult for the family, living under the shadow of possible deportation.
“It’s taken a toll on us – my wife and kids above all,” said Avila. “I work a lot and only when I get home do I really think about what’s going on. What we’re going to do. But when we’re at home, we try not to think about deportation and take it one day at a time.”
It all started one night in 2011, when Avila was arrested and charged with soliciting a prostitute. Avila said he was set up by undercover police, who had targeted others like him before. He went through a diversion program and his record was expunged. But Avila had already landed in the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE – because of a controversial program that gives ICE access to Philadelphia’s pretrial local arrest data and allows police to detain people who might be in line for deportation. After Avila didn’t come home that night, his wife had to break the news to their son and daughter, who are now 8 and 13.
“I explained to the kids that Dad had run a red light and the police had arrested him and I told my kids that their father wouldn’t be able to come home,” Avila’s wife said. “And they cried and cried and cried and said, “Where’s dad? Why isn’t he coming home? Why can’t we see him?”
Avila did eventually get to come home to his family, but deportation proceedings had started. For the past two years, he and his family have been living in limbo, waiting to see what will happen with his cancellation of removal case. To stay in the U.S., Avila has to prove to a judge that he’s been in the country for 10 years without any serious criminal problems and that if he were deported, it would be an exceptional hardship to his U.S. citizen children. Avila’s wife said the whole experience has been hardest for the kids.
“They are afraid all the time. If I say we are going to drive, if we’re going shopping, then my son will get scared. Or when my daughter is leaving for school, she asks me, “Are you going to go out? Are you going to stay home?” And I prefer to tell her that I’m going to stay home because she’s very afraid that if I get in car, police are going to stop me. She’s really afraid of the police. For her, the police are just bad.”
Addressing the mental health needs of families
Longtime family therapist and La Puerta Abierta director Cathi Tillman said that for a lot of the undocumented families she works with, emotional trauma can play a big role. La Puerta Abierta or The Open Door is one of the few places in Philadelphia that provides free counseling to undocumented immigrants. Tillman said that undocumented immigrants experience extended trauma, caused by fear of deportation, family separation, financial pressure, and lack of trust.
“So in general, there’s a lot of anxiety, it’s not specific to immigration might come to our door and arrest somebody, but it’s more of this overall sense of insecurity,” Tillman said. “There’s so much anxiety in community especially around status issues, that people tend to be very non-disclosing about their struggles and issues, for fear that someone might share that info with the wrong people or judge them.”
All this can be extremely isolating, said Melissa Fogg, the immigrant mental health specialist with Lutheran Children and Family Services.
“It just leaves them feeling completely without support and isolated and alone in a new country that they came to, for a better life or for benefit of their children,” said Fogg. “So it’s hard, people have a really hard time negotiating what they expected to receive in the U.S. and what they thought they should be entitled to versus what they can actually access, which is very little.”
In Avila’s case, his family was able to get free counseling with La Puerta Abierta. But clinical mental health services are few and far between for undocumented immigrants due to insurance and language access issues. To help fill the void, Fogg said that soft approaches like art therapy, ESL classes, and community-building activities can also help. This is also where a program such as New Sanctuary Movement comes in.
Community of support
Peter Pedamonte is the executive director of New Sanctuary Movement, which runs the accompaniment program.
“You know, we’re not lawyers, but what we can do as people of faith, is walk with people, stand in solidarity with people,” said Pedamonte.
The idea for the partner congregation is to create a community of emotional and spiritual support around a family throughout the deportation process, whatever happens. Families share meals with congregation members and attend worship services; congregation members check in on family members and go to court with them.
“I remember when we first started this, I was very hesitant to talk about that part of program because it didn’t feel substantial,” Pedamonte said. “But as we went along and started doing evaluations with families, the thing that came up over and over again was community of support, was that there was community there getting their back in this incredibly stressful and traumatic time.”
Pedamonte said the program centers around building a relationship. For instance, when Pedro Avila’s family was matched with Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood two years ago, Mishkan member Michael Ramberg remembers testing the waters in the first meeting.
“I explained a little bit about why a synagogue might want to be involved in this, might want to accompany a family,” Ramberg said. “Some background about Jewish people’s experience with immigration, going back to stories in the Bible, but more recently with most of us having immigrant ancestors just one or two generations ago. It was a surprisingly easy connection.”
‘It was very beautiful the way they welcomed us’
Since then, Mishkan Shalom Synagogue has worked hard to have Avila’s back, to make him feel like he’s not facing deportation by himself. When Avila’s lawyer didn’t seem to be doing a great job in court, a Mishkan member – who also happens to be the executive director of HIAS-PA, an immigrant legal and social services nonprofit – decided to take his case on for free. And simply hanging out has also been valuable – like the time Avila came to the Mishkan Shalom Synagogue with 15 family members, including kids.
“It was very beautiful the way they welcomed us,” Avila said. “We never thought there were people like that who would open their doors to us to help us. Even 8 and 10-year-old kids who were there, asking us questions, trying to learn new things, and showing that our situation was important to them.”
Avila said that all the support from Mishkan has helped his family keep calm and deal with the harsh reality of what might happen.
“We’ve been united as a family, enjoying what we have. And we’ve been talking about what to do, making plans for our future not only if I’m here, but also if we have to go. If leaving is our destiny, then so be it. And the idea is that we all stay. Or we all go.”
The day of his final hearing, the day Avila and his family had been waiting over two years for – it turned out that they had to wait a little bit longer for an answer. The government only allows 4,000 people a year to get a cancellation of removal visa and the cap for fiscal year 2013 had already been reached.
About eight Mishkan members were there to support Avila as he got news of the delay.
“It was only us and I think it was very important for Pedro because he turned around a couple times and saw us there rooting for him,” Claudia Garcia-Leeds said. “And being amongst friends, I’m sure it made a difference.”
Since then, Avila has gotten word that he received the visa after all. Mishkan is planning a party to celebrate with Avila and his family soon.
This report is part of a multi-media mental health journalism series made possible by the Scattergood Foundation.