The 2016 presidential campaign, foreign wars, global economic instability, and acts of terrorism have spurred vigorous debate—and ugly rhetoric—about U.S. immigration policy and the influx of refugees, migrants, and undocumented immigrants arriving at our borders by the thousands.
New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Chenoa Moten and Catherine Patteson Poehling, both students at Tulane University School of Social Work, believe that the public discourse is, at best, superficial and at worst, driven by prejudice—particularly toward Latino and Hispanic immigrants, who are often maligned in public discussions. The reality of the immigrant experience, they say, is more much more complex.
“Every individual that I’ve encountered who has traveled to the U.S. has displayed such a formidable strength of will and resilience,” says Moten, who was raised in communities with large Hispanic populations and previously worked with undocumented Spanish-speaking women at the Family Justice Center of Greater New Orleans. “[T]hey get here and they’re met with hostility and hatred. The reality of the situation is that a growing percentage of people are hurting and struggling to survive.”
“It is well documented that there is extreme violence and gang and drug activity that adults and youth in Central America face, leading them to seek a better life in the U.S.,” says Poehling, who has also worked with Spanish-speaking immigrants seeking health and social services. As an example, Poehling recalls meeting a preteen girl during her field placement work who had traveled unaccompanied by foot from Guatemala through Mexico to the U.S. border, eventually to be re-united with her mother in Louisiana. The girl was responsible for her younger sister on the journey, yet there was no one to protect her from the perils they encountered along the way.
“She had been sexually assaulted by an adult man, faced a daily fear of violence, and food insecurity during her journey,” Poehling relates. “This young girl wanted nothing more than to find safety, family, and an education for herself and her younger sister.”
Moten and Poehling are concerned about the traumatic effect of such experiences on the tens of thousands of children who have arrived in recent years at our southwest border, primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, seeking to escape the systemic poverty and violence of their homelands. A large percentage of these children are “unaccompanied minors”―defined as those under age 18 who have no lawful immigration status and no legal parent or guardian in the U.S. to take custody of them. To help these youth―who receive certain protections under U.S. law because of their vulnerability―recover and adjust to life in an unfamiliar country, Moten and Poehling are partnering with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans to provide a psycho-educational training program called “Alivio” for the children and their caregivers. Alivio, which will begin doing intakes this month, aims to improve the mental health of these young people by helping them address the trauma they have experienced and alleviate “acculturation stress”―the psychological impact adapting to a new culture. In the case of many Hispanic and Latino immigrants, acculturation stress can also include the unfortunate effects of racism and discrimination.
“There is extreme fatigue associated with simply being in a place that is so different,” says Poehling. “When taking into account the trauma that many Hispanic and Latino individuals have experienced either in their home country or during their journey to the U.S., that sense of fatigue can become overwhelming.”
Poehling says their plan has been met with interest and excitement within New Orleans’s burgeoning Hispanic and Latino community. “It is clear from their reactions, and the participant interest in our program, that these services are wanted and needed in our community,” she says. She and Moten have already made plans for the future of Alivio, having recruited two new MSW students at Tulane who will take over the project upon completion of their Fellowship year. Moten and Poehling also plan to share the lessons of Alivio with other area service providers so that they may better meet the needs of their focus population.
“We hope to gain a better understanding of which interventions work best when dealing with acculturation stress in adolescents,” says Moten. “We will use that information to educate and inform agencies and individuals in Greater New Orleans that are working with immigrant populations, especially adolescents who’ve experienced trauma.”
Aside from the professional work that connected each of them to the plight of Hispanic and Latino immigrants, Molten and Poehling both had personal experiences that inspired their Fellowship project. As an undergraduate Moten read Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway: A True Story the tale of 26 Mexicans who tried to cross the southern Arizona desert into the U.S. in 2001; just 12 survived the journey. The book describes each man’s reason for risking life and limb in the perilous crossing, and their hopes for a better quality of life for their families.
“I’ve always been equal parts inspired and disheartened by the plight of people seeking a better life and more opportunities for themselves and their children,” says Moten. “This book really inspired me to start actively participating in the immigrant plight.”
Poehling got a taste for the instability that many immigrants and refugees face when her family’s suburban Miami home was demolished and her community upended by Hurricane Andrew back in 1992.
“The days and weeks that followed were hard, living in tent camps provided by government relief agencies,” Poehling recalls. “My elementary school did not reopen that year. We shared half days of school with another local school. Those experiences motivated me to assist people suffering displacement because of natural and human forces.”
Thus far, the pair appreciates the support they’ve received from ASF and their cohort of 2015-2016 Fellows. “It’s been great to get together with the interdisciplinary team of Fellows and discuss the progress of our different projects,” Poehling says. “For instance, some Fellows have shared knowledge about other Spanish-speaking social services in the community, funding opportunities, and professional development opportunities.”
“What I’ve found the most beneficial about the fellowship is connecting with people that have a similar mindset but a different set of skills,” Moten adds. “The Schweitzer Fellowship has not just provided the opportunity to create, develop, and implement out project—it’s also given us the opportunity to witness our peers do the same, which is an incredible learning opportunity.”