Episode 3: Immigrant Families & Mental Health with Dalissy Washington
Speakers: William Menard, Dalissy Washington
Hello, everyone. And welcome to Norris Speaks – Immigration Forward, a limited podcasting series diving into the latest immigration topics and issues. I’m your host, William Menard, a partner in the Immigration Group at Norris McLaughlin. My guest today is Dalissy Washington. Ms. Washington is a licensed clinical social worker running her own private practice in Eastern Pennsylvania. A substantial portion of Ms. Washington’s work is focused on assisting immigrants and their families confront, manage, and cope with the substantial toll that the immigration process can have on non-citizens and their families. Ms. Washington is also an adjunct professor of health and social welfare at Esperanza College of Eastern University. Ms. Washington, thank you very much for joining me.
Thank you guys for having me.
Dalissy, before we get into the work that you do, I do want to ask you about your own family’s immigration history. You are a first-generation American. Where is your family originally from and how do they end up in the United States?
I am first-generation Dominican American, and so both of my parents are from the Dominican Republic. My mom arrived to the U.S. only the second of her family, on a work visa, I believe late 1960s. And then slowly, her sister was the first to come. She was the second. Slowly they started, I don’t know if the right word is petitioning for other family members. And so slowly they started trickling one after the other, siblings, my grandparents. So by the time I was born, my aunts and uncles and my grandparents had already been in the U.S. for quite some time. My mom arrived in her early twenties. And then in her early thirties, she met my father. They married in the Dominican Republic. So it was someone here in the U.S. played matchmaker with my mom. My dad was still in the Dominican Republic. They started writing letters to one another. They met, decided to get married. They married in the Dominican Republic. And so my mom was already settled working in the US. And so I guess upon their marriage, they filed for my dad to be able to join her in the U.S., and my understanding is that they were, they lived apart after their marriage, about nine months, as my mom waited for my dad’s visa to arrive. By that point, she was a U.S. citizen as well. So that’s how, slowly, all of the family started to join in the U.S.
And, Where did you end up in the U S?
Yeah, so I ended up growing up in North New Jersey. My mom arrived to New York, but as they decided where to live or work situations, they ended up in a town called Passaic, really close to New York, Jersey City, Newark. Other people recognize those places, but it’s Passaic County. And honestly it was really diverse. So I felt that every Hispanic country was represented. I felt like I was immensely tied to my Latin roots, just in our community. The support was there. And so most of my family continues to live in north New Jersey.
And as the first part of the first generation of your family that was born here and kind of grew up here, you know, the first to kind of be born and grew up as Americans, how did that impact your relationship with your family? So what was the relationship that you have with your parents versus what you had with people outside your family and your community, like the city that you were in or the school, or how did that play off between the two cultures?.
Trying to figure out where I should start with that. And just as a disclaimer, I’m speaking for my own experience, right? I think everyone’s experience can look a little different. I feel like I was fortunate to grow up in a healthy family that had already settled in the United States for a good, I guess, 20 years before I was born. So in some ways, growing up as a child of immigrants, it did feel like it was two separate worlds. Like my parents didn’t fully understand, you know, some of the things I was going through in school, like just the way that they engaged with the school system and the community, I think maybe looked different than the way that I might be parenting now. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, but I mean, as it was the first time put it this way, my mom only studied up to the age of 10 and then my dad did complete high school in the Dominican Republic and immediately he was a teacher versus here, where there’s, you go to college and you know, you go for these degrees before you’re able to work. But with that being said, it was almost like they modeled what it meant to be responsible Citizens, work hard. We knew it was our responsibility to do the same in school, but sometimes there was that, like, disconnect. Like I participated in activities, they encouraged that, but it wasn’t that they were right there. It wasn’t that they fully understood what was going on when I was in the marching band for the football team. Like they just, they didn’t know about sports, they didn’t know about these extracurricular activities. So it was more of drop-off, you know what your responsibility is, that’s that. I think as I continued into college and obtaining my master’s degree, and even now as a professional, I find that my parents are like, we think we know what you do as a professional, but we don’t fully understand it. So I don’t know if that answers your question. I can talk a little more about the community and just how I identified as Dominican, but I’ll let you guide me a little better.
Well, first, you know, I think, you know, one thing I was asking about is the life that you lived at home versus the culture that you had, what your parents brought from the Dominican Republic, into your home versus the marching band, sports, high school, you know, American culture that everyone is very familiar with. Did you feel that you were going back and forth between two kinds of very different, like, cultures and ways of living or anything?
Not necessarily, but it’s important to talk about that because the adolescents I serve now certainly do feel more of that divide and disconnect. But I believe because we were in North Jersey where many immigrants lived, and we had the bodegas, and we just, it was a vibrant community that did, we felt welcomed. And some of the things going on at home, we also saw in the community. We attended a church that was, you know, for Spanish speakers. So we also had that community that did kind of go hand in hand with home life. I think some of the cultural values is maybe where I saw more differences. For example, when I was thinking about what college I would like to go to, I remember that there was this, what do you mean you want to go away? And how far? Like, we don’t do that. Like you keep the family together, I guess, if you can. Cause I also think about my mom leaving her home in her twenties, but in their head, you know, that’s like out of sacrifice and necessity. That’s what she needed to do for a better life. But for me, it was, there were all of these colleges and universities right around the block. Why would you want to go seven hours away from home? So some of those values were different, but I think I had some of those protective factors that allowed me to be comfortable in identifying as Dominican. I do find that they also didn’t have to change their ways. We were around enough family members. So we were eating the same things. They were still functioning with their Dominican roots. Like what we ate, how we lived. And so I think because those protective factors were there, I definitely identified as Dominican and I didn’t feel like I needed to hide that, but I do find that there are certain things that I only know in my life, Dominican context or Latina context, and other things where I’m like, I never heard of that. Or like, we didn’t talk about that at home. So now, as I’m around more adults, I realized that there were some things I just wasn’t exposed to, even foods or different things of those sorts.
Well, you know, that’s kind of is a good segue into talking about the work that you do. You work a lot with social work and mental health within the immigrant community. And you know, you talk about how a lot of you had lived in a vibrant neighborhood that had a lot of diversity, including a lot of people from the Dominican Republic, or their families that were from the Dominican Republic. What are some of the issues that you see that come up for people who don’t, maybe they’ve lived in areas that are virtually nobody from their background, what kind of obstacles they face, particularly for kids?
So first off, I grew up not asking very many questions about the immigration process, and I was protected from that. And what I mean by that is that my mom was able to come on a work visa. She didn’t live in the shadows of, like, undocumented status. And so, because she requested my dad, same thing, we weren’t dealing with undocumented or mixed status, meaning that some family members may have papers to be here and have the rights that they deserve while others do not, including kids or adolescents. And so I’ve worked with deferred action for childhood arrival recipients, as well as U.S. born children and adolescents. And one of the biggest things that stands out is that many are living in fear. They may be aware of family member status and that threat of deportation. So that’s one, right? And I didn’t grow up with that. Second, it’s feeling that they don’t belong or that no one will understand what they’re going through. So I have specific cases that come to mind where children or adolescents, so this teenager in front of me is saying, yeah, even my closest friends, I don’t talk about this with them. Like they wouldn’t understand, or they’re not even sure if they can go there. You also have some children that are protected from that information. And so unless they’re asking, or sometimes they just don’t know. We also have kids and teens that may have already been directly impacted in terms of already being separated from a caregiver or parents, because that parent was detained at some point in their life, or individuals where their parent was actually deported. And so what I see is just the psychological deterioration and the negative psychological impact on their, on their health. I don’t know if you want an example because there are so many pockets, right?
Yeah. I mean, I think it would really help if you could tell everyone about a particular case, particularly like a child facing, or a series of issues related, to the undocumented status of their parents and kind of how they reacted to it, and as well as how they reacted to their community. And how did they respond between the way they deal with their family, and then the way that they deal with everyone else in their lives, you know, at school or on sports teams or anyone?
I’m thinking about, uh, two cases. So we get a lot of these, right, where we’re getting a referral where anxiety, depression, or any sort of like mental health symptoms are coming up. And so for a long time, I worked within a pediatric office, integrated behavioral health care. So that meant the pediatrician would refer the family. I would meet with them. And so I remember I had this adolescent who I’d been seeing for quite some time, but then her anxiety was exacerbated. I believe it was her second year of high school, soon after the Trump administration, and it was right during the time where everyone went into a panic because there was this threat. So there were actual raids had occurred in the community. And so I remember she came in, she had been stable for over a year. And she came in with just this panic attack. And just heightened anxiety. I forget if she knew already that her parents were undocumented, but this time it was, what happens if, while I’m in school, my parents are taken away, and she’s like, we have to plan this. Who am I going to stay with? I can’t stay alone. It was just her and her brother, around two years apart. So they’re both high school students, and now it’s in their face. What happens? Both of our parents are undocumented. What happens if they are both deported at this point? And so, honestly, as a provider, I was feeling a little hopeless too, because I wasn’t sure what to say. But the recommendations were, help these clients prepare and have a second plan if their parent is deported. But in that context, she presents, I’m trying to help her cope and manage those intense emotions. But one of the things she brought up was, the conversations were also happening in school. And some sort of debate happens in the classroom. Her friends obviously don’t know what’s going on for her personally. And she said she just stormed out that room because she felt that. There were some things the teacher said and students said that were extremely offensive. And quite frankly, she saw the discrimination right in front of her. And so bring that up. Like just her experience within that system feeling she didn’t have support, not knowing who to speak to, and not knowing if she could be honest about this very personal experience, even just within that school community. The other case I would like to share about, it’s definitely quite different. So this is a DACA recipient. I met her post high school, but she talks about being 15 and her dad being detained for some months. And so detained and away from the family. He was a primary income earner, and she talks about her own mental health issues prior to that, incidents and everything she went through just in those months. And then after. So during those months that her dad was detained, she remembers the chaos of trying to figure out how they were going to help her dad, not knowing if he would be able to return back home. She was 15, her mom had to get a job. And I think it was like, her mom gets this like cleaning job. They both started working together. They had to. She was the oldest. So she felt that she needed to take ownership for the wellbeing of the family and help her mom. So she and her mom started working to make the money that was no longer coming in from Dad. As we see in many cases, stress can manifest physically. So her mom ends up becoming ill and hospitalized, triggered by all of this stress. And she said she remembers posing as her mom. She was showing up to work as her mom because she felt that was the best she could do. She had no choice. Like, that’s just what we were going to do. Right. But when we talk about the psychological impact of all of this, to be short, this young lady was presenting with self-harm behaviors, suicidality, including a psychiatric hospitalization, including a suicide attempt, and really feeling she was carrying the weight. And she talks about sleeping in the living room, not knowing if I.C.E was going to storm through the door, and she felt she needed to be that barrier if someone came in. So she was in that living room by the front door, thinking what if they come in, what are we going to do? And I guess I could talk about more of the impact because she fought through all of this, right? They were reunited with her father, but she continued to live in that cycle of fear because his case didn’t resolve immediately. So he was able to come home. He was able to continue working, but there was no resolution to his immigration case. So it was just waiting different court hearings. So showing up at the immigration office, and who do you think was supporting him through that? This adolescent, this young lady. So she’s now in her twenties, over five years later. And still in that toxic stress within that circle where there’s no solution. Sometimes there’s months where she feels better. As soon as a court hearing is coming up, or as soon as he has to present for an appointment at the immigration office, her stress rises and then there’s no resolution. And that also speaks to her own, right? She’s a DACA recipient, but she has no pathway to citizenship. So she also knows she’s living under that threat of deportation and not being able to fulfill her dream. So she went to study criminal justice. She wanted to be a police officer, but I think there’s only two states, maybe, in the U.S. that allow you to work as a police officer without U.S. citizenship or legal status. So in her case, it wasn’t an option, but she was still pushing in whatever way she could, trying to work in the field that she really wanted to work in. And I’ll leave it at that. But it’s just, it’s so complex. And that is the weight that children, adolescents, and families are carrying for years on end, without knowing what’s going to happen.
For anyone who doesn’t know, DACA is deferred action for childhood arrivals. It’s a program that allows people who came here as children to remain in the U.S. and work and go to school, but doesn’t, at the moment, provide a pathway to permanent residence. Although there is discussion of doing so in Congress, and we’ll have to wait and see whether that materializes into law. One final thing I want to ask you about is, you know, obviously you described in detail, the kind of the immediate mental health impact of family separation and concern about immigration status and what have you. But long-term, you know, let’s say the case is resolved, you know, and let’s say, even, it’s resolved in favor of this family, that they are able to stay permanently together in the United States. You know, I’m looking at the impact that having to become an adult so quickly has on another person. Right? So people who are adolescents, teenagers, having to become adults, and as you described, actually pose as adults. What does that do long-term, when their childhood is short-circuited and they’re just adults much earlier than they should be.
Yeah. So I think it’s important to mention that sometimes it actually presents as the strengths and admirable behaviors. Right? But what we know is that as adults, it’s like, almost like over functioning, anxiety and maybe poor boundaries and the lack of control that they had with the immigration process. They are now trying to control all areas of their life. And so it may mean that they are succeeding in some ways, professionally, but then they are seeing this in different relationships and socially, and the level of stress and carrying the weight of the worlds. And they’re seeing it present in different ways. Where the defense mechanisms they were using when they were younger are still in place when they no longer need them. And so it means that they still are carrying that stress in some way, and it presents differently, but sometimes it’s coming out in other ways where they may not know how to relax. And so overachieving, but knowing they’re not taking care of themselves and their body, or experiencing physical symptoms, like “I always have headaches,” “I always have pain.” And so just, we see these manifestations in different areas and in different ways. And the other concern is, it’s really difficult for them to strike that balance from what were these defense mechanisms they were using in the past that they may no longer need now. And so I think that when our brain is constantly sending us those fight or flight signals, we’re just engaging with the world a little differently. And there is also, if their perception of the world is a harsh one, there is a lack of trust or ease, or they’ve had to be selective about their emotions. And so now they’re struggling to experience joy, or some sort of peace of mind, even when some things are going a little better per se. But some of the damage is there. And what I mean by that is that economically, socially, decisions maybe they’ve made. So, like some of those lingering effects persist. So what decisions are being made in, I don’t know, relationships, are they now in an abusive relationship and it’s to no fault of their own, but that awareness may not be there, or some of the struggles they had before. So it’s a lot of negative coping skills that they’re having to challenge. And I’ve seen the resilience. I’ve seen the strength. So by no means do I want anyone to listen to this and believe that we need to label these children, adolescents, and families. But what I, my call to action is that we become very trauma informed and trauma responsive, that this experience is traumatic in itself. And so we have to pay some attention to how that continues to impact their lives, their decision-making, what resources are available to them and which ones aren’t. So obviously the more protective factors we have and the less risk factors, then it leads to likelihood of a positive quality of life. But that’s something they’re constantly working towards.
This is hard work and it’s a struggle for the families. And it’s a struggle for you to do what you can. And I guess, what keeps you going? Why do you keep doing this? And maybe an example of kind of a positive outcome that kind of was tangible proof of the impact that treating mental health can have.
So I always say I don’t lose hope, right? So the intensity of trauma with the people I serve and being able to sit with them and get an entire life history, it can be very, it tugs at your heart and it’s angering and frustrating because it feels that a lot of this can be prevented, at least that’s, that’s my belief from a social justice perspective. But knowing that they have a chance to share their story. And with the report I write, knowing that it will potentially support something they’re seeking. Or when I hear a mom who fled El Salvador and she says it was like glory day. She knew her life in the U.S. wouldn’t be easy, but as soon as she was here and safe because of what she was fleeing, it’s like, she’s like, I’m in heaven and this is all I need. So as long as you don’t make me think about everything else, this does not compare to what I suffered before. So to hear her say that, or to hear people say, like for the first time they’re able to share their story. One, I know I’m helping in that sense. And two, there is, their quality of life does improve once they have a work permit. Once they have their driver’s license and they’re no longer functioning in that fear that they could be stopped, and something might happen. So there is an ease that they’re able to experience, and I like to think that I’m a part of that. And then as a social worker, I am not only trying to help case by case, but I’m becoming more involved in policy and activism. And that makes me feel that I’m doing a little more, but what grounds me is honestly, more than anything, spiritually. Just my faith and feeling like I’m called to do this work and that I don’t give up. Right? So we have to be persistent. So we are serving an extremely vulnerable population, and an extremely resilient population. And so with all the sacrifices that I’m hearing them speak of, I’m also noting all of these strengths and how they are proving that they still are moving forward, is I had a young mom, her daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury at the age of 3. I met them when this child was already 15 years old. But because of that traumatic brain injury from a car accident before her brain was even developed, her cognitive limitations are grave, and it would result in, like, aggressive behaviors. And so I remember telling mom she was going without a lot of resources because she was undocumented, and because her daughter also was, so there were a lot of benefits that they did not qualify for medical care. Luckily, the local children’s hospital was providing many of the services, but what I knew was that as soon as that child turned 18, as soon as she became an adult with disabilities, she would have no services essentially. And so I remember telling mom, we will keep asking questions, seeking any resources possible so that you have the support you need. And so with that case, special immigrant juvenile status, the way things worked out, I didn’t even know that existed, but long story short, the way things worked out, this child, who is now turning 21, was able to obtain legal permit residence when she was about 17. And so she is on a pathway to citizenship. Her mom is not, but at least she is, and she is now getting the disability services that she deserved all along. But we know that that’s in place, and so I think we need to ask questions. Think creatively. And when policy is going against what we know a family needs, we need to keep finding loopholes and finding ways to support, if it’s not at the federal level, at the local level. And it goes on and on and on and on. And so as of now, that family is much more stable, they got more services. It’s still a really hard case. And there are still some benefits that she is awaiting until she becomes a citizen. But I was able to support them in moving a step closer to added services, so that gives me hope.
All right. So I think we have to end it there. This has been Norris Speaks – Immigration Forward, a limited podcast series diving into the latest immigration topics and issues. Dalissy Washington is a Clinical Social Worker running her own private practice, working closely with immigrant families to help their mental wellbeing, and is also an Adjunct Professor of Health and Social Welfare at Esperanza College of Eastern University. Ms. Washington, I just want to thank you again for sharing these stories and telling people about the work that you do and providing more information and awareness to the people that you work with.
Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
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