By Meiyang Liu Kadaba
A year ago, I sat across my client*, interviewing her with the help of an interpreter. Like many others during my practicum, this woman was an immigrant without legal status seeking asylum. My job was to evaluate and document the psychological effects of her traumatic experiences as a part of her application. For the next several hours, this client poured forth her story of fleeing from domestic abuse, gang violence, and ethnic persecution. She made the impossible decision to take the children that she could wrestle away from her ex-partner while leaving others behind. She looked after her little ones and survived the harrowing journey through Central America and Mexico, and finally across the border. She gave thanks to God that she was one of the lucky ones. “Lucky” meant working 60+ hours a week for barely minimum wage. It meant constantly worrying about her elderly parents and children back home, to whom she sent almost all her money while knowing that she couldn’t visit. It also meant having flashbacks and panic whenever she thought about her past, so she avoided it however she could.
It is this client, and many others like her, that I’ve often thought about these past few months. In the fall of 2017, cases for asylum like hers were already under threat. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was rounding up immigrants in communities all over the Bay Area. New policies from the Trump administration meant that the number of asylum approvals were being reduced. We received constant updates about changing requirements that made our jobs as evaluators ever more difficult.
But a year ago, I couldn’t have imagined where we would be now, in the fall of 2018. The U.S. Attorney General has announced that domestic and gang violence are no longer grounds for asylum. Thousands of children, some under a year of age, have been separated from their parents, many of whom are fleeing violence just like my client. The majority of these families have yet to be reunited despite mass outcry and a federal court mandate.
It is times like these that remind me, all too vividly, of why I chose to enter this profession. My own personal experiences as a child immigrant who experienced family separation made me feel like there was a uniquely useful place for me in psychology. It led me to conduct research about the impact of immigration and separation on children and families. It led me to work with asylum seekers that year, which ultimately led me to this choice at this moment – how do I want to use the knowledge, access, and privilege I have as a psychologist? In that moment, the connection was clear. The pain and resilience that we carry as human beings are what we draw upon as clinicians and researchers to witness our clients. They are, yet again, what we need to transform into outcry and action in times like these. To me, this is the power and responsibility of being a clinical psychologist.
In the midst of all the despair and anger, I received news that, against all odds, my client’s application for asylum was approved. The same breath that I breathed out of relief for this woman and her family also caught in my throat for the many more like her who still suffer. This stuckness in my chest reminds me of their uncertainty and helplessness. As uncomfortable as it is, I’m choosing to not let go.
*This “client” is a composite profile of many whom my colleagues and I worked with that year. Details have been generalized for protection of confidentiality.
Meiyang Liu Kadaba is a Psy.D. student at the Wright Institute, Berkeley. She is the current Student Representative of AAPA Division on Practice and its incoming Chair-Elect.