Immigrants Who Are Victims Of Crime Need Emotional Healing

Sept. 8, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

Front office entrance of the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance
The Center for Legal Immigration Assistance received a federal grant as part of the Victims of Crime Act. The grant went to full effect in July. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Immigrants, refugees, and asylees are sometimes thought to be very resilient people. They’ve overcome abuse, trauma and tragedy in their lives, but they still need help processing the trauma. The Center for Legal Immigration Assistance (CLIA) in Lincoln is a nonprofit that helps immigrants who are victims of crime apply for visas, and heal their mental health wounds.

The organization recently received a $167,000 federal grant as part of the Victims of Crime Act. The grant will be used to help immigrants that have been victims of domestic abuse, violence, terrorism and more by providing them with legal and mental health support.

CLIA Founder, who recently retired, Max Graves, said they applied for the grant because he always felt their help with immigrants was incomplete.

"We're trying to do is not just check the boxes that we've done everything that we can for the legal aspect of it, but also to go a little bit deeper and deal with the significant emotional trauma that many of these people have gone through," he said.

Before the pandemic, Graves said they were seeing about 1,000 people a year and about 100 of them were victims of domestic violence.

"An immigrant woman many times cannot get public assistance, cannot work because she doesn't have documentation, can't get a social security card, can't get a driver's license," he said. "So, she's the perfect victim for an abuser because the abuser feels like he has all the power."

Photo of a man sitting in an office.
CLIA Founder Max Graves started the nonprofit in 2001 because he saw the community needed immigration legal services. (Photo Courtesy Mary Choate)

Kathy is one of those victims. We granted her anonymity because she's in fear for her own safety. She moved to the U.S. sponsored by her job, but said she was soon fired because she was pregnant. She was homeless for a while and then met someone who ended up being an abuser.

"People can hurt you, they don't have to beat you. Words can kill you," she said. "The way they treat you, people can decide that they have power over you and [treat you like] disgusting garbage."

Kathy suffered a lot of abuse and it took her years before she reported it to the police. Interim Executive Director of CLIA and immigration lawyer Mary Choate said it’s common for immigrants to not report crimes because they don’t trust the police or they’re afraid to get deported.

"Imagine if your husband that you love is just threatening to send you back to this country, just because you forgot to do the dishes," Choate said. "So they're living under this constant fear of going back to something else they fear or being even separated from their children."

Under U.S. laws like the Violence Against Women Act, it’s the abuser who’s breaking the law, and there’s a legal remedy that protects immigrants if they report crimes like abuse to the police. In 2010, Kathy reported her crime. Then, she went to court and a judge granted her a protection order against her abuser. Despite it being resolved, the experience was still traumatic.

"I already feel [like] I don't have the dignity to go out, but you're telling me I'm going to stand before a judge and tell the judge that somebody abused me," she said. "I don't know this judge. I don't know who is in this court. I'm still nursing my wounds."

Kathy said she’s asked many legal offices for help, but she wasn’t getting the mental health support and healing she needed before she could share her story. When immigrants who are victims of crime, like Kathy, apply for special visas, they need a written statement to prove their trauma. Attorneys might not be aware of re-traumatizing immigrants during the investigative process, so CLIA has mental health therapists help write statements like Kathy’s.

"I feel like a part of me, somebody is listening, finally," Kathy said. "And somebody is seeing my pain, and that gives me hope."

Maria Elena Villasante is one of those therapists hired by CLIA. She said they screen clients for anxiety, depression, and stress too, so they can see if they need more mental health support.

"Sometimes we just think that refugees and asylees are resilient, which they are," Villasante said. "However, that doesn't mean that they have a lot of issues that may be undermining their own personal lives and they just learn to live through it."

There’s a stigma against mental health for refugees, Villasante said. So, they offer individual therapy sessions and mental health support groups to teach them how to take care of their well-being. Kathy is scheduling individual therapy sessions soon. She and Mary Choate encourage immigrants to speak up and tell the police if they’re a victim of a crime.

"You're not powerless. You do have power," Choate said.

Through the new grant, CLIA Founder Max Graves hopes immigrants can emerge from their office empowered to ask for help.