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New Course Prepares Psychology Students to Evaluate and Work With Asylum Seekers

The threat of persecution due to one’s religious or political beliefs may be unimaginable to most United States citizens, but for many people abroad, that threat is real and frightening, causing them to flee and seek refuge elsewhere.

Dr. Bill Sultan

Dr. Bill Salton

Last year, two professors at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Dr. Bill Salton and Dr. Carl Auerbach, began researching the topic of asylum after a colleague, Dr. Barbara Eisold, suggested that asylum seekers be evaluated at the school’s Max and Celia Parnes Family Psychological and Psychoeducational Services Clinic. They brought this suggestion to Dr. Lawrence Siegel, dean of Ferkauf, and to Dr. Lata McGinn, associate professor of psychology and director of the clinical psychology program, who offered their support for the project.

Salton, associate clinical professor of psychology and clinical director of the Parnes Clinic, and Auerbach, professor of psychology, soon enrolled in intensive training sessions designed to qualify them as evaluators. They also enlisted the participation of their students, leading to the creation of a class devoted solely to training students in this specialized field.

The inaugural course, “Working With Asylum Seekers,” was offered last spring and taught students how to psychologically evaluate asylum seekers and write reports that would be presented in court on their behalf.

“The United States government is committed to giving asylum to people who have a well-founded fear that they would be either killed or severely threatened in their home country because of ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or political beliefs,” Salton explained. “If a case is clear-cut, they are immediately given asylum and can become citizens. If a case appears more complicated, it is presented to a judge and people are invited to buttress their case, including psychologists, who prepare reports for the legal team to present.”

It is for the people involved in those complicated cases where the work of the students comes into play.

Dr. Carl Auerbach

Dr. Carl Auerbach

“We are training our students to do asylum interviews themselves, under our supervision,” said Auerbach. “The course is a combination of training and practical experience working with asylum seekers as well as hearing from other professionals involved in asylum cases about their work in the field.”

The class allowed students to explore a socially relevant topic and put their new training and skills to use right away, working with people who could truly benefit from their psychological expertise.

“This course offered a unique opportunity to not only gain knowledge about a fascinating topic, but also to immediately apply that knowledge and have an impact on someone’s life,” said fourth-year graduate student Leon Gellert, an aspiring clinical psychologist.

Students worked in pairs to complete three asylum evaluations, working with one person from the Caribbean who was facing political persecution resulting from their family’s involvement with protesting the country’s government, another from Central America who was facing persecution from gangs and an asylum seeker from Russia who was dealing with potential discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“We conducted evaluations to establish the presence and nature of any psychiatric symptoms, to assess the mental state both while in the home country and here in the United States, and to establish credibility of the client,” said student Sarah Robertson. “The asylum evaluation process can be an incredibly difficult emotional experience for asylum seekers, but simultaneously can be one of the first opportunities for them to discuss their story at length and to have others bear witness to it in full.”

After meeting with the clients, students wrote up an affidavit, or a written account of what they determined about the client based on the interview. The affidavit was then given to a lawyer, who submitted it into evidence in support of the client’s case.

The course emphasized to students how their role as an expert witness in an asylum case is different than that of a clinician with clients, and requires a nuanced approach and heightened awareness of the issues with which a client may be grappling.

“Working with traumatic experiences is handled very differently in a clinical setting than in an asylum evaluation,” said Gellert. “We discussed the concerns of re-traumatizing the clients and how listening to some of these horrific stories can impact our own mental health.”

The class partnered with Physicians for Human Rights at the Weill Cornell Medical Center and also collaborated with a legal team at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. A presentation by Teresa Woods, associate director of the Refugee Representation Project of the Human Rights and Genocide Clinic at Cardozo, enabled students to gain a better understanding of how their work as forensic evaluators fits into the legal structure of the cases.

For Robertson, who hopes to work with underserved populations in a mental health setting, the class was a great opportunity to get acquainted with fellow students and others who shared her professional goals.

“One of the most rewarding parts of the course was connecting with a community of people at Ferkauf and beyond who are interested in this type of work, and more generally in seeking to use our clinical skills in ways that promote social justice, as well as safety for vulnerable populations like asylum seekers,” she said.

However, even after a person is granted asylum, there might be lingering psychological problems, Salton pointed out. He hopes to eventually establish a sector within the Parnes Clinic dedicated to asylum seekers.

“There is not much literature or research on this, and as we learn more, we hope to develop a team of clinicians and patients to answer some of those questions,” Salton said. “In that way, we can better train our students to work with the world’s diverse population.”