Immigration Attorneys Share Stories Of Trauma And Burnout

By Marco Poggio | August 10, 2022, 4:27 PM EDT ·

In the fall of 2020, Taylor Levy, an attorney specializing in the representation of asylum seekers, was on the bridge connecting Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, with a client, when police officers came and took a pregnant woman, her husband and her mother-in-law away. 

When the family returned to the bridge later on, sobbing and beaten up, the future mother told Levy that the officers had orally raped her at gunpoint in front of her family members. The cops let them go only when passersby approached the alleyway they had forced the family into, Levy recalled the woman saying.

Two years earlier, while Levy was on the same bridge assisting an unaccompanied minor at the border crossing, a young Guatemalan couple with a toddler approached her in tears, begging her for help. An unidentified man wearing civilian clothes, whom she believed was a cartel associate, came by and told Levy, "They have to come with me," and said she was "going to have problems" if she didn't let him take them away. She believes that the couple had been kidnapped.

"It made my blood run cold," Levy told Law360. "I knew that I could have potentially stopped the kidnapping. But I felt like I had to protect my own life and not stop the kidnapping. And it's really horrific and I constantly, you know, still think about their faces."

Levy's 11-year experience with asylum seekers has been inextricably linked to the U.S.-Mexico border, a dangerous boundary where drug trade, human trafficking and cartel violence mix with U.S. border policies, and where migrants' lives hang in the balance.

Levy said she had represented dozens of survivors of kidnappings, a widespread phenomenon in Mexican border towns, where cartel associates take advantage of migrants' connections with family members in the U.S. to capture them and demand ransoms. On occasion, criminals kidnapped migrants from the shelters she would visit for her legal work.

Levy became so accustomed to these situations, which often involve negotiating directly with criminals for her clients' release, that she ended up as a go-to for other lawyers who needed a savvy mediator to secure their kidnapped clients' freedom.

In late 2020, at the height of the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy — which forced migrants seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed — Levy was so exhausted that she had to leave the border city. Having to operate in Mexico exposed her to great danger, and she had to think about her own family, she said.

"By the time I left the border, I was extremely burned out. And I left just because of how difficult and painful the work was," she said. "It was horrific, from hearing all the stories and the secondary trauma, but also just the fear that I had myself of being killed, all the time, for doing my work."

Levy was diagnosed with severe treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder. She now works remotely on immigration cases from Berkeley, California, often communicating with clients who are at the border via WhatsApp.

"I have lots of nightmares. I have lots of just hypervigilance and fear from all the time that I spent in Mexico," she said. "I still struggle with feelings of guilt for physically not being there in person anymore for people."

Levy's story may be an extreme tale of how taxing immigration practice can be on an attorney. But other practitioners in immigration law, a vast realm that includes border attorneys working for free, firms with offices on Fifth Avenue and many other practices in between, say they have also experienced burnout.

Lindsay M. Harris, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia's David A. Clarke School of Law who has done extensive research on immigration attorneys' burnout and is regarded as an expert on the topic, co-authored a study published last year in the Wake Forest Law Review that surveyed over 700 attorneys working in asylum practice.

She found out that asylum lawyers were more likely to suffer from burnout, a condition psychiatrists say stems from working in environments characterized by "high stress and low rewards," and secondary traumatic stress, which is defined as "stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person."

Harris' study made a comparison with stress reported in comparable studies by professionals in other fields, including midwives, social workers, nurses, hospital doctors, prison wardens and immigration judges, and found that asylum lawyers were the most affected by burnout and secondary stress. Another type of condition that often overlaps with the other two, called vicarious trauma, occurs when attorneys' empathic engagement with clients changes their views of the world and life, to the point that they become cynical and alienated.

An asylum attorney by training who directs her university's immigration and human rights clinic and personally represents asylum seekers in court, Harris said she had seen immigration attorneys leaving the practice in droves, particularly during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, when immigration policies and rhetoric were openly hostile to both immigrants and their lawyers, she said.

"I started to see people leaving or talking about leaving the profession, because they were too burned out, or because it was just too much — the levels of stress, but also the exposure to trauma," Harris said.

Harris said her study's main purpose was to provide stakeholders in the immigration system with a starting point for improving the way the country deals with immigrants and the professionals who represent them.

Students working at law clinics assisting refugees get a taste of exhaustion early on in their careers, professors say.

Elora Mukherjee, the director of the immigrants' rights clinic at Columbia Law School, said she warns students at the beginning of each semester about the exposure to secondary trauma the clinic's work involves, and tries to address issues of vicarious trauma, secondary stress and burnout repeatedly during the course through readings and by surveying students. Still, some of them feel overwhelmed at times.

"Students would confide in me that they can't sleep at night, or when they fall asleep, they have nightmares. And sometimes their nightmares include many details about what happened to their clients," she said. "Those are the reactions we have because we're human."

Students who choose to attend the clinic are drawn by a commitment to social justice, Mukherjee said, and that brings them to identify even more with their clients' suffering — a factor that often leads them to experience trauma themselves.

In addition to exposure to their clients' trauma, relived time and time again while preparing for asylum interviews, immigration attorneys are also under pressure to perform well, experts say.

Craig Dobson, a solo practitioner at Dobson Law LLC and vice chair of the lawyer well-being committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said immigration practice was an area of law where attorneys were at a higher risk of being the subject of ethics complaints.

Under a doctrine established by the Board of Immigration Appeals in the 1988 case Matter of Lozada, an attorney challenging an adverse immigration decision on a client is compelled, with few exceptions, to file an ethics complaint against the client's previous lawyer.

"That's one thing that adds tremendous stress," Dobson said. "You have someone who's helping someone, with the life or death consequences, and then sometimes they can end up being the one who's under attack with essentially their license in jeopardy."

But while the attorneys surveyed in Harris' study said working with traumatized clients overwhelmed them, many of them said the immigration system itself was the source of much of their stress and exhaustion.

"People said that over and over again," Harris said. "It wasn't the individual stories of persecution and horror. It was the fact that they're working within this dysfunctional system that they perceived to be unfair, and sometimes they also felt complicit in that system and all the problematic aspects of it."

Judge Samuel B. Cole, an immigration judge speaking on behalf of the National Association of Immigration Judges, where he serves as executive vice president, described immigration courts as in a "shambles" and cited a 2018 comment by now-retired Judge Dana Leigh Marks, who said immigration courts were like "doing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting."

U.S. Department of Justice managers ask judges to spend all their working hours in court deciding cases that they are not given enough time to fully consider, according to Judge Cole. Judges are discouraged from issuing written opinions and are virtually required to issue oral decisions after hearings that last hours. Shortages of supporting staff make their job even more difficult, he said.

"The effect is absolute exhaustion for judges. And it has an effect on everyone in immigration court," he said. "Being an immigration judge is a very difficult job, very emotional too."

Every day, immigration judges have to make difficult decisions as to who can remain in the United States. Many noncitizens have built lives here, formed ties with communities, contributed to the economy and paid taxes, but for one reason or another are deportable under the country's strict immigration laws.

Judges listen for hours to harrowing tales of poverty and violence and see respondents break down in the courtroom, said Judge Cole, who previously served as a federal prosecutor and now presides in immigration court in Chicago.

"People cry in my court all the time," he said. "It takes a toll on our emotional well-being, on our physical well-being."

Judge Cole's asylum denial rate from 2016, when he stepped on the bench, to 2021 was around 44%, lower than the average rate for the court, which denied asylum in about 54% of the cases. The national denial average over the same period was about 68%.

Denial rates vary drastically from court to court and from judge to judge, creating further insecurity in noncitizens and their lawyers, who can only hope to find a lenient judge to hear their cases, as if winning some kind of lottery.

"Something, somewhere has to be wrong with the approval ratings being that different," said Dobson, the immigration lawyer. "Depending on which court you regularly practice before, maybe you lose all or nearly all the time, whereas your colleague, in some other part of the United States, at least gets to win some of their cases."

The current backlog in immigration courts nationwide is over 1.8 million cases. Texas alone has a backlog of over 286,000 cases, followed by Florida and California, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research institution based at Syracuse University.

Ever-shifting immigration policies and priorities, which each administration sets, are also a major cause of stress for attorneys, experts say.

Jenna Gilbert, the director of refugee representation at Human Rights First, a nonprofit representing indigent asylum seekers in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, said the changing nature of immigration law was one of the most challenging aspects of the practice and one of the largest contributors to burnout, which results in high staff turnover.

Clients' stories are heartbreaking and difficult to hear, but at least they are somewhat consistent, she said. Much harder for an immigration attorney is understanding each new policy, explaining it to clients, and keeping up with the changes through continuous reeducation.

"It's that back-and-forth that really creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty for the clients, but also for the attorneys," Gilbert said. "It leaves attorneys feeling like their heads are spinning."

--Editing by Karin Roberts.

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