By Casey Towsley, Katherine Ellings, Stan Mykhaylenko, and Jack Nickerson

“The ultimate goal is to make everyone feel like they belong. Nothing else is possible unless you feel like you belong,” Oksana Bilobran, an experienced Seattle immigration attorney and an immigrant herself, told us when we interviewed her about her work with Seattle area immigrants. The United States has had a murky and complicated past with immigrant communities. Due to xenophobia, many immigrants aren’t welcome into the United States with open arms. Latinos, in particular, have been one of the hardest-hit communities by discrimination.

In order to get some more perspective on how discrimination against immigrants, especially immigrants of color face, our student team interviewed Oksana Bilobran and Bina Ellefsen. Bilobran has worked as an immigration attorney for the Seattle office of immigration and previously for the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) for 13 years. She specialized in legal defense policy and sat down with us over a phone call to shed light on the struggles that immigrants go through while moving to America. Ellefsen has extensive history of working as an immigration attorney in the Seattle area and gained a lot of in-depth knowledge about the obstacles immigrants face and the impacts of these obstacles on their mental health. In order to be a more effective advocate, she recently went back to graduate school to study therapy for trauma survivors.

Bina Ellefsen, Seattle immigration attorney. Photo credit: Bina Ellefsen.

“Misinformation that comes from this administration creates a public perception that immigrants are rapists and killers,” said Ellefsen. She explained that she believes the Trump administration has depicted immigrants (particularly immigrants of color) as the ultimate evil, adding enormous stress to people who chose to move to this country. “Grouping entire races/ethnicities and making blanket statements about their character dehumanizes people,” she explained.

Along with the unwarranted negative publicity from the Trump administration, immigrants (especially immigrants of color) struggle with the following problems: difficulty obtaining employment, extreme financial pressure, poor living conditions, high moving expenses, cultural shock and differences, and inability to trust. These factors make it difficult for immigrants to seek help. Dr. Concepcion Bario, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, backed up Ellefsen’s assertions when he wrote, “It just creates an air of constant fear and being on edge, they are afraid to go outside, to look out of place in a certain neighborhood, and to go out and seek a job.” According to both Bario and Ellefsen, living in constant fear is severely detrimental to immigrants’ mental health. Immigrants need better access to mental health professionals so that they have someone to ease their concerns and stress.

“They are also afraid that the government may take their children if they are deemed mentally ill,” explained Bilobran. Leaving your life behind is stressful, especially if you are fleeing armed conflict and have seen death with your eyes. But seeking mental help isn’t always an option as many immigrants are afraid to lose the custody of their children. Discouraging immigrants from receiving the support they need hurts society as a whole and is especially damaging to children growing up in immigrant families. She explained that “sometimes they are afraid to ask for help because they think that they will be refused the right for asylum or their rights will be taken away,” told Bilobran. Knowing that your rights are not as substantial in real life as on paper and that you may lose custody of your children would scare anyone. A human being should be treated with dignity and respect. Ellefson asserts that being born in a different country does not make you unworthy of being treated respectfully, even if you’ve immigrated to the United States illegally.

“We, as a society, need to change the public perception of immigrants gaming the system. More likely than not, immigrants are hardworking and honest people. Many who enter the United States illegally are fleeing the violence in their home country,” Ellefsen told us. Unfortunately, many Americans tend to fall into us vs. them mindset when it comes to immigrants. When we pressed her for details on what she meant by this, she explained that most immigrants want the same thing as any other average American, which is to live a meaningful and happy life. The perception that immigrants want to cause chaos and harm to American’s culture is entirely unfounded. Many immigrants struggle with not feeling accepted or finding a well-paying job, which causes high-stress levels.

Unfortunately, Bilobran explained, “Immigrants are not accustomed to western ideology to seek mental health.” The avenues they use to manage mental health struggles in their home country can differ from those offered in the United States. Many immigrants come from countries where society is more collectivist than individualistic, which creates a significant cultural barrier to strive in the United States. They are used to community solutions and support to handle mental illness and other obstacles they face. On the other hand, here in the US, such communities are not always available during their first few months, leaving them without the support network they had at home. Switching suddenly to a very individual-focused environment can be jarring and make it difficult for immigrants to find the help they need.

“Immigrants face an accumulation of problems after immigrating, such as different priorities, PTSD, mental issues, financial problems, and racism from local communities. It is hard for them to admit they are suffering because other immigrants will judge them,” said Bilobran. The multitude of issues immigrants are facing after moving to the United States makes it difficult for them to think about themselves. When your whole world is changing, it’s hard to make your mental health a priority. Still, Bilobran and Ellefsen believe it is paramount to make time for yourself and your well-being. Bilobran has suggested a few reliable solutions for immigrants who want help but don’t want to see a specialist: seek help from someone in your local community, speak to leaders in your network, and visit faith-based institutions churches to ask for confidential advice.

To find additional support for working through trauma, see the Get Support section of the NAMI Seattle website. Ellefsen also recommends these organizations that provide help to immigrants struggling with mental health issues: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee ServicesSomali Community Services of SeattleAsian Counseling and Referral Service, International Rescue CommitteePuentes Seattle and ReWA.

About the authors: Casey Towsley, Katherine Ellings, Stan Mykhaylenko, and Jack Nickerson are UW Bothell business students in Professor Laura Umetsu’s business ethics and writing course. They wrote this piece as a class project to spread awareness of mental health.