Recent news of lackluster progress on the U.S. gender wage gap over the last 20 years proves it is increasingly crucial for society to not only celebrate the accomplishments of women worldwide, but acknowledge the inequities they still face — and find solutions that address the issue.
More disturbing still is the lack of fundamental human rights afforded to women asylum seekers in the U.S. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, “Women and girls make up around 50 percent of any refugee, internally displaced or stateless population, and those who are unaccompanied, pregnant, heads of households, disabled or elderly are especially vulnerable.”
As social workers, we are responsible for creating space for these voices to be heard.
That is exactly what Fordham GSS professors Dana Alonzo, Ph.D., and Marciana Popescu, Ph.D., had in mind when creating Her Migrant Hub. This project connects women asylum seekers to health and mental health care services and other resources in New York City. Funded by a grant from the Mother Cabrini Foundation, Her Migrant Hub brings together a team of Fordham GSS students and NYC women asylum seekers with lived experience experiences of forced migration, working to address identified needs and challenges.
“The idea is to support women who are seeking asylum and to make their transition and waiting period more bearable and sustainable,” Popescu said in a 2021 interview with Fordham News, when the project first began.
Nearly two years later, Her Migrant Hub is still living its mission. On March 6, this manifested in the project’s first spring symposium, “Her Story, Her Journey, Her Rights: Centering the Voices of Women Asylum Seekers on Innovation and Advocacy.”
“The symposium aimed to share the Her Migrant Hub platform and amplify the voices of women asylum seekers,” Popescu said, “while engaging advocates, practitioners, researchers, and educators on the most current priority: making NYC a safe and welcoming space for all forced migrants.”
Welcoming the group, Dean Debra M. McPhee, Ph.D., stressed the importance of schools of social work’s involvement in social justice initiatives.
“Her Migrant Hub is a very unique initiative, and born of lived experience,” McPhee said. “Universities—and schools of social work in particular—have the obligation and responsibility to make space for events like this and facilitate these dialogues so we can learn from one another.”
In addition, McPhee thanked Her Migrant Hub for serving as a rich educational experience for the Fordham GSS students who have assisted in its efforts.
“Her Migrant Hub gives our graduate students the opportunity to learn skills and knowledge from first-hand experience,” McPhee said. “This is an important part of their education.”
Advocating at the Margins
In her position as Director of Refugee Resettlement at Catholic Charities Community Services, Archdiocese of New York, Kelly Agnew-Barajas primarily works with refugees who have already obtained their asylum status; however, that does not stop those in the process from seeking her department’s assistance. So, she and her staff will work “at the margins” of their funding to direct these refugees to services that don’t hinder on immigration status.
In her keynote address, Agnew-Barajas further detailed the difficulties of asylum seekers in understanding the complex nuances of the asylum process, which can take several years to complete, and the lack of resources—specifically legal—available to them.
“People don’t have an idea [of where they are in the asylum process],” she said. “They don’t know if it is going to take a few days, [or]a few years. Do they already have asylum status? They’re not sure.”
Agnew-Barajas explained the strengths and weaknesses of the Family Case Management Program, which was administered during the Obama administration as an alternative to immigrant detention but ultimately defunded during the Trump administration. Once in office, the Trump administration took an aggressive stance on deterring migrants from entering the country.
Looking toward the future, although Agnew-Barajas described the workload for social workers trying to help asylum seekers as “daunting,” she said there is still hope. Locally, projects like Her Migrant Hub help raise awareness about NYC’s issues. Nationally, coverage around the Migrant Busing Crisis and initiatives such as Catholic Charities USA’s “The Border is Everywhere” have drawn more national attention to the need.
“Despite the many challenges, there are innovative ideas, and if anything, the spotlight on migrants … has drawn awareness to the struggles they face,” Agnew-Barajas said. “We don’t want to ignore or push back the suffering of our fellow human beings. We must stand up for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees and demand that our leaders do the same.”
Mental Health in the Migrant Community
Agnew-Barajas’ opening keynote discussing the hardships and struggles of the migrant community set the stage for the first panel, which focused on the mental health impacts of those struggles.
The panel included Rashmi Jaipal, who is a current representative of the American Psychological Association at the UN; Sedef Orsel, GSS ‘21, a social scientist and trauma and grief specialist; Andreina Zuluaga, one of the core members of Her Migrant Hub and a case manager in Catholic Charities’ The Border is Everywhere program; and Luisa Fernanda Cortes, a current Fordham GSS Ph.D. student and Catholic Charities employee.
Fordham GSS Professor Dana Alonzo, Ph.D., was the panel’s moderator. Alonzo’s opening presentation clarified that while migrants are not a homogenous group, the population has some common themes of mental health issues. And while many migrants suffer the consequences of these mental health hardships, barriers such as fear, distrust of the medical system, cultural barriers, and lack of awareness regarding rights to care serve as hurdles keeping them from seeking the help they need.
“These all impact help-seeking,” Alonzo said. “Even when individuals knew, I need some help. This isn’t right.”
Zuluaga, a migrant from Venezuela who went through the asylum-seeking process herself, explained that identity could play a large role in the mental health issues of refugees seeking asylum, saying that the process can result in a loss of identity. She heralded the importance of trauma-informed care in the healing process.
“[With trauma-informed care], people can understand us much better,” she said. “We have a mind that is different from this society, and sometimes our realities will clash. It’s important to understand those realities and be compassionate with one another.”
Making NYC More Welcoming
The second panel analyzed how NYC can become a more welcoming place to migrants as they navigate that journey. Panelists included Marthe Kiemde, Her Migrant Hub core member and activist; Andrea Ortiz, senior manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition; Debra Presti-Eschen, director of case management at the Archdiocese of New York; and Liza Schwartzwald, senior manager of economic justice and family empowerment at the New York Immigration Coalition. Fordham GSS Professor and Her Migrant Hub co-director Marciana Popescu, Ph.D., served as moderator.
The panel’s most powerful moment came when Kiemde described her immigration journey to the United States as a pregnant woman, terrified that she would be deported back to her home country once she gave birth.
“I didn’t want to open my mouth. I didn’t want to say anything to them … until they brought a social worker,” Kiemde said. “The first question I asked was, Can I trust you?”
Schwatrzwald reminded everyone that, as the richest city in the world, NYC has the money to help migrants — just not the programs in place.
“We’re lacking the funding for specific resources that we need,” she said. “If you’re going through the immigration process, you’re not guaranteed an attorney, including for children. They deserve an attorney, and we should provide one. So, we may not get everyone an attorney this year, but if we can get 55 million dollars —which is nothing compared to New York’s state budget — we can start hiring more attorneys, bilingual attorneys, into this system.”
Education and Employment for Effective Integration
The event’s final panel discussed how social workers and other activists can advocate for fair education and employment of migrant workers as they seek asylum, as sometimes those vulnerable individuals are taken advantage of through meager pay and few opportunities. The panel included Kira O’Brien, New York director of Emma’s Torch; Isabel Schroeder, program manager with WES Global Talent Bridge; Anna Joffe, LGBTQIA+ migrant advocate; and Andreina Zuluaga. Tanzilya Oren, GSS Ph.D. graduate currently serving in a postdoctorate position with Cornell University, served as moderator.
“Migrant workers are not being paid for the work they’re doing,” Jaffe said. “As a Jewish migrant in 1993, I was paid $3 an hour, and refugees are still getting that today.”
The problems of abuse and underpayment have become so bad, Zuluaga said, that her clients will even ask if they should purchase a fake U.S. Social Security number to try and receive more money from employers.
“People ask me [that question]on a daily basis,” she said. “Migrants can’t legally work [in the U.S.], but people need to support themselves.”
Oren concluded the panel by calling on the federal government to partner with local organizations such as Her Migrant Hub to “think outside the box” and provide ways for those seeking asylum to work legally.
“Disrupting the status quo is what we do,” Popescu added. “It’s on us.”
Hearing Indigenous Stories
The event concluded with a pair of women from the Garifuna Community. This group contains the descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St Vincent who were exiled to the Honduran coast in the eighteenth century and moved to Belize.
Jainie Belinda David, an asylum seeker from Honduras and member of Her Migrant Hub; and Karol Yajaira Alvarez Lopez, also a Her Migrant Hub member and activist from Honduras, had the opportunity to speak to the audience using their own words and stories about their asylum-seeking experience in New York City. Audience members were given a translation device to listen to the conversation in English.
“We need equitable policies. All migrant women, children, and men need an opportunity; our community needs an opportunity. As we are in the country of freedom, we hope that freedom will be for all of us, inclusive,” Belinda said.
Karol concluded: “To be here is an obstacle, but we also can say it is a challenge, We are experiencing some bad situations, yet when we overcome them, we become strong. We cannot give up.”
Her Migrant Hub then provided attendees with a resource fair to learn more about the organization’s different resources available to asylum seekers all over the city.
“Through dehumanizing others, we are dehumanizing ourselves,” Popescu said in her closing remarks. “Asylum is a right. Employment is a right. Are health and mental health services, and access to those services, a right? Absolutely. And just because the United States is lagging behind in recognizing international human rights… that’s not an excuse. When I hear voices like the ones we heard today … still keeping hope and challenging us to do something … I know that we cannot just give up or give in.
“What can we do today to take the barriers away, and make sure that the rights of migrants are respected, and we’re treating everyone the same?”