Social work students on the frontline of refugee assistance in Texas

Thousands of refugees from Central America and Cuba have found their way to Texas over the years. Fleeing their homes for fear of violence or persecution, most refugees arrive with little to no money, unable to speak English, disoriented by the unfamiliar culture, and traumatized by their experiences in their home countries as much as by the journey to the United States.

On the front line of aiding this vulnerable population, the Refugee Services of Texas has for the past 40 years settled refugees all over the state and offered them free job training, counseling, legal and medical services, and English-language classes. The organization also regularly hosts graduate and undergraduate interns from the The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work.

Master’s students Kathy Lee and Maya Williams have spent the past several months in the Refugee Services of Texas offices in Houston and Austin, respectively. In Houston, Lee works primarily with the unaccompanied children and families fleeing gang violence in Central America. In Austin, Williams manages a caseload of Cuban parolees* seeking to escape political and economic persecution in their country. We recently caught up with the two of them and talked about their experiences working with these vulnerable populations.

Maya Williams Refugees of Central Texas

Maya Williams. Photo by Martin do Nascimento

Kathy, we’ve all heard about the unaccompanied children coming across the border with Mexico, particularly in the past two years. Tell us about what’s going on from your perspective at Refugee Services of Texas in Houston.

Lee: When unaccompanied minors are caught by immigration they’re placed into shelters (the process for unaccompanied children is different from that one for adults or for women with children). The shelters are run by Health and Human Services and, depending on the children’s needs, when they’re released they will go to sponsors or foster programs or somewhere else.

That’s where we come in. We meet their sponsor or the folks in charge of their foster program or whoever else — it could be a biological parent, an aunt or uncle, cousin, or family friend. Our role is to be the unaccompanied child’s safety-net as they’re transitioning from their shelter into the community. So we provide them with information on how to enroll in school, how to get in contact with pro-bono lawyers who can take on their immigration case, where to get healthcare and basic services.

From there, we stay in touch with and check up on all of the unaccompanied children for about six months because, even if they are reuniting with a parent, they may have been separated from the parent for many years. So even if it is family, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to come together. We try to provide as much support as possible for the six months for which we are allowed to do so.

There have also been considerable numbers of Cubans entering the country across the U.S.-Mexico border, especially since relations between the U.S. and Cuba have begun to mend. What has that looked like for you, Maya?

Williams: We have definitely seen an influx in the amount of Cuban clients that are coming into the organization recently. As we know, President Obama recently went to visit Cuba and had a meeting with Raul Castro — a clear sign that things are opening up.

As a Cuban, when you show up at the border and show your passport indicating your nationality, you’re given temporary entry into the United States. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who ask for parole are granted it, they don’t have to prove that they have grounds to fear persecution in their home country. Whatever you think of this policy, it means that we can never predict how many Cuban parolees will come in, because unlike the case of most asylum seekers or refugees, there isn’t a limit on the number of Cubans that are allowed in.

So once a Cuban parolee is here, what happens? What are the main challenges you see in working with them?

Williams: It really depends on what type of connections they have. Some of them already have family or friends in Austin or in another neighboring city, so they’re able to live with them. For others it might be more difficult, they might not have a place to live and they’re desperately searching for housing.

We find that in most cases, what is causing them to come over is word of mouth. Somebody they know — a family member, a friend — has already been here and has told them. We accept any Cuban parolee that comes into our office but, unlike what happens with other refugee/asylum-seeking populations, we can’t always guarantee housing because we can never know how many parolees from Cuba there will be.

Also, unlike other groups, Cubans aren’t allowed to work immediately when they enter the United States. They have to apply for a work permit that can take up between four and six month to obtain, so unfortunately a Cuban parolee coming in through our door is not immediately able to go to work and they often have to subsist and depend on family members for at least for the first few months.

This is unique to Cubans. If you’re a non-Cuban refugee or you’re an asylum seeker, you go straight through to our employment program. Those are the two difficulties that Cuban parolees face that refugees or asylum seekers from other parts of the world don’t.

Kathy Lee Refugee Services of Central Texas

Kathy Lee (second from right) at a volunteer orientation at Refugee Services of Central Texas

 

Kathy, what are the challenges do you think are particular to working with unaccompanied children?

Lee: Unfortunately, there aren’t enough resources allocated to this population. There are only four non-profit agencies providing post-release services to unaccompanied children in Houston. At Refugee Services of Texas, we currently have a program supervisor, two case managers, and a volunteer coordinator responsible for this particular program, and we have over 30 minors who have been assigned to us. So we have a good number of minors that we’re trying to keep track of.

I thought that most of these minors were teens, old enough to travel alone, but I was really surprised to see that there are also very young children. The youngest client that I’ve met was seven and she had two brothers with her who were under the age of ten at the time. To me, that was really jarring.

One of the main challenges in working with the unaccompanied children is trying to help them understand that we’re not enforcement, that we’re not going to have any say in whether or not they get deported. I’m not a native Spanish speaker — I’m currently not a Spanish speaker at all, actually! — so that’s a challenge to me: How do I convey my role as a social service agency and not an enforcement agency?

The goal is really to build a relationship because we’re the bridge between the unaccompanied children and the rest of the community. Our job is to make sure that they can access all of the resources for which they’re eligible. People may think that they’re not eligible for any resources, but that’s not really true. So providing that education is crucial for the unaccompanied children and the families or whoever else that might be supporting them.

It seems like your field internship at Refugee Services  of Texas has given both of you a tremendous wealth of knowledge about the specific populations that you work with as well as about the broader policy related to refugees and asylum seekers in the United States. What impact has this field education experience made on you? 

Lee: My parents are immigrants but they were naturalized by the time that I was born. So while I’ve seen some of their struggles, their economic and social struggles, it was never to the extent that people are struggling today. I don’t know what it’s like to go on this unknown journey not of my own choice. I know what it’s like to go to Europe as a college student for fun, but I don’t know what it’s like to risk my life because my family depends upon it.

I think I decided to go with this particular internship because I really wanted to be exposed to a reality that was very different from my own. My hope is to be a community leader in the future. That’s my aspiration. Part of building my experience is making sure that I am exposed to as many different realities that people face as possible.

Williams: I’ve been interested in macro-level practice for a long time, especially where it comes to mobilizing resources to help bring communities together and strengthen them. Really, it’s just allowing people an opportunity to be able to set themselves up for a good life.

But I think one thing that can be lost in macro-level thinking is being in touch with the population that you’re serving. We can sit and do policy work, we can do advocacy work, we can do fundraising and budgeting, and not really have to interact with clients. For all to work how it should, you have to have that client interaction.

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* Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans are provided temporary, permitted physical entry after inspection by a U.S. immigration official. Under the same act, Cubans who ask for parole are assumed to have grounds and/or fear of persecution from their home country, and granted parole — hence they are called parolees instead of refugees. Unlike refugees or persons seeking asylum, Cubans do not have to prove these grounds and are not scrutinized in the same manner as either refugees or asylum seekers.

Posted April 4, updated April 6, 2016. By Martin do Nascimento.