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Raising the Voices and Stories of Immigrant Youth

A refugee is a human being who is persecuted due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, sexuality, or gender and has a well-founded fear for their life. This violence forces refugees to flee their home country when in most cases, they would rather stay if they could safely live there.

As reported in Washington’s Top News in late 2021, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement recorded that over 4,500 unaccompanied immigrant children arrived in the DC Metropolitan area, concentrating in DC, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and Virginia’s Fairfax County in 2020 (Iannelli, Nick 2021). In the fiscal year 2021, 122,000 migrant children – without a legal guardian – entered into the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shelter system, a stark contrast and increase from the 69,000 number of unaccompanied migrant children that came into U.S. custody in 2019. Many, if not all, of these youth already have family residing in the United States. Around three-fourths of these children placed in HHS custody in 2021 were between 15 and 17 years old, with the other quarter being ages 14 and younger (Montoya-Galvez, Camilo 2021).

The American Psychological Association conducted a study in 2016 concerning the mental health of unaccompanied immigrant minors (UIMs), compared to those who had a parental or another guardian figure with them while journeying to the U.S. UIMs are more likely to have experienced trauma, like separation from or loss of parents or other family members – as well as more likely to have endured long periods of trauma. As a result, these youth are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety, conduct problems, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This research included longitudinal studies discovering that UIMs continue to deal with long-term mental health challenges long after the traumatic event occurred. These experiences are exacerbated when having to recount those traumatic experiences to others. Oftentimes, this happens in court or other legal spaces where we find immigrant youth – who are more likely unable to obtain proper legal representation and defense – getting overwhelmed or re-traumatized while retelling traumatic experiences to a room full of strangers. As a consequence, this unfailingly leads to the deterioration of many immigrant and refugee youths’ mental health. Two more critical findings to highlight from the study are (1) UIM youth’s prior separations from parents, or other guardian figures may lead to disruptions in forming secure attachments with other adults or caregivers; and (2) Whether in their home country or while making their way to the U.S., “UIMs have had to function as adults relative to their developmental age, with high levels of responsibility for themselves and other family members, and may have difficulty integrating into a child role relative to parents and other authority figures”(Alvarez, Kiara, and Alegría, Margarita 2016).

The need to serve this unique population coming into the DC foster care system is what ultimately pushed for creating the Multicultural Advocacy Program (MAP). CASA DC began serving the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) population in January 2015. On top of the challenges involved with going in and out of different placements in foster care, immigrant youth in DC’s child welfare system must also deal with acculturative stress (i.e., getting to know a new culture and language, enrolling in a new school, meeting new people and making new friends) and post-resettlement pressure (such as financial challenges, higher experienced or perceived discrimination, finding housing, or struggling with creating and maintaining interpersonal relationships). In early 2020, the MAP Program was re-imagined and expanded to include unaccompanied refugee minors; migrant youth; first and second-generation immigrants; foster care youth from multicultural families; foster care youth whose primary or secondary language is a language other than English; and foster care youth who have parents whose primary language is a language other than English. Since 2020, the MAP Program has served over 40 youth and families.

Research on this population emphasizes the need for trusted adult figures in foster care, healthcare, and the justice system who can understand UIM youth experiences, be culturally competent, help support UIM youth process through their trauma, and challenge the stigma around trauma and mental illness. CASA DC’s MAP Program’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA volunteers) are provided with culturally competent training and resources to better help multicultural youth. This orientation includes culturally responsive and trauma-informed advocacy, connection to ethnic and religious communities, support with cultural adjustment, and assistance in obtaining a high school diploma, GED, or vocational training. By being a stable adult figure in these children’s lives, volunteers are helping youth restore trust in relationship-building by exposing them to what a secure attachment looks like.

When possible, CASA volunteers are matched with youth with a similar cultural and/or linguistic background to better relate with and understand that youth and their families. Some of the ways our incredible MAP volunteers have been working with multicultural youth to ease their adjustment and to stay in touch with their roots are: going out to restaurants that serve Ethiopian food, speaking in Spanish with youth and their family members to discuss each individual’s personal cultural experiences, and connecting youth with colleagues and friends from the same cultural background or country for professional advice, mentoring, or interpersonal and emotional support.

The face of the U.S. population is diversifying faster than ever before. As immigration from abroad continues, society’s racial and ethnic composition will change. Soon enough, most youth will come from multi-racial or multicultural backgrounds, from immigrant families, or be immigrants themselves. With these cultural changes comes the urgency for individualized and culturally competent mentorship. Helping multicultural youth adjust and feel valued personally and culturally in the home and community-at-large is crucial for youth development. The Multicultural Advocacy Program at CASA DC boosts this initiative and caters to a unique population of youth in foster care. Youth who have not only been through familial separation but, more often than not, also have experienced other unique forms of trauma during their journey to the U.S. Regardless of the country of origin or citizenship status, U.S. immigrant youth have just as much of a right to an untroubled childhood and adolescence as any other child. CASA DC’s MAP volunteers are there to lift youth and amplify their voices to defend their right to make their own choices and dreams a reality.

-Marina Chen, Intern Assistant, Multicultural Advocacy Program

Additional Sources:

Alvarez, Kiara and Alegría, Margarita. “Understanding and addressing the needs of unaccompanied immigrant minors,” American Psychological Association. June 2016.

Iannelli, Nick. “4,500 unaccompanied children came to DC region this year,” Washington’s Top News. November 30, 2021.

Montoya-Galvez, Camilo. “U.S. shelters received a record 122,000 unaccompanied migrant children in 2021,” CBS News. December 23, 2021.

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