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Lawyers and Vicarious Trauma

Updated: May 2, 2022

Attorney Rebecca Eichler speaks with a Salvadoran migrant in the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico

The lawyers featured in "Las Abogadas" work tirelessly to help migrants navigate the changing immigration laws and policies that face them when they reach the U.S. border. In no small part, this means that they must help frightened individuals — who, in many cases, have experienced unimaginable horrors — explain how the hardships they have suffered (let's call them "round pegs") fit into the "square holes" of the specific legal requirements to qualify for asylum.

In so doing, it may be necessary to ask clients to speak about and re-live the most traumatic experience(s) of their lives. The re-telling of such events, often multiple times and in multiple contexts, risks re-traumatizing the individual in multiple ways.

Equally important is for lawyers and other advocates to be mindful of the toll it takes on them when they engage empathetically with trauma survivors. While it doesn't compare to having undergone the traumatic experience itself, secondary or vicarious trauma has an effect on the helpers (lawyers, social workers, medical professionals and others).

In this connection, we'd like to share a recent piece written by our Executive Producer, Careen Shannon, who is herself an immigration lawyer. In this personal essay, she looks back at a legal career spanning more than 30 years, with a new recognition of the vicarious trauma she absorbed simply by bearing witness to her clients' suffering.

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