Fall 2022 Newsletter
I met with Ellie Vargas, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has a private practice and runs the Bay Area Center for Immigration Evaluations (BACIE). Ellie identifies as a mother of two children, a 2nd and 5th grader. We decided to interview Ellie to learn more about her work with immigrants.
Ms. Vargas tells the story that after taking time off to have her second child, she reflected on how to rebuild her practice. A friend connected her with an attorney who needed someone to do some immigration evaluations, a specialized mental health evaluation to serve as a piece of evidence for a legal immigration petition. Lucky for her, this attorney coached her on different types of visas. Within a couple of years, there was so much demand for immigration evaluations that Ms. Vargas could not keep up with the referrals. At that point, she brought in other clinicians to help her and she established BACIE.
Soon after, Ms. Vargas began to connect with other clinicians around the country who were offering immigration evaluations and she started a Facebook Group to serve as a networking and support system: Network of Immigration Evaluation Clinicians. Ms. Vargas quickly learned that a major challenge for clinicians was marketing their immigration evaluation service to immigration attorneys. In 2019 she launched the Immigration Psych Eval Directory (www.ImmigrationPsychEvalDirectory.com) to fill this need. The online directory helps connect clinicians with attorneys and immigration clients.
When asked why this work is important, Ellie states “What really drew me to it? It’s a way to engage a population that often doesn’t have a lot of experience getting mental health services because they tend to be more disenfranchised, and provide a service for these visa types, these immigration paths. This piece of evidence according to the attorneys is often the deciding factor; whether they’re granted asylum, granted the U-Visa; granted the hardship exception.” She shared that this work is well within a mental health provider’s scope of practice. “We can share our gift to change someone’s life.”
Another reason this is important work is that we are providing “heart space” to these disenfranchised people, especially if they have experienced trauma, to tell their story often for the first time. The mental health professional is also planting the seed of how mental health treatment can be useful for them. “We de-pathologize their experience, normalize their symptoms, and give them hope.” An example she uses is mitigating the immigrant’s sense of shame from thinking they are weak because they are fearful and having nightmares about what has happened to them. Ellie would then validate the immigrant’s experience and normalize the nightmares as a normal psychological reaction as opposed to a weakness. This de-pathologizes their perception of their feelings. Many times immigrants leave their evaluation feeling more optimistic about their future and the possibility of hope with treatment.
Ellie also shares that, business-wise, immigration evaluations are a way to diversify one’s private practice income stream—something very important to do during uncertain financial climates. She also points out that offering immigration evaluations diversifies one’s tasks and times: it works a different part of the brain than psychotherapy because the clinician is writing and synthesizing an assessment, like in grad school. Immigration evaluations also improve the clinician’s skills for interviewing, evaluating, diagnosing, case conceptualization, and translating the information into a document that is written for a lay person because the document is written for an adjudicating immigration judge who is not a trained clinician. Ellie describes it as a puzzle, “You have to be thinking about how to structure your assessment to make sure that you’re asking the (right) questions to get the diagnosis.”
She adds that clinicians usually ask her if they have to be bilingual. She says that the answer is a resounding no. Although she and her clinicians are bilingual Spanish, they work with immigrants from all over the world whose languages they do not speak. In these cases they use an interpreter. To prove her point, Ellie shares that one of her colleagues is monolingual. If a clinician is drawn to this type of work, they should not let language be an obstacle to help an immigrant seeking an evaluation.
Ellie says that when working with undocumented immigrants there is a wariness of authority; a guardedness or suspiciousness, which they verbalize sometimes. Then there are those who want to tell you everything because they know this will help them, but they’ve spent so much time hiding that they have a hard time sharing. These immigrants come from places where people who have power are the oppressors. In all these cases, the clinician has to gain the immigrants’ trust in one session. She gives this example of what a clinician might tell them: “Totally makes sense. It makes sense that you would be wary of me. You don’t know me from anybody. At the same I really want to “get you”, get all the truthful information so that we can create a strong report for you, for your case.”
In addition, Ms. Vargas acknowledges that she works with a subgroup of people who have suffered layers of trauma. So when she is evaluating for a U-Visa, she has to realize that although the immigrant was a victim of a crime in the United States, that person probably has multiple traumas from their country of origin. She describes it by saying, “most of the evaluation is spent talking about who-knows-what-trauma that happened to them in their country of origin when they were 7, and then 15, and they’re saying “I’ve never told anybody about this before.” So not only are there layers of trauma but there are also people who have been holding it inside with no outlet and no one to share it with. She in turn acknowledges what an honor it is to have the privilege of being the first one to hear the person’s testimony and that she holds the information with respect for the individual.
When asked if the evaluation differs depending on what part of the world the immigrant comes from, Ellie’s perspective is that it’s important to come from a place of curiosity because we cannot be cultural experts for all cultures. It is a time to “check myself, that I am not imposing my cultural norms or my assumptions.” When immigrants describe why it would be difficult to go back to their country, the clinician has to ask questions and not assume. Her advice is to go into the evaluation thinking that you don’t know anything; instead, always ask the immigrant to help you understand.
In summary, she wants clinicians to know that it is good work to help people who are “at the crossroads of their life” whether they will be able to stay in this country, which is “life-changing” for them, their children, and their families. On the business side, she thinks that it is good business practice to diversify where our income is coming from during this uncertain economy. Ellie states that the immigration system is very backed up and attorneys are looking for clinicians who are giving immigration evaluations. “The demand is high.” Clients for immigration evaluations are highly motivated and rarely no show for these appointments.. “I want anyone who has even like the slightest interest in doing this to try it out and explore it. You don’t know until you try.”
Ellie Vargas is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Berkeley, California. She runs a private psychotherapy practice (www.EllieVargasTherapy.com), the Bay Area Center for Immigration Evaluations (www.bacie.org), a national network of immigration evaluation clinicians, and hosts the premiere national online directory for immigration evaluation clinicians: Immigration Psych Eval Directory (www.ImmigrationPsychEvalDirectory.com).Fall 2022 Newsletter
Ellie's professional experience has always been in immigrant-heavy communities in the Bay Area and New York City. She is bilingual in English and Spanish. Ellie's clinical specialty is the psychological legacy of trauma. Ellie is available for consultation.