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Psychological evaluations for immigration applicants have been used widely throughout the U.S. legal system for over two decades. The purpose of these evaluations is to support immigration authorities in determining the immigration status of applicants across a variety of application categories.
Depending on individual circumstances, this type of evaluation can prove beneficial in supporting a successful immigration application – but this is not always the case.
Undergoing any type of psychological evaluation or assessment also comes with certain risks. Anyone conducting them must be aware of this and able to broach this conversation with their clients comfortably.
5 risks associated with immigration psychological evaluations
This article is the first of a two-part series I’ve put together exploring both the risks and benefits of evaluations. I believe it’s essential to examine both sides of what a client could potentially experience when pursuing this path for their immigration application.
Although many individuals have an overall positive experience during the evaluation process, there are some risks.
When I see a client, they sign an informed consent, and within that consent, I discuss the risks of undergoing an immigration evaluation. I like this to be an open conversation, where the client gets an opportunity to freely ask any questions and voice any concerns they might have before we proceed.
Here are five of the commonly associated risks I like to make sure we talk through:
1. A psychological evaluation is not a guarantee of application success.
One of the key things I ensure clients are aware of is that undergoing a psychological evaluation for the purpose of immigration is not a guarantee of success for their application. Neither is it necessarily going to provide them with clear clarification on their mental health – in some cases, further evaluation is required, and I may make recommendations for additional support.
This is often not what a client is hoping to hear, and as you can imagine, can be a distressing experience. While all recommendations I make are based on best practices, clients may disagree with the outcome of the process and so may not follow through on those recommendations.
2. Psychological evaluations may bring up strong emotions and vivid memories.
The next thing I like to discuss and prepare for with clients is the full process of what we will go through together and what this might lead to. As we explore their psychological history and current experiences, clients undergoing evaluation may experience discomfort, frustration, anxiety, or embarrassment.
It is not uncommon for strong emotions and vivid memories to be experienced. The precise emotions and issues that come up are not always possible to predict and can be unexpected, even unwanted.
For some clients, we may be revisiting a time in their life that was highly traumatic and resulted in the need to seek further psychological support. It can be retraumatizing for those who may have moved past their experiences to revisit them. Both the client and I need to be prepared for this scenario. Therapists conducting these assessments should prepare by familiarizing themselves with the mental health challenges immigrants may face.
3. Psychological evaluations may reveal unhealed trauma.
Some clients seek a psychological evaluation when they know they have past or current mental health needs that require some support within their immigration application. But in some cases, a psychological assessment can reveal unhealed trauma.
As strong and vivid emotions arise, clients may begin to remember or relive past traumatic events from earlier in life that they may have repressed or forgotten about completely. Sometimes, clients learn things about themselves that may be confronting and upsetting, requiring further psychological interventions.
Revealing unhealed trauma can be a nuanced experience for everyone, so it’s important, again, that both the client and I are aware of this risk.
4. Evaluations can lead to changes in self-awareness.
Suppose a client does experience intense emotions, vivid memories or realizes unhealed trauma through the process of evaluation. In that case, it may lead to further changes in their sense of self-awareness and sense of self overall.
This can be quite a challenging scenario for anyone to work through, let alone a client undergoing an already extensive and often stressful immigration process. This is where being able to make best practice recommendations following any evaluation is vital. It is also essential to let the client know that they are not alone and reassure them this is a positive process to work through in the long term.
5. Changes in awareness may lead to changes in close relationships.
Changes in self-awareness can alter a client’s self-perceptions and their ways of relating to others. This may lead to some relationship challenges, as others within the client’s life come to terms with the changes they may be witnessing.
This is something I like to discuss with the client and appropriate family members if needed, if I think the client may experience changes as a result of the evaluation. This may be in the case of a client who already has a significant history of mental health and psychological interventions.
Preparing for Risks
People can be overwhelmed by some memories or insights, and although it is rare, some might act desperately and dangerously when feeling overwhelmed.
For this reason alone, it’s crucial to be aware of some of the common risks associated with immigration evaluations and make sure you have a good base of knowledge about a client before you begin.
Conducting psychological evaluations for immigration purposes requires training, but with preparation and investment in the skills needed, it can be incredibly rewarding.
One other risk worth mentioning is the risk to therapists themselves. We often invest a lot of time with our clients, getting to know them and supporting them on their journey. Learning a negative outcome of a client’s immigration application can take its toll if you let it, so make sure you look after yourself on this journey too.
I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 500 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.
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