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Supporting asylum-seekers with the Arizona Asylum Network

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt, IRC

An asylum-seeker is someone who is seeking international protection from dangers in their home country. To apply, they must first arrive at or cross an international border. In immigration court, they then bear the burden of proof and must be able to demonstrate to authorities that they meet the criteria to be covered by refugee protections. Without formal documentation in many cases, it can be difficult for asylum-seekers to provide clear evidence for their claims in court.

The Arizona Asylum Network (AAN), now managed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Arizona, helps to meet this need through a network of medical and behavioral health professionals from across the state, who volunteer to conduct evaluations for asylum-seekers. Medical evaluations can document scars, burns and other physical evidence of injuries, and establish their consistency with events that the asylum-seeker has reported. Psychological evaluations can similarly help corroborate the asylum-seeker’s story, provide a framework for understanding how trauma may be impacting their behavior in a courtroom setting, address inconsistencies in written and verbal testimony, and increase their credibility. The evaluations are impartial, and evaluators write an affidavit citing their training and certification.

Evaluations by mental health and medical providers can be key to the case of an asylum-seeker. Photo: Colette Roark, Make Your Memory Photo

“It’s essentially expert testimony, and in some cases the evaluators may be asked to testify” says Alisa Petersen, the Asylum Network Coordinator. “It’s really about educating the courts – having one of these evaluations can more than double the chance of asylum being granted compared to the national average...That’s the whole reason we do this, and the reason that the IRC took on the program.”

The Arizona Asylum Network was founded by two residents at Banner University Hospital, Dr. Samantha Varner and Dr. Amy Rogers-Guyton, who saw the substantial need for evaluations and the severe shortage of providers ready and able to meet this need. These two residents decided to take action and founded the Network in November 2018. They helped train more providers and conducted numerous evaluations in their spare time. It was an immense and time-consuming undertaking. In 2020, as they finished their residencies and prepared to move out-of-state, they requested that IRC take on the Network in order to continue to build capacity and grow what they had started. In July 2020, the IRC in Arizona formally acquired the AAN. 

The first six months of the IRC’s administration of the AAN involved evaluating systems and creating new operational procedures to increase sustainability of the Network. Now, the IRC in Arizona is actively recruiting more professionals to help fill the gap. Professionals who choose to volunteer as evaluators with the AAN are providing a potentially life-saving service to those most in need. However, conducting evaluations is not a simple task. The evaluations are intensive. A medical evaluation can take up to two hours with a client, and up to an additional five hours to write the report. A psychological evaluation could be a four-hour clinical interview and take over ten hours to write.

The Arizona Asylum Network serves asylum-seekers from countries across the globe. This map shows the countries of origin for clients served in the past year. Photo: Alisa Petersen, IRC

More volunteers are needed to meet the expected increase in volume of asylum cases in the next several months, and the AAN is working to expand its support systems for new volunteer evaluators. This includes mentorship and ongoing support for providers, as well as quality assurance measures for every report. Soon, the Network will also begin regular consultation/continuing education opportunities for those professionals wishing to utilize their skills to help asylum-seekers. In 2021, the IRC anticipates hosting quarterly trainings for professionals across the state to learn more about conducting evaluations and to decide if this could be a good fit for them. In December, IRC hosted its first such training aimed at psychological providers. Twelve new providers chose to join the Network after that training and the IRC hopes for continued growth in the coming months.

“Since all of the evaluations are currently being done remotely due to COVID, one of the silver linings is that a volunteer in Flagstaff can evaluate a client in Nogales” Alisa said. “There are still challenges, of course, but we are anticipating an uptick in referrals as a result of political changes and I’m optimistic about how remote evaluations could impact this work – and the lives of so many clients - going forwards.”

Story by Dennis Godfrey and Alisa Petersen.