Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2007


This article provides an overview to the psychological evaluation process in three types of immigration cases: political asylum, extreme hardship and domestic abuse. Each type of evaluation is discussed in turn, followed by some final comments on what constitutes a good evaluator and a good evaluation in these types of cases.

Applicants for political asylum often have been exposed to extreme deprivation, torture and psychological distress when they were in their home country. The purpose of an asylum evaluation is to collect information about this mistreatment and to examine the psychological impact that these circumstances had on the immigrant. It is thus important to compare the immigrant’s reported psychological function before the traumatic experience with their present function. If a psychological disorder has arisen from the immigrant’s experience, it is usually Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), although depression or other emotional disorders may also accompany the PTSD.

In PTSD, an individual is exposed to extreme circumstances, generally involving actual or threatened death or serious injury to oneself, and responds with intense fear or helplessness. After the traumatic event, functioning is affected in three distinct ways: reexperiencing, avoidance and physiological arousal. Reexperiencing includes flashbacks or dreams about the trauma and extreme reactions when exposed to reminders of the trauma. Avoidance can involve general social withdrawal, inability to remember important aspects of the trauma or efforts to suppress thoughts about the trauma. Physiological arousal includes insomnia, irritability, distractibility and a number of other possible symptoms. PTSD is a very distressing and potentially debilitating condition, requiring expert treatment in order to overcome it. Medication, therapy and a combination of the two are used in a course of treatment that can last months or even years. 

Extreme hardship evaluations examine the potential impacts of the immigrant’s deportation on a lawfully-resident parent or spouse. Although only extreme hardship to the lawfully-resident relative is relevant, under the law, potential psychological dysfunction in the immigrant is still important, because it may be an additional stressor for the lawfully-resident relative. The information that is obtained in the evaluation is used in the analysis of the following questions: 1) Would deportation of the immigrant pose an extreme hardship to the relative in question (looking at both tangible and intangible contributions that the immigrant makes to the life of the relative), and 2) would it be an extreme hardship for the lawfully-resident relative to accompany the immigrant back to his or her home country? In analyzing these questions, financial, educational, health care, psychological and other factors are considered. These evaluations can get particularly complex if multiple family members are involved, because families present a complex web of interdependencies.

In an abuse case, the immigrant seeks to establish the presence of domestic abuse in order to file for legal status (separately from their U.S. citizen spouse). The psychological evaluator determines if abuse is present and the psychological and practical impacts of the abuse. Sometimes the abuse is obvious, but at other times it is subtler. Abuse can be physical, verbal or psychological. The purpose of abuse is almost always to get power and control over the victim. Whether the abuser is striking, shouting at, insulting or degrading the victim, the goal is invariably to put the victim in a submissive position. Sometimes the abusing spouse will demand repeated bribes in the form of cash, goods or services in order to cooperate with the immigrant’s residency application. Psychological reactions to abuse can include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks or general anxiety disorder. The most important first step in treating victims of abuse is helping them reestablish a sense of control in their lives. Allowing the victim to file for permanent residency, independent of his or her spouse, is a vital part of regaining that sense of control.

What constitutes a good immigration evaluation? First, the evaluation must involve a thorough examination of the interviewee’s background and present functioning. This takes one-and-a-half to two hours to complete. The evaluator should also make note of the interviewee’s behavior during the interview, including comments on the consistency between the way the interviewee describes him/herself and the interviewee’s demeanor. Psychological tests may be used, but often are not, because available psychological tests are standardized on a population that is very different from those found in many immigration cases (different ethnicity and culture). Finally, the evaluation should contain a good summary of what was found and clear conclusions that are relevant to the legal issues at hand.

When choosing a psychological evaluator, the attorney should look for a psychologist who is experienced in assessment of personality and mental health disorders. Familiarity in working with immigrant populations from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds is essential. Comfort with communication through a translator is also important. The psychologist should be knowledgeable about forensic assessments in general and immigration assessments in particular. Of course, prior experience in giving testimony may come into play, if this is required in a particular case.

Michael Milgraum, Esq., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and member of the Maryland Bar, who practices in Silver Spring, MD.  He conducts immigration evaluations, as well as other psychological evaluations, and also is a mediator, parenting coordinator and therapist.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October  2007