No End in Sight

What happens when immigrant-rights advocates reach a breaking point?
Illustration by Jen Renninger


This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.

You can sometimes tell how the day is going to go based on the mail. Each morning, someone from the Al Otro Lado legal office in southern Los Angeles, not too far from the Los Angeles River, goes to pick up deliveries from the PO box—stacks of mail, mostly slim, official missives from US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Often it’s Ricardo Diaz who handles this errand, in his candy apple–red Mazda, on his way from one task to another: immigration court; a meeting at a client’s house; the police station to pick up a report; a detention facility out in the desert, where it’s cheaper to hold detainees and difficult for advocates to reach them—a fact that can feel by design.

More often than not, Diaz leaves the post office with a satchel full of envelopes that, at first glance, don’t look especially encouraging, whose sameness is part of what turns the mail run into an anxious lottery. An approval notice, a green card, an asylum rejection, a work permit, a deportation order: You never know what casualty or small victory the day will bring.

Diaz, who is twenty-five, has been working with Al Otro Lado—first as a paralegal, and more recently as an accredited immigration representative—for more than two years, starting not long after he graduated from UCLA. Naturally, the work is wearing on him. It’s wearing on all the advocates at Al Otro Lado, and many more throughout the country. Like many immigration legal-aid providers these days, they are slogging through small battles—if one can call winning an asylum case small—and doubling down on the big ones, suing the government again and again for what they consider its brazen disregard for the law. The job is all-consuming and urgent and only worsens as the number of people caught up in the immigration court system who are desperately seeking refuge in the United States increases by the day.

Immigration law—or, more specifically, legal services for those seeking immigration relief—has always been a punishing field, a Sisyphean vocation within a legal system in which people often get stuck, and with grave consequences. For many asylum seekers, deportation can be a death sentence—never mind the treacherousness of the journey itself, or the fact that an alarming number of people have died under the supervision of both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Under the Trump administration, circumstances for newly arrived immigrants have only gotten worse. From the separation of families as a matter of policy, to the gutting of asylum protections and rolling back of precedent, to the intensified militarization of the southern border, to the increasingly prolonged rates of detention: There has arguably never been a worse time to be an asylum seeker in the United States.

This is due, in part, to an administration that has taken a xenophobic approach to immigration, with an openly hostile stance toward asylum seekers and their advocates. “The asylum system has been abused for years,” former attorney general Jeff Sessions announced in September 2018, echoing the Trump administration’s script that asylum seekers have been gaming the system with “dirty immigration lawyers” as their accomplices.

Meanwhile, legal-aid workers have been inundated with the horror stories and paperwork of those seeking representation—far more than they are able to take on. They record their clients’ statements about being stalked, or raped, or tortured, or shot and left for dead, and prepare them for testimony in court. (As one clinical study put it, immigration “lawyers must be attuned to the exquisite details of a case.”) In turn, listening to these stories day in and day out, absorbing their gruesome details, has worn down even the most seasoned attorneys. It is a hardship that pales next to that of their clients, but the fact remains that as a result of this intimacy with suffering, lawyers and paralegals are struggling just to stay in the work.

Or worse. In 2018, Amy Meselson, a well-known New York–based immigration lawyer who had worked in US deportation defense and volunteered abroad to help Syrian refugees, killed herself. Meselson had been struggling with mental illness for years, but even so, her death rattled the legal-aid community, which saw parallels between her apparent struggles and their own. At one point, taking to Twitter, Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, and a mainstay of the immigration legal field, reminded her colleagues that “We can’t tie our self worth to outcomes we often can’t control. We need an honest convo about suicidality amongst advocates.”

Striving for what they see as righteous outcomes for their clients is what keeps many of these lawyers going, and what drew them to the work in the first place. But the landscape of immigration legal services is changing. Even under President Obama, known among immigrant-rights advocates as the “Deporter in Chief,” immigration officials tended to focus on people who were considered a threat to national security or public safety—generally those with criminal records. “There was this idea that he would follow the rule of law eventually,” explains J. J. Mulligan Sepúlveda, an immigration attorney who works with Cooper at UC Davis. Now, he says, under Trump, “it’s like no holds barred.” The irony is that while the number of apprehensions at the southern border for crossing without authorization is near historic lows, deportation cases are higher than they’ve been in at least twenty-five years.

“The nature of the work is more hopeless,” Mulligan Sepúlveda says. “It’s not just the additional workload, it’s the specter of additional workload to come.” Practically each week, if not several days a week, attorneys receive news of yet another change in immigration policy and procedure that forces them to shift strategy, undo work that’s already been done, and pursue new legal challenges in federal court. Just keeping track of the evisceration of former protections can feel like a full-time occupation. “There’s no end in sight,” he says.

Mulligan Sepúlveda frequently gets calls from suicidal clients in detention. Most often, because of the nature of the work he does, that client is a teenager. And yet those who can call on him are the lucky ones, simply by virtue of having a lawyer to call. The majority of people in immigration detention have no lawyers because there simply aren’t enough affordable lawyers to go around. Attorneys push the clock, file motions all night and into morning, raise funds to hire more attorneys. But there’s never a way to add more minutes to the day. If their mission is to help others, where do they find help of their own? There’s rarely time to entertain such a question. The mail keeps coming and coming.

Advocates for asylum seekers know that absorbing the pain of others is an inevitable part of the job. “It’s not about you, it’s about your client,” says Nora Phillips, Legal Director of Al Otro Lado. According to Phillips, attorneys in this field tend to proceed under the notion that “you don’t exist, you are just a vessel. But there’s so much on the line, and so much stacked against you, and you’re seeing your clients being used as political footballs year after year.”

Phillips cofounded Al Otro Lado in 2011 after four years of work as an immigration attorney, at a time when an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors were arriving in the US from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Within this environment, Phillips envisioned an organization unlike any she’d worked at before: one without a rigid hierarchy; one that coordinated services for asylum seekers and deportees on both sides of the border, not just the United States; one that found creative ways to protect its clients within and against the US deportation machine (along with the staggering number of arrivals of minors was an equally unprecedented number of deportations by the Obama administration). Phillips quickly realized that the atmosphere at the time meant that there would be even more urgency to their work, and that her team would need plenty of emotional support from one another if they were going to stay in it.

Back in 2010, after befriending a Los Angeles therapist named Annabel Raymond, Phillips had begun to more fully understand the toll her work was taking. The two met at a prenatal yoga class and, due just a few weeks apart, they quickly became friends. Each week over coffee, Phillips would confide in Raymond about the grinding pressure of the work, the anxiety over the lives at stake, how urgent it all was. Phillips frequently broke down in tears in the middle of a sentence—at the office, at meetings, at home with her family. She had a painful physical disorder that seemed to flare up with stress, which was constant. She represented juvenile clients who’d been sexually abused; women who had been beaten within inches of their lives; people who had been raped; kids whose parents had been murdered in the US, leaving them orphaned. These were the stories she was hearing each and every day, along with her clients’ terror of being deported.

Phillips told Raymond how easy it was to overwork oneself to the point of quitting. Other attorneys and legal providers she knew were getting chronically ill; were divorcing their partners and lashing out at their kids over small things; losing sleep, relying on pills or booze; gaining weight, losing weight; struggling with headaches, with depression, and turning to yet more pills just to shore themselves up. From Phillips’s perspective, lawyers and paralegals were burning out, or were already burned out. And if they hadn’t left the field already, many were close to doing so—either that or, worse, committing themselves to a life of constant burnout.

“This job breaks you,” she said.

Listening to Phillips talk, Raymond was dubious of how she and her coworkers were contextualizing these experiences. The notion of burning out signals failure, Raymond says, which “puts the onus on the individual. There’s a lot of shame in the idea.” And lawyers, she says, are a competitive bunch, such that shame, or the threat of it, only compounds the stress. But more importantly, “burnout” didn’t sound to her like an accurate description of what these lawyers were going through physiologically. Within the context of therapeutic counseling, burnout is related to stress and to being overworked. “In your average burnout situation,” explains Dr. Stuart Lustig, National Medical Executive for Behavioral Health at Cigna, the condition “goes away when you go away”—on vacation, say, or if you quit your job. “What she was describing to me wasn’t burnout,” Raymond recalls, meaning something that could be addressed, in part, through a more humane schedule or perhaps a more compassionate boss. “What she was telling me sounded like trauma.”

The word trauma—which refers to the brain’s response to experiences that create a real or perceived mortal danger—is, in contemporary culture, a word grown dull with overuse. And yet its impact remains profoundly important to understand. When someone is exposed to trauma, their brain chemistry can be fundamentally altered, leading to a variety of symptoms, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), health problems, impaired memory, depression, sleeplessness, hyper vigilance, and even personality disorders. Essentially, trauma is the body’s protective mechanism, teaching us what to fear and what to avoid by imprinting it into the brain. But when a person suffers from post-traumatic stress, the imprint is so strong that she often senses danger where there is none, and is potentially unable to return to a healthy biochemistry without professional help.

Recent research shows that it is also possible to experience trauma secondarily, often through repeated exposure to someone else’s traumas. Remarkably, the symptoms of someone with what is known as vicarious trauma tend to take the same shape as those of someone who experienced it firsthand. “The neurobiology is the same,” explains Lustig, “whether it’s your trauma you are reliving through a nightmare or a flashback, or your client’s trauma. It might not be as vivid, as intense, but it’s the same unpleasant hyperarousal and hypervigilance as someone who has experienced the trauma themselves.”

The notion that immigrant-rights advocates could be experiencing work-related trauma is a thorny one for a couple of reasons. For one, the concept of vicarious trauma is relatively new. Known also as secondary trauma, secondary victimization, or compassion fatigue, it is, according to the American Counseling Association, the “emotional residue” that accrues from working with trauma survivors: essentially, the absorption of another person’s suffering. The term vicarious trauma itself dates back to a 1995 study focusing on the adverse impacts to therapists who worked with incest survivors. Since then, it has gained some traction among medical professionals and clinicians, with varying opinions on how to treat it.

The other difficulty in addressing vicarious trauma in the field of immigration legal services is that advocates can be susceptible in different ways depending on a number of factors, including their own mental health and whether their clients’ experiences trigger traumatic experiences of their own. But above all, this conversation is complicated in that it risks privileging the experience of the lawyer over the client. Thus, the conversation about its effects remains largely hushed outside the profession.

Yet the increasing mental-health struggles among legal-aid providers can be considered a crisis insofar as it affects the only professionals qualified to improve the circumstances of people facing increasingly dire odds. Thus, vicarious trauma among immigrant-rights advocates isn’t just deleterious for the advocates themselves, but for their clients, as well as the immigration system as a whole.

The fact is, people seeking immigration relief are two to five times more likely to win their cases if represented by an attorney. But with the limited availability of pro bono or low-cost attorneys in an overburdened system, only 37 percent of people in removal proceedings are able to secure one. If a person is detained, their odds of having a lawyer are only 14 percent. In an already sparse landscape of legal representation, if the attorneys are breaking down, they’re less reliable to their clients seeking relief.

At the coffee shop, Raymond shared with Phillips the neurobiology behind vicarious trauma: It was a function of empathy, she said, and, unlike workplace burnout, largely out of a person’s control.  The empathetic stance of a caring professional—which is almost a job requirement for an immigration attorney who must build deep and abiding trust with her clients and record their statements again and again—is what can lead to the transference of trauma from client to helper.

Phillips was stunned. Given all that she and her staff had been going through, the possibility that there was a clinical term for what she was experiencing felt like a revelation. “They need to know this,” she said of her staff. “They need to know there’s a name for this.” Phillips asked Raymond if she’d be willing to lead a therapy group for her and some colleagues. Raymond agreed to give it a try.

In 2016, Phillips invited eight attorneys—all of whom welcomed the chance to participate—to meet at Raymond’s home to discuss what they were going through. The session lasted just an hour, but by the end Raymond was astonished by the levels of accumulated stress she observed in the group and the degree to which they had internalized the pain of their clients.

Looking closely at the legal process, that internalization seems almost inevitable. To apply for asylum or other relief, one must recount in detail the experiences or conditions that compelled them to flee their home country in the first place. In addition to the long hours and crushing caseloads, it takes time to earn a client’s trust, such that they are willing to share such compromising stories. Details accrue over the course of several conversations, revisiting the same horrors over and over again. It is the attorney’s responsibility to record these details as vividly as possible. What’s more, protocols require that asylum declarations and other documents must be written in the first person. “In El Salvador, I was beaten and raped by my husband who was a member of the gang.” Or, “They hid me and my daughter in a dark room where we were tied to a chair for four days with no food or water and, when they came back, my daughter was covered in her own excrement and almost dead.”

Many in the group acknowledged needing to take care of themselves—but how? And when? The remedies they came up with—exercise, massages, mindfulness practices, and the like—often fell under an amorphous notion of self-care, a fashionable platitude more geared toward lifestyle than any mental-health emergency. But more than that, for legal-aid workers with so little spare time in their lives, these remedies were bound to fail or, worse, make her clients feel like failures. Sure, a daily gym routine would be nice, and who wouldn’t benefit from a little meditation? But in the minds of these attorneys, every minute they weren’t working meant another case languishing, another day of excruciating risk for people at the mercy of the US immigration system. Who had time for self-care when clients were hanging themselves in their cells, or dying at the hands of Border Patrol? When deportation to an all-but-certain execution was imminent? When the phone was ringing off the hook? Tell these attorneys to slow down, Raymond says, “and it can be a little threatening to them when the work is what is defining them.” Perversely, what had been making them sick was what kept them motivated in the first place.

The attorneys were overwhelmed and raw with feeling; the point of the group, though, wasn’t necessarily to process that rawness, but rather to give them support so that they could go back out in the world and do their jobs. What they needed, Raymond determined, were tools they could use in a practical way, which they could incorporate into the work itself. Raymond tailored her treatment for the group based on a form of exposure therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which asks clients to focus on traumatic memories and images, as well as bodily sensations, while responding to bilateral stimulation, most commonly in the form of repeated eye movements. Proponents of the approach claim that it helps release the grip of these memories, soothe the nervous system, allowing patients to metabolize trauma out of the body. (While the overall efficacy of EMDR is generally accepted, the role of bilateral stimulation in its effectiveness remains contested.) Raymond wondered whether attorneys could be similarly aware of their own bodies while working—that is, while listening to clients recount their traumatic experiences. She encouraged some to try tapping their feet alternately during interviews with clients; some made a conscious effort to take calls from clients in detention while moving around, literally walking themselves through the duration of the call. Some of the attorneys were skeptical, but anything seemed worth a try. After a while, for some, the techniques actually seemed to help.

While these tools were useful, more important, Raymond believed, was the experience of the group: the camaraderie and sense that these lawyers were not alone in their work or in their struggles. In this way, group therapy acknowledges that the experience of trauma is never entirely isolated, nor is the process of healing. “Trauma always creates a ripple effect,” writes Laura van Dernoot Lipsky in her 2009 book Trauma Stewardship. “The initial impact creates repercussions that expand almost infinitely … . The shock waves soon move beyond individual caregivers to influence the organizations and systems in which we work and, ultimately, the society as a whole.”

Seen this way, vicarious trauma is a rather stunning metaphor: What happens to one of us matters to the rest. While the consequences of mass social trauma are vastly different for everyone, few of us are fully immune.

See, for example, the summer of 2018 and the widespread outrage that marked a turning point in the immigration debate. In April, the New York Times revealed that, over the previous six months, ICE agents had taken more than seven hundred children from parents who had attempted to cross the border, a tactic whose cruelty was intended as a deterrent against future crossings. By the fall, it had been discovered that an estimated 2,600 children—nearly half of them under the age of ten—had been separated from their parents by ICE and CBP. Organizations such as Al Otro Lado began working around the clock to reunite the families. In addition to fielding calls from reporters and volunteers looking for ways to help, Phillips and Al Otro Lado’s Litigation and Policy Director, Erika Pinheiro, began fighting separations in courts, trying to track down children so that their parents could know, at least, where they were being held.

They won some cases, they lost others. In the meantime, they kept working. But Phillips needed a break; since founding Al Otro Lado, she’d hardly taken any vacation at all. She booked a trip to Mexico with her husband, Nick, seven-year-old daughter, and best friend; they planned to visit the beach as well as the friend’s family. The friend had only recently secured a green card, which allowed him to travel without worry; during the years it had taken to apply for status in the US, Phillips had made frequent visits to Mexico on his behalf, growing close with his family as well. For Phillips, this trip would be a rare chance to celebrate, followed by a vacation. For her friend, this trip would be the first time he would have seen his family in years, and she didn’t want to miss the moment.

Upon landing in Guadalajara, immigration authorities at the airport scanned Phillips’s and her family’s passports. Her passport had been flagged. All three were escorted to offices behind the immigration kiosks, where Nick and their daughter were told to wait in one room while Phillips was questioned in another. What was her business in Mexico? Was she carrying cash? Phillips was dumbfounded, growing increasingly agitated by her circumstances. A supervisor shared that it wasn’t Mexico that had initiated the alert on her passport, though who it was he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say. After many attempts to sort out what exactly was happening, what became clear was that while the others were free to go, Phillips would not be permitted to enter the country. She would be detained until authorities could book her on a flight home. Her daughter understood the situation and began to cry.

Illustration by Jen Renninger

Nick suggested they all go back, but to Phillips that meant missing out on the friend’s reunion, for which they’d worked so hard (not to mention a waste of a plane ticket). She and Nick decided that he would go with the friend, and that Phillips would take their daughter in order to calm her down. After saying goodbye, Phillips and her daughter were led behind the immigration station to a dimly lit room with a single bench. Phillips asked for water.

“This is just because of Mommy’s job,” she told her daughter. “We just have to figure a few things out and then we’ll go home.” Phillips looked around. The space was more like a cell than a room, with only a small window to the outside. She started to panic—this was worse than she’d expected, but she didn’t let on. Instead, she suggested they take a nap, and let her daughter stretch out on the small bench, then covered her with her scarf. Phillips sat down on the floor. The room was cold. There were no blankets, and they hadn’t brought jackets. An hour passed, no word, no water. They were thirsty. They hadn’t eaten all day.

When agents returned to check on them, Phillips again asked for water. Yes, yes, they said, but another hour later: nothing. Had they forgotten? Was this intentional? Was she even thirsty, or just worried she would become dehydrated? Her daughter would need water when she woke up. She slept soundly—that, at least, was good. But how long would that last? Would they be moved? If so, where? Phillips began to loop through stories she’d heard of clients stuck in “iceboxes” for days, sleeping on floors, of not enough food or food handed over frozen, of relieving themselves in front of everyone else, of not knowing if it was day or night. How much longer would she be here? She’d heard again and again what it was like to be in this limbo, what it was like to try to make sense of it to a child. Goddamn. Who was responsible for flagging her passport? No other possibility, she felt, than the US government. It sounded paranoid—but then again, here she was. Once she got home, they’d see she wasn’t someone to fuck with. But where were the guards? All her legal expertise, all her privilege and experience, could do nothing to get her out of this, which seemed only fair, in the cosmic scheme of things (why should some be protected and not others?). Her daughter breathed in, breathed out. Phillips wished she had a blanket to drape over her, a warm coat—she should’ve gone with her dad. But how do you say goodbye to your kid when she’s screaming bloody murder at the very idea of leaving you? They wouldn’t take her kid away. They wouldn’t. But why not? People were drowning in the Mediterranean, desiccating in the desert, and for what? Things were cruel under Obama, with entire families locked up for months in detention camps with that rumored dirty water that they said gave people headaches and distended babies’ bellies: the Dilley Residential Center (what a euphemism; it was clearly a prison) where every time you visited you came back with the “Dilley cough.” But this, under Trump—what was this? These mothers who’d carried their kids through jungles, through deserts, only to watch those kids screaming on the other side of a chain-link fence. On the bench, her daughter barely stirred. It was so fucking cold in this room—but who was she to complain? Considering all that her clients had been through, this was nothing.

Finally, after ten hours in detention and eight without food or water, an officer appeared to tell Phillips that they’d finally made arrangements for her return home. The passport problem—she would have to figure that out Stateside. By midmorning, she and her daughter were on a Volaris flight back to LAX, where they were greeted by a small group of activists, journalists, and friends ready to whisk them home.

Two days before Phillips’s encounter with Mexican immigration officials, Pinheiro had experienced her own run-in, when she was temporarily barred from entering Mexico and detained for two hours at the San Ysidro East Port of Entry. A month after Phillips’s detention, in February 2019, the Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux reported that the holds on the Al Otro Lado team’s passports were part of a larger pattern of harassment that ranged from “the barring and removal of journalists and lawyers from Mexico, to immigrant-rights advocates being shackled to benches in US detention cells for hours at a time.” Some were being forced to turn over notes and phones while being interrogated about their work on the most recent Central American caravan—an entirely uncommon practice at the US border. Then, in March, it was leaked to an NBC affiliate in San Diego that several federal agencies—including CBP, ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI—were operating a secret database of lawyers, migrants, activists, and journalists covering immigration, with images and details that gave the database the air of a Most Wanted list. Both Phillips and Pinheiro were on it. It was clear, then, that defenders of migrants weren’t just defending their clients anymore, but that they were defending themselves. They too had become fair game.

Though Phillips’s detention shook the whole team, it was also emboldening. They had work to do, after all. By mid-October 2018, an estimated 120 separated children were still in government custody, and fifty of them had parents who had been ordered back to their home countries; many parents, meanwhile, claimed they’d been duped into signing their deportation orders with the false promise of being reunited with their children.

By December, deported parents had spent months trying to reunite with children who remained in US custody or foster care; government officials, meanwhile, struggled to determine which parents belonged to which children, since they had neglected to create any kind of functional database that could be used to track them. That same month, when Congress was deadlocked over border-wall funding, and a partial shutdown over the impasse was imminent, the Trump administration announced the Migrant Protection Protocols, dubbed the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires certain asylum seekers who arrive by land at the US-Mexico border to wait in Mexico—often in notoriously dangerous border cities, and with no material support—while their cases are processed, which can take months if not years. This, many advocates believed, was a violation of both US asylum law and international refugee protections. Plus, attorneys feared that separated families who had been deported would now have to apply for protection from Mexico—and have that asylum granted—before they could see their kids again, a process that could take years. As the government moved toward a shutdown, attorneys struggled to figure out their next move.

Amid the chaos, Al Otro Lado’s Erika Pinheiro spied what seemed like an opening. The Remain in Mexico policy couldn’t be implemented if the federal government wasn’t actually open for business. If Pinheiro could get her clients who had been separated from their kids to the US border before the shutdown ended and the Remain in Mexico policy was implemented, they could trigger the US asylum process and be placed in US custody right away. From there, with the help of lawyers, they could apply for relief, be released from custody, and ultimately be reunited with their children while their applications were pending in court.

Al Otro Lado’s team partnered with the ACLU, which had taken the lead in suing the government over family separation, and got to work, reaching out to dozens of deported parents throughout Central America’s Northern Triangle. Al Otro Lado would send them money for bus tickets to meet up in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, just across the Suchiate River from Chiapas, Mexico. Al Otro Lado attorneys would help the parents apply for temporary humanitarian visas in Mexico that would allow them to legally transit the country. Once that paperwork was secured, the Al Otro Lado team would purchase plane tickets from the city of Tapachula, in southern Chiapas, to Tijuana—spitting distance from the concertina-wire fence that marked the US border, somewhere on the other side of which their clients’ children waited.

Al Otro Lado staff needed to get the word out to families, and quickly. Ricardo Diaz and Regina Ramirez, also with the Los Angeles office, were brought in to help. They spent days on the phone with families. “We aren’t one hundred percent certain it will work,” Diaz told each parent he spoke to, “but this might be your best shot to see your children again anytime soon.” Twenty-nine parents agreed to take the chance.

Over the next two weeks, Al Otro Lado wired bus money to all the families, who were spread throughout Central America. Reuniting these families meant something to every member of the team. For Diaz especially, it was personal. His mother was an immigrant from El Salvador, a single mom who came to the US during the civil war of the 1980s. She’d had little support when she’d arrived, and had navigated life and the legal system on her own. Part of Diaz’s motivation for entering the immigration legal field to begin with was to better understand her, and to offer others the kind of support he knew she hadn’t received.

By February 2019, the families had all arrived safely in Tecun Uman, taking up at a migrant shelter there. Al Otro Lado’s team, Ramirez included, processed the humanitarian visas on the Mexican side, then escorted the families into Mexico, flashing their paperwork to immigration officials stationed on the bridge above the river. A few days later, Diaz flew in for the next leg of the journey to the US border.

The day after Diaz arrived, the legal team and the parents loaded up into a convoy of taxis for the Tapachula Airport, situated on a lonely strip of road halfway between the whirling commerce of Chiapas’s southernmost city and the border. The entire operation carried with it the jitters of a heist, but everything they were doing was within the bounds of the law. When Diaz had arrived in Tapachula, Ramirez, who first met the families in Guatemala, had briefed him on the plan: All their paperwork was in order, so they shouldn’t have any problems. “We can’t take no for an answer,” Ramirez told the group. Diaz repeated this to himself as they barreled southbound toward the airport. In the terminal, the families and lawyers huddled up to review the itinerary. Ramirez and Diaz reminded the parents of the group’s rule: They were all in this together, but if anyone got pulled aside or had a problem getting through, no matter how cruel it seemed, the others were to keep moving. Get on that plane. Their kids depended on it.

Ramirez’s flight was first, and as she walked toward the security line, she turned toward Diaz one last time. “Remember,” she said, pointing a finger at him. “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” She then spun back on her heels and marched with the families toward the terminal. Diaz laughed at the moment’s cinematic flair. Ramirez’s group passed through security and immigration with ease. A few hours later, he approached the kiosks, and an immigration officer stopped him.

“Who are all these people?” the officer asked.

Diaz handed over a stack of paperwork and explained the situation just like he’d been trained, like he’d practiced.

“And you?”

“I am escorting them to their destination. They have permission to travel legally in Mexico.”

The officer flipped through the paperwork. “The previous group just did the same thing,” he said brusquely. “I’m not letting these people on the plane. You need to come with me.”

Diaz was rattled. He flashed a reassuring look toward the families, urging them to keep moving. The officer led him to what seemed like an interrogation room.

“You understand,” the officer said, “that smuggling foreigners is a federal crime?”

Diaz, unsteady, tried to hold his ground: They all had permission to be there, they all had permission to travel. The officer wasn’t convinced. Maybe the families had paperwork, but what right did Diaz have to move large groups of people through the country? He threatened to arrest him. Diaz stammered and objected, his words coming out an unsteady mess.

The officer left the room. Diaz slumped in his chair. Perhaps Pinheiro and the others had erred in their judgment by asking him to come. He wasn’t up to this. It had been a hard year. He’d had trouble sleeping, was buried in work. The stories he’d heard from clients had been looping in his head, and it sometimes felt as if the work was consuming him. Yet what they were striving for was so simple, so basic—for a family to stay together, for people to have the chance to feel safe—it seemed absurd that it required a fight at all. And here he was, stuck in an interrogation room in southern Mexico, failing a group of bereft parents who were out there somewhere in the indifferent rush of the airport, at risk of missing their final chance to see their children again. It astonished him to think about how much it took for such simple things, and how much was on the line. He imagined the jail cell he could end up in. If he was charged with human smuggling in Mexico, he’d need a legal team who knew how to get him out—and who knows how long it would take, and what could happen to him in the meantime. He began to truly comprehend his circumstances, the possibility of prison.

The agent came back in, and Diaz sat up. “I demand that you let these families travel,” he said. “They have a legal right to do so, and I have a right to accompany them.”

The guard flipped through the stack of documents once more and gruffly told him he was free to go. Diaz gathered his belongings and left the room, trying not to reveal his trembling or his hurry. When he reached the terminal, he spotted all the parents waiting for him, tickets in hand. “We thought they were going to arrest you,” one said.

The group made it to the Mexico City airport and onto their connecting flight to Tijuana without any more trouble. The rest of the Al Otro Lado team met the parents at Tijuana International Airport, then took them to a hotel. Along with lawyers from other legal defense organizations, they began preparing the asylum cases so the parents could present themselves at the border and then petition to be reunited with their families on the other side. But there was another wrinkle: The government shutdown had ended and the Remain in Mexico policy had already begun at the Tijuana border checkpoint. It was still business as usual at the Calexico-Mexicali border crossing, however, some 140 miles away, so the Al Otro Lado team escorted the families to Mexicali, where they presented themselves to border agents to begin the process of applying for asylum.

Eventually, all but one of the parents crossed the border into the United States and were dispatched to detention centers throughout the country, after which they were released and reunited with their children. (The remaining parent learned of her son’s deportation upon reaching the border, and turned around to go back home.) “A lot of times we have feelings of self-doubt, that things are hopeless, all these things that immigrants are facing right now are terrible,” Diaz told me. “But a victory like this, we didn’t see it as a small one.”

The effort required for such triumphs, however, and the toll it has taken on advocates—especially as the attack on asylum has intensified and policies have stripped protections at the border—raises the fundamental question: Can advocates survive the work being asked of them? At times, many wonder whether they will survive at all.

Four months after her detention, the hold on Phillips’s passport still hadn’t been lifted, which meant that she was cut off from the Al Otro Lado team in Mexico. As a workaround, she organized an all-staff meeting at the border wall just outside Tijuana, south of San Diego—a short drive out of town for the Mexico team, and just a few hours from the L.A. office. There amid the desert scrub and buzz of aerial patrols, attorneys and paralegals consulted over case strategy through the metal slats. After the watch list and detention debacle and the months of hard work, seeing one another in person put the team in high spirits. They had important things to discuss, of course, but under the specter of being surveilled, the meeting was also a defiantly tongue-in-cheek stunt.

Phillips tried to keep this kind of levity in the work. On the day I visited their Los Angeles headquarters, last spring, Phillips had brought over a miniature butter churn—a crank apparatus affixed to a mason jar—so that the team could make butter as a kind of stress release. “I’m from Wisconsin,” she said as she padded barefoot around the kitchen and cracked eggs into a skillet for breakfast. “We love our butter.”

The offices were in a ramshackle bungalow in Maywood, south of East Los Angeles, which they’d recently purchased and had begun renovating. Prior to that, they were part of a consortium of nonprofits housed in an old hospital building—a well-intentioned but glum set of rooms in a former psychiatric ward, where Phillips’s desk was crammed into what was once a shower stall. (In that space, levity didn’t come so naturally.) To celebrate the move, Phillips bought her team lounge pants in bright patterns of their choosing (“So Wisconsin!” she said).

By the time I showed up, the major renovations were done, but the place was still a work in progress. “We’re going to have hammocks, we’re going to have hand-squeezed lemonade—the works,” she said. If all went according to plan, there would be babysitting for clients’ kids, plants and an outdoor space, therapy sessions for clients, for staff—one day, anyway.

In the kitchen, Diaz and Phillips inspected the churn. “I threw away the directions,” Phillips admitted. “Whatever. Just pour in the cream.” They emptied the carton into the jar and began spinning the crank, passing the contraption back and forth among the staff and watching the liquid pirouette between the blades. Phillips queued up Fleetwood Mac on the phone and began ad-libbing a song about butter to the tune.

Later that morning, Melissa Flores, Communications Coordinator at Al Otro Lado, returned to work after a week of vacation in Costa Rica, bearing bags of coffee and friendship bracelets. It had been nice to take a break, she said, though she hadn’t completely been off the job—she’d been tweeting from the work account, a busy feed with over thirteen thousand followers through which she often denounces anti-immigrant bias in laws, policies, events, even journalism. “It’s hard just to turn off,” she said.

“Want some coffee? I’ll get you a cup!” Phillips said, then dashed into the kitchen. Everyone picked out a friendship bracelet and took turns tying them around one another’s wrists.

Illustration by Jen Renninger

After Phillips brought Flores her coffee, the team scattered into their various offices (all former bedrooms) and Phillips turned back to the churn. Diaz was turning the cream now, so Phillips pulled out her phone and showed me a photograph of her daughter, covered in her scarf, asleep on the detention-room bench, and a selfie she took from her spot on the cold floor.

“If you submitted this story to a fiction writing class,” I said, “the professor would throw it in the garbage can and set it on fire.”

“Why?” she said, her eyes locked on me. She began to cry. I instantly regretted having said it. I’d meant to imply something along the lines of how neatly sinister it all was: mouthy, ballsy immigration attorney put on watch list, detained with her daughter without access to food or water, deported back home. The symmetry of what her clients had long faced and what she was suddenly facing was too clean.

“That’s all I meant,” I said.

“That’s the most affirming thing anyone has said about this to me,” she said.

It reminded me of what immigration attorney and Alameda County public defender Raha Jorjani had told me: “When you’re getting punched in the face all day long every day, it’s even worse when no one knows.” Their struggles, she said, are often invisible to others; even when they think it’s as bad as it can get, some new screw is turned. “Even just having people understand how hard this is—that’s something,” Jorjani said. “There’s something healing and empowering about that.”

 “What’s wrong with this?” Phillips said, motioning to the butter churn. The cream wouldn’t thicken no matter how hard they’d tried. “What’s wrong with us?” She and Diaz looked up a video on YouTube, only to find they’d likely filled the jar with too much cream. Diaz poured out half the jar and began again.

Back in her office, Phillips and I continued talking. Perhaps the one upshot of being a lawyer under the “Trump regime,” she said, was the solidarity she felt with immigration-law colleagues. “We are all there for each other even more than before.”

“Check it out!” Diaz said, running into the room. The dense cream had begun to congeal into a lustrous, misshapen lump.

While many of the immigrant-rights advocates I spoke with said that they were seeing a therapist privately, several of them also talked about what dissuaded them from group therapy. For one, the matter of scheduling was tricky, much more complicated than coordinating one-on-one. But more importantly (and more obvious), it was the group dynamic itself, the vulnerability multiplied by an audience.

Annabel Raymond insists that this exposure is what makes group work so effective: The experience of sharing pain and grief as a collective helps normalize the suffering, thus removing its stigma and helping build a sense of communal support. Plus, she says, groups are more affordable, allowing a greater number and variety of people to access care. Given these benefits, she laments the degree to which group therapy is often perceived as a sort of feel-good farce.

As leaders in the immigration field begin to recognize the pervasiveness of mental-health concerns among their staff, a range of initiatives have materialized across the country as attempted correctives. Attorney Holly Cooper of UC Davis sets aside a three-hour class on vicarious trauma each semester to benefit her immigration-clinic students; she also organizes a monthly support group for herself and other colleagues in Northern California (along with a chain text support thread she relies on in the interim). The organization Kids in Need of Defense has instituted a Wellness Team that organizes regular stress-relieving activities for their staff, including exercise sessions and a recent cake-decorating outing in Houston. Thomas Stone, a psychologist based near San Antonio, Texas, began working with a border-based legal organization known as ProBAR in mid-2018 to offer group therapy. Stone had offered therapy to first responders after 9/11, and then again after Hurricane Katrina. In the midst of a crisis, he explains, first responders are inundated.

“They have so much work to do, they don’t have time to take care of themselves.” It isn’t until after the initial crisis has ended, he says, that these first responders are aware of how the task is affecting them physiologically. It’s at that moment when they become receptive to the idea of therapy. What makes immigrant-rights advocates unique in this context is that their emergency hasn’t ended. Rather, their work as first responders is part of a sustained emergency, a new normal, and any kind of large-scale, cathartic closure isn’t likely to come anytime soon. They have to learn to manage all the same.

Stone’s first session with ProBAR drew roughly eighty staffers, many of whom shared how the work had been affecting their children, their relationships, their health, confessing how, as Stone put it, “they just can’t get the stories out of their heads.” During this ninety-minute session in South Texas, Stone noted that, surprisingly, Trump didn’t come up once. Participants focused instead on how they were, or weren’t, managing. This was a good thing in his eyes. “The work of group therapy,” he said, “is to keep it in the room.”

With the dizzying number of changes to legal procedures and policies, and the spike in denial rates, attorneys can begin to feel that their training is worthless. (Citing one judge in South Texas who has denied nearly every application, Stone says that “lawyers go into that man’s courtroom and they know that they are 98 percent down when they walk in.”) Attorneys, Stone adds, have power because they know the law. Undermining that knowledge has, in effect, left attorneys unmoored, especially because they see themselves as their clients’ last resort. “We need to bring hope to them the best that we can,” attorneys shared with Stone. But how best to do that under the circumstances?

After Raymond and Phillips held their first group session in 2016, they began presenting about vicarious trauma at conferences for counselors and legal professionals. Later, when they opened the group to other immigration legal-aid providers in the Los Angeles area, people were eager to join. Now, one Saturday each month, Raymond hosts a therapy group in her home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Participants sign up in advance and pay a fee as a gesture of commitment (Raymond, in turn, donates the money to organizations such as Al Otro Lado), making it less likely that, come Saturday, they’ll find some excuse to skip the session.

One bluebird Saturday in 2018, a few weeks before Christmas, I arrived at Raymond’s home to be a part of a session (I’d been invited to be a silent participant in the group). I was early. A couple of attorneys were already there. I settled into one of the chairs that had been arranged in the parlor, amid Christmas decorations and grand potted plants that drooped toward the floors. Raymond had set the chairs and sofa around a coffee table. One by one, people began to file in—five women (a small group, Raymond said, likely on account of the holidays), each of whom claimed a spot and, invariably, sighed as her body settled into the chair. Once everyone was situated and ready, Raymond began with a breathing exercise. She then passed out worksheets on clipboards and asked us each to assemble an inventory of things we would like to “let go of” in the upcoming year.

I was there as an observer, but I had my own work to do—more, it turned out, than I even knew. My list of things to let go of, and whom I held responsible, and how holding on to it had made things worse: It was beginning to fill the page.

In 2006, I began working with refugee families, first as a sort of case manager at a refugee resettlement agency, then helping open a school for newly arrived immigrant youth, where I’ve been employed ever since. The job has been hard, to say the least, but admitting as much has always felt self-absorbed. The kids I’ve worked with come from more than thirty countries, many among the world’s poorest or most violent or unstable. They are often fleeing war, poverty, physical and sexual abuse, disaster. What right, then, have I ever had to dwell on my own difficulties when so many of them arrive in such dire emotional and psychological straits? I’ve spent more times than I can count accompanying suicidal students to the emergency room, holding inconsolable students in my arms as they keened, sitting with kids as they came down from a panic attack or a bad dose of drugs, trying to get kids to stop pounding their heads against the pavement in grief, punching a locker in frustration, kicking one another in anger. Most days haven’t been steeped in crisis, though the ones I remember best, the memories I can’t quit, certainly were. Once, a girl collapsed in class after another student threw a crumpled piece of paper at her head—just paper, just as a joke. She slid onto the floor, fully dissociated, and screamed to God, pleading with him not to let her die. Her body was stiff when we carried her to a quiet place where we could revive her as we called her parents. When she awoke, she was terrified, convinced that she was already dead, that wherever we had taken her (two doors down, an office she’d been in several times before) was the afterworld.

None of these incidents had anything to do with me; none of this pain was my own. To feel more than fleeting sadness would have seemed an indulgence, and a disgusting one at that. But the body has no such rationalizations. Starting around 2011, once I began working full time at the school, I developed migraines, restless sleep, began snapping at my colleagues, at my bosses, horrendously short-fused at the small and medium roadblocks and yet uncannily able to handle emergencies with utter calm. (A symptom, Raymond explained, of vicarious trauma: We are enraged at actual injustices such as inequality or structural racism; but those remain abstractions, and without a concrete outlet to rage against we snap instead at something as small as a colleague’s suggestion during a meeting.) While I, as an educator, can work to get someone a lawyer or make sure someone gets to court on time or gets a therapist or successfully secures medical insurance, I can’t free someone from the clutches of detention or sue the government for separating children from their families.

For the next thirty minutes, we went around the room and shared what it was we were letting go. One woman told us she’d had a falling out with her mother—the stress of her work and her mother’s judgments had, in aggregate, been too much. Another spoke of her depression, about the violence and abuse she faced in her personal life, how it seemed to mirror that of her clients, how at times she felt paralyzed by fear. Yet another shared her struggle with the case of a client who’d been deported after twenty-five years in the United States. She’d won his appeal, but her client still wasn’t allowed back into the country. Raymond asked her to refer to her inventory: What kind of emotional support did she need in order to manage this case? The attorney launched into a rant about the administration’s lack of prosecutorial discretion: They’d strive to have anyone and everyone deported, she said, just because they could. “But what do you need about this case?” Raymond pressed.

The attorney thought about it. She brought up a recurring dream: She’s in London, there’s too much in her luggage, and she’s never going to make her flight home—too much on her plate.

“It’s not a resolvable issue, right?” Raymond said. The mess, she said, was bigger than was reasonable, “and it doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong, but that you need to sustain yourself.” The attorney admitted she had a tendency to isolate, to wall herself off to focus on the work. Working fourteen hours a day, another group member chimed in, “is a kind of medication in a way—that and eating badly.”

The conversation turned, predictably, toward the elephants in the room—Trump and Sessions, the nemeses of these women’s professional lives and humanitarian code. “Well, Sessions is not an issue anymore,” one of them said, referring to his recent dismissal.

“But it still hurts when you say his name,” another said. We laughed.

Raymond brought up our own agency in ceding psychic power to these men. It can feel good, she acknowledged, to feel rage and direct it somewhere deserving. “Sometimes rage acts like a bump of cocaine. It makes us feel like it is useful, that we are powerful over a powerless situation. There are bad people, and work must be done to stop them,” she said. But rage against the administration can also act as a distraction from the more important work at hand. If we chose not to cede so much to them emotionally, Raymond said, “they’ll no longer have the power to make you feel frightened, or wake up feeling resentful,” feelings that made the work less sustainable.

“The degree of manic hyperfunctioning I’m seeing is completely unprecedented,” Raymond had explained to me regarding attorneys since Trump’s election. “It’s like they are running trying to catch every falling plate. Then all of a sudden it’s like, What’s another case? I’ll take this on because if I don’t do it no one is going to. I already have so many cases, what’s one more?

Attorney Holly Cooper had told me, “My brain is exploding with all the things we could do” on behalf of one of her clients. “And compound that with thirteen thousand kids in detention, and you’re like, Who’s going to do all this?

Progress comes slowly by way of hard-fought legal victories for what should be common sense. Take a July 2018 order from a federal court in the Central District of California stating that the government could not deny water to detained children as a form of punishment. “You think to yourself, That’s great we got this win,” says Mulligan Sepúlveda, “but then what kind of moral abyss have we fallen into?” Even with these victories, the anxiety of instability persists, since in many cases, he notes, “the government is appealing or trying to take it away.”

The group wrapped up for the day. Everyone, myself included, felt a bit more at ease than when we started. The others made arrangements for the next session, set some dates for the upcoming year. One of the members of the group told us she’d been taking regular trips to Tijuana to deliver donations for the caravan that had just arrived. Even though she worked in support of immigrants day in, day out, just knowing that thousands of people who’d walked all that way were now sleeping in an open-air stadium alongside the ragged spine of the border wall—she felt she had to do something else, too. She’d be driving down to Tijuana again the very next day.

Now, on Al Otro Lado’s weekly legal intake days in Tijuana, the lines of people seeking help often circle the block. The offers from volunteers to help with intakes and outreach are themselves overwhelming, and yet also never seem to be enough. The federal policies and procedures continue to shift near constantly, keeping lawyers on their toes, unclear sometimes on how to advise their clients, and being forced to undo work that is already done. The success of Ramirez and Diaz’s family-reunification heist, only a year ago, is now a distant memory.

Once the Remain in Mexico policy was initiated, Central American asylum seekers were detained for just a few days or weeks in the US before being returned to Mexico—where they had no source of income, no place to live, no place for their kids to go to school—to await court dates. (In the US, they would have had much better chances at finding work under the table, their kids could have attended public schools, and they would have arguably been spared many of the dangers of living on the margins in a Mexican border town.) As of December 2019, approximately sixty thousand asylum seekers had been returned to Mexico to wait, many of them to Tijuana. Meanwhile, new asylum seekers were arriving at the border every day. The prior year, the US government had launched a metering system in which it would allow only a certain number of asylum seekers to cross each day. However, Border Patrol neglected to manage any actual process to determine whose turn it was to cross. This job fell, instead, to the migrants themselves, who to this day manage an informal queue known as “The List.” Each morning, newly arrived asylum seekers line up beyond the perimeter of the border checkpoint, beneath the underpass where cars advance north. The elevated pedestrian bridge to the United States is mostly quiet at this hour; every now and then someone strolls up the incline, passport in hand, in full view of those waiting below.

When I visited the El Chaparral border crossing in July, I counted nearly sixty new arrivals who had arrived by dawn to get a number from the volunteers manning the list. Dozens more people who’d been waiting for months arrived on foot or in taxis, suitcases packed in case their numbers were called that day. It had been nearly a week since anyone had been allowed through, and today would be no different; by 8 a.m., US officials announced that no one would be allowed to cross. The line, meanwhile, had swelled to over nine thousand people—up from about three thousand nine months earlier, before the latest migrant caravan arrived. Prior to the caravan, explained an Al Otro Lado staff member in Tijuana, the government was allowing ninety or so people to cross each morning. Since then, they had allowed only four to seven numbers a day to cross. (All the more confounding is that, for all this jury-rigged system’s specificity on how many numbers will be called each day, a number refers to a family unit, not an individual person—meaning that a number called could indicate a single adult or a family of nine, something CBP won’t know until the families present themselves.) Based on the rate at which people are added to the list and how often numbers are called, it could be six months before the newest arrivals make it across the border and apply for relief.

“It’s a kind of psychological torture,” Matias Perez Mendoza, a therapist from southern Mexico, says of the wait. He works with Al Otro Lado to run regular therapy groups for asylum seekers in limbo. Their trauma, he explains, is not an accident, not a side effect, but clearly by design.

“They don’t give a reason,” a Cameroonian woman told me of the experience of being in line. “They don’t give a reason, they just say no. No one today, please come tomorrow. It’s painful.” All the stress she left at home, she said, and all the terrors of her journey overland from Brazil, only to find herself at the gates of the most powerful country on Earth, and told to wait, and wait, and wait instead in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. And all it meant to have your number finally called was that you’d be taken into an increasingly brutal immigration detention system, where another cycle of waiting would begin. And then, to win her case, she’d almost certainly need a lawyer. Where and how she would find one was anyone’s guess.

“It’s a meat grinder of an immigration system,” says Shane Mulligan, who coordinates volunteer efforts in Tijuana for Al Otro Lado. Often, people don’t have the means to wait, he explains, and waiting puts people who were already running for their lives at further risk. Several migrants have already been killed while waiting in Mexico. The day I met with Mulligan, they were holding their weekly immigration clinic, where lawyers and volunteers met with clients one after another, providing basic legal advice and paperwork for them to fill out on their own in advance of being called across the border. During the intakes, volunteers share information with migrants about how the process would unfold—how long the wait was likely to be, the conditions in US detention, the difficulty of finding a lawyer, the likelihood that they’d be returned to Mexico. I asked Mulligan what it felt like to have to deliver this litany of bad news to people who had traveled so far and felt so close—to, in effect, dispel their illusions (and the dreams that went with them) of what awaited them in the US. “I try to think of myself as a steward of the truth,” he said. People needed to know, he stressed, adding that the feeling of working each day for what’s righteous and decent was, in part, what kept him and his colleagues from unraveling. It seems critical to maintain some degree of faith in the work itself, after all, that every effort will be worthwhile.

“We expect protection after coming all the way from Cameroon,” the woman had told me that morning as the newest arrivals lined up for their numbers and the old-timers held out for the day’s news. “We expect human rights,” she’d said. “Filing lawsuit after lawsuit can only do so much against a regime that doesn’t give a shit about the law,” Pinheiro posted on Twitter. “The lawyers are exhausted. The rest of you need to wake TF up and DO SOMETHING or else we will all be locked in camps while the world burns around us. It’s now or never.”

In December, a year after I first visited Raymond’s support group in L.A., I attended a conference for immigration legal providers in Houston. One of the guests of honor was Eve Ensler, a playwright and human-rights activist best known for her play The Vagina Monologues. Ensler led two sessions on “Active Techniques for Coping and Release.” The first was held after lunch, and she invited participants to move from their tables in the Four Seasons ballroom to a carpeted area off to the side, where she asked us all to sit in a circle and take off our shoes. “Don’t be scared,” she trilled. Ensler asked the group of fifty or so uncertain participants to take turns displaying a physical representation of how we were feeling right then, along with a sound. She then asked for a few people to talk about how they were feeling. Some said they were tired, that they were stressed, that they were distracted by all the work on their plate. “I was fine,” one woman said, “until I sat down here.” There was something about being in a circle with so many of her colleagues, she admitted, that made her unexpectedly overcome with emotion. The more time we spent there, the more emotional everyone became. It felt good to slow down, to talk, to be listened to.

In 1992 a group of neuroscientists discovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” brain cells that operate in response to behavior or emotions we observe in others. As babies, our mirror neurons teach us how to react, how to behave, how to be. When we see another person suffering or experiencing great joy, mirror neurons make us experience an approximation of that suffering, or that joy. In other words, they are the core physiological building blocks of human empathy.

For the rest of the hour, Ensler led us through a series of exercises that included finding a partner and sharing what was keeping us up at night. I sat down with my partner, an immigration attorney from Texas named Elissa, and shared the story of a sweet, tremulous kid who’d arrived as an unaccompanied minor, lost his cousin in a shooting, and had eventually disappeared from our school, moved to Texas, and then, last summer, drowned in the San Jacinto River near Houston. I hadn’t known him very well, and perhaps that’s what weighed on me. What could I have done differently? As I told my partner this, she nodded, and I teared up. I looked around and realized I wasn’t the only one.

“Have mercy on yourselves,” Ensler said from the middle of the circle. “You are the most important people in the world. We need you. We need you. The rest of us are counting on you.” At that, more people in the circle began to cry, and then to laugh. By the end of the session, many people later told me, they felt measurably better. Ensler wasn’t changing anyone’s fundamental circumstances, or the structural issues they were fighting, or the amount of work on their plates. She was merely acknowledging their reality, and that felt good.

Intelligent people might disagree on the best methods to counteract vicarious trauma—be it exposure therapy or group counseling or medication or ecstatic movements on the ballroom carpet—but something must be done, and urgently. These days, it can feel like the entire architecture of power is designed to mill anyone who resists it into dust. The world is cruel, as are plenty of the people who run it. It might even be safe to say that absorbing trauma, even to the slightest degree, is a predictable side effect of being attuned to the times we live in. It can be grueling to read the news every day, to consider the most recent human-rights abomination, the latest moral outrage—and even that is from a comfortable distance. I know I’ve grown tired. I grew so tired, in fact, that a couple of months ago I left my job supporting students’ mental health for something much easier. “If we are to do our work with suffering people and environments in a sustainable way,” writes Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, “we must understand how our work affects us.”

But who among us has the time to take care of our own shit? Then again, the world we live in seems to rely on a shadow class of advocates toiling toward some degree of balance, however precarious. Can we live with the consequences if those with any power to help fall to pieces? 


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Published: March 2, 2020

Jen Renninger is an editorial illustrator who works in collage and painting. Her illustrations have been featured in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, and Chronicle Books.