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May 19, 2022

Between Two Worlds: Experiencing Burnout at the Crossroads of Culture and the Immigration System as a First-Generation Attorney

By Eloy Gardea
Senior Staff Attorney Eloy Gardea

Senior Staff Attorney Eloy Gardea

The alert on my computer indicated that my client was supposed to have arrived at my office 25 minutes earlier. I had several client meetings that day, so I was concerned that I might have to reschedule, despite the looming deadlines in her case. My client did eventually arrive, and immediately apologized for being late and for having to bring her children along. She explained that she and her children were not able to sleep much the night before and with tears welling up in her eyes, disclosed that she and her four children lived in a small trailer, with no heat, and had struggled the night before to fight off the cold. It was 25 degrees that morning and had been so cold the previous days that I had to buy a small space heater for my office. I offered it to her and gave her several blankets that been donated to our non-profit.  In addition, I connected her to some emergency resources to ensure she and her family didn’t have another night like the one they had just experienced.  

I reacted to the situation like any attorney in my position would--- identified a problem and provided a solution. The empathy I felt toward my client is not unique to me. However, the intensity with which this interaction hit me was different. Despite the many professional trainings and conversations I had attended on burnout as an asylum attorney, the emotional complexity of these encounters was never discussed. Such conversations emphasized empathy as emotional labor that could be exhausting and that the antidote was learning how to create boundaries and practice self-care. After eight years of directly representing people seeking asylum, I came to see that I could not separate my professional obligations from the personal obligations I felt toward others no matter how many attempts at self-care I made or how many boundaries I attempted to create between myself and my clients. My professional identity as an advocate was wholly shaped by my cultural upbringing and collectivist perspective, where one internalizes others’ suffering and puts oneself in the position to help. That morning, I not only felt the cold my client and her children had experienced, but I also felt the shame and embarrassment that she expressed in even asking for help. I absorbed her pain on a gut level—no amount of setting boundaries could shield me from this feeling.  

I chose to be a non-profit immigration attorney because of my long desire for inclusion for myself, my family, and the people I considered my community. Coming from an immigrant family, I was always taught the importance of the collectivist approach, whereby one sacrifices one’s own comfort to foster an inclusive and welcoming environment for all. As I began my work in direct representation, I encountered a landscape marked by ongoing humanitarian crises and anti-immigrant sentiment.  I thought my collectivist approach to addressing social injustice would push me through these difficult times and shield me from secondary trauma. In the beginning, it did. I was praised by my clients for creating a space that allowed them to be vulnerable, and empower them, because someone could finally understand the many facets of their experience, including the ones that went beyond their legal troubles. Treating clients holistically was a strength that my culture and upbringing afforded me. However, over time, this approach resulted in my clients not only drawing upon my legal support but also viewing me as a source of emotional support. This resulted in multi-hour-long conversations about anything from family relationships, to being swindled out of a paycheck, to car troubles, or to not having enough money to pay the rent.  

As the child of Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 1980s and who lived below the poverty line, encounters like the one with my client took me back to moments in my own life when my family and I had no choice but to be vulnerable as we attempted to get others with privilege to see our humanity. From embarrassing trips in line at the food bank and clothing drives, I learned from a young age the shame and vulnerability it took to ask another for help. Encounters like the one with my client also remind me of how significant it is to be entrusted by another with the responsibility to look out for them. This sense of responsibility, something that goes beyond compassion and completing the case, has been shaped by my cultural upbringing, and is the foundation for my approach to advocacy. It has also inadvertently contributed to my burnout.

After years as a removal defense attorney, I found myself both exhausted and alienated from the mainstream conversation on burnout among asylum practitioners. As I build my own consciousness of my experience, I now grapple with the following dilemma; how to reconcile the demands of a professional culture that emphasizes self-care and boundaries with collectivist cultures that are rooted in human interdependence. For me, my culture has taught me to go beyond the boundaries that divide us, and to forge connections to human beings who are in a vulnerable position, and seek to have their humanity recognized. This is clearly a double-edged sword, and yet at the same time, it is the thing that I know has made an incredibly positive impact on so many of my clients. This is a sentiment that many of my colleagues who come from an immigrant background share.    

On the one hand first generation attorneys are well equipped to treat clients as whole persons because many of us have experienced certain dimensions of our clients’ pain. On the other hand, we struggle with the unique form burnout takes in this profession for us—being constantly reminded of our own families’ struggles through the eyes of our clients.

For these reasons, I suggest we pay closer attention to the way burnout impacts first generation asylum practitioners or those that come from immigrant backgrounds. We can take action to address burnout for this group of people. It begins by recognizing that practitioners have their own personal histories. For many first-generation practitioners, their identities are tethered to a variety of communities who have experienced multiple forms of loss and pain, but who also empower each other through harnessing their collective power. In sum, it is important to recognize that the pasts, memories, and traumas of asylum practitioners do not magically disappear once they step into the office. In a professional culture that increasingly emphasizes the client as deserving of holistic treatment, what would it mean to think about the practitioner in a holistic way as well?

The moment is ripe to develop qualitative and ethnographic evidence-based research on first-generation asylum attorney experiences of burnout, in addition to quantitative survey-based and focus-group studies. These actions can raise the asylum practitioner community’s consciousness of the problem. Such research could be used to create more awareness-raising spaces in the workplace where first generation attorneys could share their experiences. Most importantly, consciousness and awareness must be channeled into action. This can take the form of collective advocacy, such as more culturally competent and robust mental health support in the non-profit asylum space. Lastly, as we advocate for our clients and deal with our own burnout, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our clients’ suffering and for some of us, our own communities’ hardships, are rooted in systemic inequalities that require policy and legal reform, in our immigration and detention systems. 

It is important to recognize that practitioners also need to feel safe and supported while doing their work. Part of creating a supportive work environment is allowing a space where diverse experiences can be shared. Doing so would allow practitioners to achieve the common goal of providing the most vulnerable with the chance at a better life that they so deserve.

About the Author

Eloy Gardea is a Senior Attorney at the ABA Commission on Immigration. Prior to joining the ABA, Eloy was a Senior Staff Attorney at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). While at RAICES, Eloy’s work included removal defense for both detained and non-detained individuals, as well as helping intending immigrants with family petitions, humanitarian visa applications, and citizenship applications. Previously, Eloy worked as a staff attorney at Catholic Charities’ St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant and Legal Services in Houston where he represented various populations facing removal from the US, including unaccompanied minors and victims of gender-based violence. He received his JD from Columbia Law School.