Layering Trauma – Martha Ramos Duffer


This is a featured article from TAASA’s Summer 2015 Newsletter, authored by Dr. Martha Ramos Duffer of Quantum Possibilities.

We use the term trauma to describe the cognitive, emotional, and physical changes that occur when someone survives an event that shatters their world.

A traumatic event threatens the physical or psychological survival of a person and changes what they had come to know about themselves, others, and/or the world around them. When a person’s relationship to themselves, others, being tortured, raped, assaulted, beaten, and controlled by men in gangs and drug cartels, as well as by their husbands and boyfriends. The United States has historically identified itself as a country that provides refuge and asylum for people fleeing violence and torture, and at times even poverty, in their home countries. Because of the complex political climate and distorted information surrounding immigration today, leading to anti-immigrant sentiment and policies in the United States, many refugees and asylum seekers are being held in Family Detention Centers rather than being allowed to and/or the world is altered and ruptured in this way, they often find themselves unmoored, ungrounded, and lost in the terror of an unknown new and much less safe reality. This can be accompanied by numerous severe symptoms as their body and mind try to adjust to this new knowing and heal from the violence they endured or witnessed. These symptoms can include nightmares, terrors, hypervigilance, an overactive startle response, sadness, anger, agitation, fear, and avoidance behaviors to evade any situation that triggers a reminder of the trauma.

Leaving your land, your people, and your family is difficult for anyone. When a person is forced to do so for their and/or their children’s safety, whether they are fleeing a violent and abusive spouse or the violence of a gang or drug cartel, it is particularly harrowing and devastating.

There are complex socioeconomic and political factors that have led to the destabilization of many countries, in particular countries in Central America. Many would assert that the United States’ trade policies intertwined with our hunger for guns and drugs have played a role in this destabilization. Regardless of the contributing factors, the current realities are that many countries are struggling with devastating poverty and the resulting desperation for power and money. Current conditions are leading to horrific exacerbations in violence, gang activity, and drug cartel control that are overwhelming the capacities of governments and law enforcement to sustain safe communities and cities. Many families and women in particular are live with family members or host families while their asylum cases are pending approval. Given the ongoing backlog of these cases, their detention can often extend for many months, if not years.

Most of the women currently being detained in Family Detention Centers are sexual assault survivors, and many are suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result. Even as we look at their lives prior to detention, we often see multiple layers of trauma, beginning with what is often termed multi-abuse trauma to refer to multiple traumatic events in the person’s life. For example, in addition to being raped repeatedly by an ex-boyfriend who is also on the police force or is a powerful member of a drug cartel, and therefore cannot be prosecuted, a woman may be a survivor of domestic violence between her parents and/or from a former partner, and also be a survivor of extreme poverty, childhood sexual abuse, and other traumatic events or circumstances. Then, as a woman is forced to flee her home, she often experiences trauma in the form of sexual and/or physical assault at the hands of human smugglers who are “helping” her get to the United States, at the hands of fellow travelers and/or at the hands of criminals living in the regions she may have to travel through.

After arriving in the United States, rather than being allowed to seek safety and healing with family members living here, many women are “detained,” which is a euphemism for incarcerated, at “Family Detention Centers,” which is a euphemism for a prison-like setting in which all activities and movement is controlled by guards. In the

Tips for working with survivors of multiple layers of trauma, immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers:

  • Evaluate all policies to ensure services are available to refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers, and unintended barriers are not institutionalized
  • Be aware of social layers of oppression, including racism, ableism, and classism, in addition to sexism, and ensure staff are trained in multicultural competence
  • Believe what a survivor tells you is her experience, even when it challenges what you believe would be possible for one person to survive
  • Be aware that a survivor may not know how to advocate for herself, given previous experiences and cultural differences
  • Understand that years of repeated trauma can interfere with the development of social and communication skills, as well as self-efficacy and These challenges, along with cultural differences, can lead to someone acting or speaking in ways that may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable to agency staff and service providers. Work to develop communication strategies that accommodate different ways of knowing, speaking, being, and acting
  • Ensure the availability of bilingual (English and the primary language of the person being served, to the degree possible) and bicultural staff, resources, and materials
  • Cooperate and work closely with other agencies and providers to avoid further traumatization and unintended barriers to services. Avoid the trap of saying, “We don’t deal with that issue here,” but rather make connections that will allow your agency to work with multiple layers of trauma, and refer to additional providers, professionals, and services as needed
  • Be aware of behaviors that are considered “coping abuse” behaviors, such as substance abuse, suicidal ideation, self-mutilation, eating disorders, etc. that the person may have developed to survive the trauma, and be prepared to treat these or refer to additional services, rather than use them as reasons to deny services
  • Be aware that if a person does not have resolved immigration status in the United States, the police may not be a viable resource to call for help in future situations, so this may not be a useful part of a safety plan
  • Multiple-layers of trauma intensify the need for all trauma interventions, particularly the message that “it is not your fault,” and extensive strategies to create external (physical) and internal (emotional) safety
  • Engage intentional active conscious self-care as you work with multiple layers of trauma to avoid and treat secondary trauma that may come up for you as a provider or advocate


Below are some of the main Texas agencies that serve individuals who have been detained:

American Gateways (512) 279-0879

American Gateways is the only nonprofit agency allowed inside the family detention centers and often the first to inform families why they are being detained and their rights, and initiate legal processes. American Gateways provides legal representation and assistance to asylum seekers and immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Casa Marianella (512) 385-5571

Casa Marianella’s Casa Emergency Shelter for adult immigrants and Posada Esperanza Transitional Shelter for women and children escaping violence provide post-release support for asylum seeking/receiving immigrants. When there is space available, Posada Esperanza can host women and children who do not have family and friends in the U.S. Single women may be received by the Casa Emergency Shelter or the Posada Esperanza Traditional Shelter.

Catholic Charities of Dallas Immigration & Legal Services

(214) 634-7182 / 214-217-5600 ext 6102 

“The Immigration and Legal Services (ILS) of Catholic Charities of Dallas was established in 1975 …provides a broad range of immigration counseling and (legal) representation to immigrants and their families.”

Grassroots Leadership (512) 499-8111 

Grassroots Leadership  fights  to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.

Grassroots Leadership’s Texans United for Families (TUFF)

TUFF is a grassroots, all volunteer-driven project of Grassroots Leadership. We support and coordinate TUFF members in their mission to fight back against immigrant detention and deportation close to home. In response to the influx of Central American families and children seeking refuge at the border, the Obama Administration announced the return of family detention in 2014.

Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (214) 273-4330

“HRI of North Texas provides legal and support services to refugees and immi- grants who have suffered human rights abuses (and are not currently being held within a detention center), advocates for justice, and promotes international human rights.”

Karnes Pro Bono Project

Paul Pfeifer,

Karnes Pro Bono Project is an association of American Gateways, RAICES, UT Immigration Law Clinic, private attorneys, etc. that coordinates free legal services for women and children held in detention centers.

Mosaic Services (214) 821-5393

“Mosaic is a safe haven for survivors of human rights abuses.”

RAICES (512) 994-2199

“RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Cen- ter for Education and Legal Services) was founded and incorporated in 1986 in San Antonio, Texas under the name of the Refugee Aid Project to address the needs of Central Americans fleeing the civil wars and social upheavals in El Salvador, Hondu- ras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.”

Tahirih Justice Center (713) 496-0100

“The Tahirih Justice Center aims to “protect courageous immigrant women and girls re- fusing to be victims of violence by providing holistic legal services and advocacy in courts, communities, and Congress.”

UT Law School Civil Rights Clinic (512) 232-7222

“Students in the Civil Rights Clinic represent low-income clients in a range of civil rights matters (and) … co-counsels its cases with Texas-based and/or national civil rights and liberties non-profits and/or private counsel.”

 UT Law School Immigration Clinic (512) 232-6426

“Students in the Immigration Clinic rep- resent vulnerable low-income immigrants from all over the world before the immigration and federal courts and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).”

YMCA of Houston (713) 659-5566

Legal immigration consultations are available on Wednesdays 9am to 3pm on a first come, first serve basis. Doors open at 8am and those seeking a consultation must sign in by 3pm.


Immigrant men, women, and children fleeing violence are highly vulnerable targets in their journey to safety.  TAASA resolves to include those in immigration detention facilities in our advocacy work, recognizes the importance of trauma-informed care, and the importance of survivor-centered strategies necessary to address survivors of sexual assault.

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