Justice for Migrant Women Opens the Conversation About Migrant Women’s Mental Health in the Workplace

Justice for Migrant Women BELatina Latinx
Image courtesy of Justice for Migrant Women

Talking about mental health has no time or date on the calendar. Conversations regarding mental health requires hard personal and collective work to make visible and help heal our community — especially our migrant community.

To that end, Justice for Migrant Women has decided to open the dialogue and put the experiences of migrant women in the workplace, their obstacles, and their battles with mental health on a virtual roundtable.

One week after Mental Health Action Day, the organization has convened workers, mental health experts, public officials, activists, and allies to discuss the urgency of prioritizing the mental health of women who migrate for work.

“I think that when we come to the United States with a temporary work visa, sometimes employers think that they own you and that they can do with you what they want because you belong to them,” Lila Ortiz, a migrant Veterinarian in Oklahoma with a TN (Trade NAFTA) Visa, told BELatina. “I didn’t feel like a worker, I felt like a slave, and they treated me as a slave.”

“I wish they didn’t have so much power that it [wasn’t] up to them how they can fire you unjustly and take away your immigration status,” Lila added. “Since we don’t understand the legal system in the United States, it can be hard to find someone to help us figure out if it was justified. And it takes such a long time to figure everything out. Meanwhile, you are fired and are left without immigration status.”

Several studies worldwide have found that multiple factors play a role in the mental health of migrant workers. Although they have greater resilience and a higher level of emotional intelligence, the trauma of the migration process and working conditions contribute to the deterioration of the mental health of many immigrants.

If untreated, mental health issues in migrant and refugee populations, including post-traumatic stress disorder, can lead to chronic health problems even after resettling in a new country, Edgar Jones, professor in the history of medicine and psychiatry at King’s College London, told U.S. News. “If trauma is not addressed in a reasonable amount of time, people begin to suppress the traumatic memories in order to be able to cope on a daily basis,” he says. “This takes a lot of energy, so the trauma tends to re-emerge in physical form as headaches, bodily pains, poor sleep, irritability, difficulty concentrating.”

“I’ve had three TN visas, the first two affected me a lot psychologically, and the third time I decided not [even to go] because I saw it was going to be the same thing, and I didn’t want to continue this history of abuse,” Lila Ortiz told us. “I am a veterinarian, and this affected me so much in my work that afterward, I couldn’t even hear an animal’s heartbeat. The sound made me very nervous, and I felt as if someone was about to hurt me or as if something was about to happen.”

To help people like Lila, Justice for Migrant Women launched “Healing Voices,” a new and unique idea that seeks to address mental health by healing personal and community trauma as a necessary step in empowering farmworkers to be drivers of change.

With funding support from The Workers Lab Innovation Fund and the Collective Future Fund, Justice for Migrant Women is working in partnership with the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA), the Eva Longoria Foundation (ELF), and Latinx Therapy to pilot this first-of-its-kind mental health initiative for farmworkers.

“For me, the ‘Healing Voices’ program was a very important and crucial tool to get me out of a very strong depression derived from COVID 19 that led to family and work problems,” Cinthya Be, an agricultural migrant in California, told BELatina. “Thanks to the program, today I can say that I have been able to get out of that depression, and I learned to work with the tools I have at my fingertips to be able to face different obstacles both personally and at work.”

Now, one year after the launch of the “Healing Voices” program, the organization has decided to open the conversation much further.

The Justice for Migrant Women roundtable will be held this Thursday, May 26, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor and streamed virtually on Facebook.

Migrant women workers will be in conversation with the Director of the Women’s Bureau, Wendy Chun-Hoon. This event will offer shared learning opportunities as women workers will offer testimonials and proposed solutions. Similarly, DOL leaders will share what they are doing to ensure that health and safety measures include mental and physical health. Attendees will also have the opportunity to participate in a question-and-answer session with DOL officials.

“Ongoing accountability is critical, which means facilitating the connection between the DOL and impacted communities as much as possible,” Mónica Ramírez, founder of Justice for Migrant Women, told BELatina. “We are grateful for this partnership with the Women’s Bureau during Mental Health Awareness Month, and we also know this is just part of the work that we’ll be doing together throughout the year. Change and accountability require dedication and also ensuring that the people to whom the DOL should be accountable are supported in that process.”