Laughing at Death

by Jason Dzubow on January 17, 2014

Last week, two new clients hired me. Each told me a story that ranks among the worst I’ve heard since I’ve been practicing asylum law.

Having a positive attitude is half the battle.

Having a positive attitude is half the battle.

The first was an Iraqi grandmother. Her son worked for an international NGO and the family had received threats because of the son’s work. One day, armed militiamen pulled the son from his car, and shot him to death in front of my client, her daughter-in-law (the son’s wife), and the son’s infant child. Later, the militia bombed my client’s house and killed her elderly mother. Years before, my client lost her husband, when he was killed in a bombing raid during the Iran-Iraq War. My client’s relative/translator explained, “This is Iraq.”

The second client was from Afghanistan, and his story was not directly related to his current asylum claim. He told me that 20 years ago, he was going to a party at his relatives’ house. For some reason, he was delayed, and before he arrived, the house was hit by a missile. He reached the scene moments later, and witnessed horrific carnage (I will spare you the details he told me). Suffice it to say, he saw many relatives and friends dead and dying. At the time, he was a teenager, and what he saw sent him into shock. He was physically unable to offer assistance, and he had to be carried back to his home. Relating the story many years later, he told me how the scene was still perfectly clear in his memory.

One thing that both clients have in common is that they laughed nervously and smiled while telling me their stories.

It seems to me that laughing and smiling in response to these stories is a very human reaction. Perhaps the normal emotions–anger, grief, shock–are simply inadequate to the task of recalling and relating such events. Or maybe my clients’ embarrassed smiles are almost an apology for having to talk about such terrible stories. There probably is no appropriate affect for telling personal stories of senseless violence and life-changing horror, and so maybe the default demeanor is a shy smile or a nervous laugh.

Of course, as an immigration lawyer, I am concerned that an “inappropriate” smile or laugh might create the impression that my clients are not credible. Although they have often reacted this way during our practice sessions, my clients seldom laugh or smile during actual trials or asylum interviews. And even if a client did show an “inappropriate” emotion, I suspect that most decision makers would see the reaction for what it was, and I doubt credibility would be negatively impacted.

I also sometimes wonder about how these stories affect the people that hear them. One study I found about secondary trauma in asylum lawyers found that lawyers were at some risk of secondary trauma, and the risk increased with the amount of time the lawyers worked on asylum cases. Another study, which originally appeared in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal (where I once served as a Senior Notes and Comments Editor), found that Immigration Judges suffered from secondary trauma and “more burnout than has been reported by groups like prison wardens or physicians in busy hospitals.”

I’ve always been a bit skeptical that people in my line of work (or me specifically) suffer from secondary trauma. The difficulty for me comes not from hearing the clients’ stories (which can be upsetting), but rather from overwork. Too many clients expect too much, too quickly. Maybe hearing terrible stories and working with people who have experience real trauma has an effect on us, but it is very hard–for me at least–to see this effect.

But of course, like my clients who laugh when they tell me their stories, I have my own ways of coping with stress. In my first job out of college, I helped find work for recently resettled refugees. Everywhere I went, I asked about employment opportunities. Finally, I decided that I could not continue that way. There was a time for work, and a time for not working. If you can’t separate the two, you ultimately won’t be successful at either. Although it is more difficult now, with my own business, I still try to keep that separation. With that said, I’m off to the pub to do some more coping. Cheers.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Otter February 5, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Ripples Against the Other Shore: The Impact of Trauma Exposure on the Immigration Process Through Adjudicators by Kate Aschenbrenner–2.html


E. Mason February 4, 2014 at 5:32 pm

For info., here’s a list of recent references to reports and journal articles that discuss some of the mental health aspects of the RSD process:


Jason Dzubow February 4, 2014 at 10:37 pm

Thank you


Brian Aust January 22, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Curious what your opinion is of asylum officers? I have long suspected that these people are most likely to be subjected to the type of secondary trauma discussed here. All they hear about all day is trauma, misery and suffering – at some point I suspect anyone in this job would suffer from an inability to sympathize with people they are interviewing – almost become immune or callous to human suffering. As a consequence, they would be rendered incapable of applying the law in an even-handed way. It seems that AO’s should have a maximum shelf life and then be transferred to another division within USCIS as a humanitarian protection against both the officers and the applicants.


Jason Dzubow January 22, 2014 at 5:36 pm

I have not seen any studies on Asylum Officers, but I believe they have training about coping with secondary trauma. I’m not sure I agree that they become immune to the suffering they hear about it. To me, the bigger problem is that they come to believe all cases are fraudulent, and then deny legitimate cases. Of course, ideally, they are simply evaluating the evidence according to the law. Ideally.


Patti Lyman January 21, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Jason, I agree, this type of practice is emotionally draining, especially if it’s 95% asylum, as are my cases are and probably yours, too. Detachment to some degree is absolutely essential. In the case of inappropriate reactions, though, I disagree that they don’t affect credibility, and I am very vigilant about this with my clients. In cases where they can’t seem to overcome it, i have a PTSD eval done to explain whatever impediments they have to telling their story, and I have found that to be quite helpful.


Jason Dzubow January 22, 2014 at 5:29 pm

I think the PTSD eval is good advice, though I generally don’t do that for my cases. Also, I must concede that you are probably more correct than me about credibility. Maybe I wrote that post when I was in a particularly optimistic mood. Keep up the good work…


Jeff Crisp January 21, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Great post! Just tweeted it. Good to see we both cope with stress in the same way (made easier by the fact that there is a bar right next to the Refugees International office). Let me know if you are ever in DC and I will buy you a pint.


Jason Dzubow January 22, 2014 at 5:27 pm

I am in DC. Where’s my pint?


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