Where Are They Now? Immigration Course Alumni Advocate for Refugees on the Border

Porter (left) and Casey at The Florence Project.

Porter (left) and Casey at The Florence Project in Florence, Arizona.

Back in 2014, BCSSW alumni Kaitlin Porter and Liz Casey traveled to Italy together as part of Associate Professor Westy Egmont’s summer course on immigrant integration.

Over the course of three weeks, Liz and Kaitlin and their classmates visited with social workers, academics, and government officials in Venice, Verona, Milan, and Rome. They also met with U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Boston College alum Ken Hackett. 

“This trip provided us with a great opportunity to see first hand some of the efforts being made to integrate refugee populations into Italian life,” Kaitlin told BC Social Work at the time. “We spoke with people who are on the ground, doing the actual work necessary to make the transition to a new country a smoother process.”

Fast forward two years, and Kaitlin and Liz are just as inseparable as they were during their shared travels across Italy, and they’re also still devoted to learning more about how to advocate for refugees in their roles as MSWs. The main difference now, is, they’re professional social workers employed by an organization at the U.S./Mexico border called The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.

In this Q&A with Innovate, Liz and Kaitlin discuss their shared interest in immigrant integration, how they both arrived at The Florence Project, and their hopes for effecting change into the future.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Let’s start by hearing a little bit about what it is you do at the Florence Project. 

Kaitlin Porter: First off, the Florence Project is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal and social services to detained adults and unaccompanied children facing removal proceedings in Arizona.

Our clients have experienced a great deal of trauma in their lives, either in their home country, on their journey to the United States, or while here living in the U.S. and many of them are now struggling to deal with that trauma, plus the additional trauma caused by detention, while they are awaiting legal decisions that will affect their futures.

My position here is social services coordinator, where I oversee social services being provided to detained adults and unaccompanied minors. We provide a wide range of direct services, from helping refugees find shelter, to connecting individuals to the mental health services they may need, to enrolling kids in school. We also work directly with the organization’s legal director on advocacy issues.

Liz Casey: I’m an integrated social services social worker, where I work directly with adults who are currently housed at the detention centers in Florence and Eloy. A large part of my job is to provide services to those with serious mental health needs, but I also work with people with a wide range of severe medical problems. We also provide other services to support to our organization’s lawyers, for instance to develop release plans for clients so that they may be better prepared and connected to the resources they need upon release from detention.

How did you both end up at The Florence Project?

LC: Growing up, I had family living in the Tucson area, and my visits with them, coupled with an undergraduate education at Boston College focused on peace and justice and Hispanic studies, instilled a desire to work for social justice at the border. After my junior year, I also volunteered with a nonprofit educational organization called Border Links in the Tucson area; this experience further opened my eyes to the need for qualified, passionate social workers focusing on the social justice issues in this part of the world.

Porter and Casey at the Coliseum in Rome during Professor Egmont's immigrant integration course in 2014.

Porter and Casey at the Coliseum in Rome during Professor Egmont’s immigrant integration course in 2014.

During my MSW studies at BCSSW, Kait and I both took the immigrant and refugee issues class and we also went to Italy with Professor Egmont for a course on immigrant integration there. These experiences only solidified my interest in working with immigrant and refugee communities.

KP: Like Liz, my undergraduate studies helped to influence my career path. I was an International Relations and Spanish double major, and I also minored in Latin American studies. After working a few years in various sectors, I realized that I wanted to work in direct service, and this is what led me to social work, and BCSSW.

This position at the Florence Project offers me the perfect opportunity to combine my interests and background in both the micro and macro. Though the Florence Project has provided some social services in the past, our current program, staffed with several trained MSW’s, is a new model in which we provide direct services to people on the ground, collaborate with attorneys for best practices on meeting client needs, and have the opportunity to develop a sustainable and replicable social services program.

What has it meant to work directly with a fellow BCSSW alumna?

LC: We’re three social workers (Kait, myself, and another colleague who is not from BCSSW) who have been tasked with creating a new program almost from scratch. It’s been extremely helpful to do this with someone I know so well. We understand each other’s values, and how to support each other, and there’s an incredible level of mutual respect.

KP: I completely agree. Even beyond work, to be in a new place, at a new job, with new tasks, and to have someone you know by your side, and with whom you’ve already worked and studied, it makes such a positive difference.

What do you hope to accomplish together in the near future at The Florence Project?

LC: I’m lucky to have started my career here; I truly believe this is one of the best places I could have chosen to work. I’m actually a little bit worried this will turn out to be my dream job, already! My hopes are what they were when I arrived – I want to get to know the immigrant community of Arizona and help those families that need the support the most, but also, I want to bring the realities of immigrant integration to the fore, and work on a national level towards positively influencing policy. I’d like to stay here long enough to see our program become sustainable, and perhaps include even more social workers. I hope we can train our successors if we ever decide to leave.

Of course, I’m not in a hurry to do that. Everyone here is so passionate, and we’re truly a community, a team in the middle of the desert surrounded by roadrunners and tumbleweed, devoted to making a difference.

KP: Liz is right, we’re a part of something special here. But also, our work is so difficult, so raw, so personal. We chose to be on the front lines of this issue, and I feel lucky to be able to be so passionate about my work. For BC students who may be graduating this May, my advice is to understand what you are passionate about, and go after jobs related to this passion. That is what I have at the Florence Project.

It may sound simple and idealistic, but if we can tell the stories of those people who are living in detention along our borders and the traumas they face both at home and in the United States, but also, the hopes they have for their futures as Americans, I think we can bridge the gap between current standards of care and what is humane.

Like Liz, I’d love to see our program grow, because I believe that, the more social workers who are engaged in addressing issues around immigrant integration, the better chance we have to create real and lasting change.

Where Are They Now? is a recurring feature at Innovate designed to provide an opportunity for us all to remember, and rediscover, those who have walked the halls of McGuinn.  

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