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Fellowship Highlights IIL's First Year

Lyndsey McMahan was the inaugural Immigrant Integration Lab Fellow. (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Jan. 16, 2014

Officially launched during the 2012-13 academic year, the Graduate School of Social Work’s Immigrant Integration Lab — which provides resources, studies and leadership for efforts on immigrant integration — has enjoyed a productive first year: Its activities included helping sponsor major campus events such as a naturalization ceremony held as part of the University’s Sesquicentennial celebration, and a seminar on opportunities and obstacles for immigrant children in education.

Another major IIL initiative saw the awarding of the first Immigrant Integration Lab Fellowship to Lyndsey McMahan MSW ’14. A native of Ardmore, Okla., McMahan worked with Lutheran Social Services (LSS) immigrant legal services and their staff attorney Erin Fricker, a 2010 Law School alumna, to identify resources for meeting basic needs of formerly detained asylum applicants.

McMahan, who completed her term as IIL Fellow last fall, said the experience offered a disquieting insight into the lives of those who are caught in a bureaucratic limbo.

“We have this large population of people without any kind of status,” said McMahan, interviewed before she left earlier this month for a semester in Cambodia. “They are out of detention and have been allowed to remain in the US, but have virtually no access to benefits or resources for essentials like housing.

“As IIL Fellow, my mission was to collaborate with Erin to assess the needs of asylum seekers, find out who has the information or services that can meet those needs, and determine what can be done to improve the means through which these are provided. The aim is to create a system that works here in Massachusetts and can be replicated in other states that have a high volume of immigrants.”

As her stint with LSS made abundantly clear, immigration issues don’t always come in neat, uncomplicated packages, said McMahan. One client she worked with, a native of Nigeria seeking asylum, had lost his family to an attack by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram; already at risk himself for “looking Western,” he kept a secret with potentially devastating consequences — he was gay. According to McMahan, he had come to the US to stay with a man he had met while working on a cruise ship, “but there had been some miscommunication, and he wound up being detained for seven months because he had no family in the US.”

McMahan tried to help her client cut through the red tape, but he seemed stuck in a bad-luck/good-luck cycle: Although his case was delayed until 2015, he was able to get work authorization — and then he encountered difficulty in obtaining a Social Security card. 

“It’s just not easy to navigate the system,” said McMahan. “He is at least fortunate in that English is his primary language; for those who are less fluent, the difficulties are that much greater.”

Having been a community health worker in Zambia with the Peace Corps and a social work professional in Boston prior to enrolling at GSSW, McMahan — who is enrolled in the Global Practice concentration — has found the school’s broad-based, world-view focus a perfect fit for her. “What you come away with is a human-rights concept of social work — the view that food, shelter and clothing are essential human needs a social worker must help ensure are met.

“One of the most critical skills you must have in social work is a basic one: being able to sit and listen. That is something I learned as Immigrant Integration Lab Fellow, and I will always be grateful for this opportunity.”

 IIL Director Westy Egmont said McMahan was an appropriate selection for the inaugural IIL Fellow.

“In a very competitive pool of applicants, Lyndsey stood out for her experience, especially with her time in the Peace Corps. We needed someone self-sufficient who could help us in creating a new venture, and who was open to learning what would work in a situation with few precedents.

“As IIL Fellow, Lyndsey recognized that effective advocacy requires an understanding of how the law can sometimes work in conflict with human needs. Passing on the lessons learned from her experiences will surely be helpful to all who work with persons applying for asylum — a population of some 35,000 per year.

“This was an important step in deepening our partnership with LSS, and also establishing the lab as an applied research center. We want to continue exploring the needs of the immigrant community, and with a significant interest in the role of the faith community in supporting newcomers and acting as a connector to wider society.”

For more on the Immigrant Integration Lab, see