Professor Michael O'Loughlin, PhD, leads the Adelphi Asylum Project.

HealthRight International gives human rights award to faculty- and PhD candidate-led effort to assist immigrants fleeing homeland persecution.

As many as 100,000 immigrants come to the United States every year seeking political asylum. All too often, they are turned away, unable to convincingly plead their cases. Since 2017, Michael O’Loughlin, PhD—a professor in both the Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology and the Ruth S. Ammon College of Education and Health Sciences—and a select group of Adelphi psychology PhD and PsyD students have been working with some of those immigrants to build their cases and save them from deportation to potential persecution and death.

Their good work hasn’t gone unnoticed. On June 7, the Derner School of Psychology received the HealthRight International Peter C. Alderman Health and Human Rights Community Partner Award for the work of the Adelphi Asylum Project. Olena Zelenska, first lady of Ukraine, was named the recipient of the Leadership Award for her efforts to uplift women and children and her dedication to improving the mental health conditions in her war-torn country.

Dr. O’Loughlin has been volunteering with HealthRight since 2005, conducting forensic evaluations with asylum seekers and making initial diagnoses for such qualifying conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder and indications of torture. He also writes affidavits to be presented in court on behalf of those seeking to legally immigrate. According to Dr. O’Loughlin, 10 to 15 percent of immigrants seeking refugee status are successful in their cases without representation. That figure rises dramatically, to 90-95 percent, when asylum seekers apply with a case prepared by psychological and medical professionals and supported by pro bono attorneys, he said.

“You can’t become an asylum seeker unless you have a credible fear of returning to your country,” he said.

Training students as forensic evaluators and expert witnesses

In 2017, Dr. O’Loughlin proposed to HealthRight that they use Adelphi students to help with the intake process. He trained five faculty members to work with students, preparing them to take on responsibility for clinical supervision. Some students have even had the opportunity to testify in court with the results of their diagnoses. Dr. O’Loughlin has also trained students in the language department to help with interpretation for Spanish-speaking asylum seekers.

The Adelphi Asylum Project has provided assistance to more than 100 immigrants to date. The effort has been supported by two $50,000 grants from the William E. and Maude S. Pritchard Charitable Trust for services to undocumented migrant children and families on Long island.

From immigrant roots to an unusual professorship

Dr. O’Loughlin is himself an immigrant, a voluntary exile from Ireland who left to study psychology in America. He is quick to point out that his situation was very different than those of his clients, but at the same time, he said, it gives him some understanding of what they’re going through.

He’s also one of the few professors at Adelphi teaching in more than one department. While he started in the Ruth S. Ammon College of Education and Health Sciences, with the expansion of the PsyD degree program, he started teaching in Derner as well, and in 2017 he initiated a new doctoral-level course on migration and displacement trauma.

“It’s given me a chance to work with advanced students working on their PhDs,” he said, “so that’s terrific.”

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