Asylum Fact 4 | Center for Victims of Torture

Asylum Fact 4

4. Harsh Treatment of Asylum Seekers Compounds Trauma

Although experiences vary across detention centers, clients have described particularly troubling treatment when detained at the U.S. Southern border. According to Dr. Adaobi Iheduru, clinic manager and psychologist at CVT Georgia, nearly all of CVT’s clients who arrived via the U.S. Southern border were detained. Many have recounted horrific experiences while in detention including receiving inadequate food and water, as well as unresponsiveness to requests for medical care. 

Many of the people arriving at U.S. borders have already survived deeply traumatic experiences. Indeed, as noted previously, per CVT’s own research, as many as 44 percent of refugees living in the U.S. are torture survivors. Other studies indicate a similar torture prevalence rate among forced migrants in high income countries. Harsh treatment at borders exacerbates these harms and inflicts new ones.   

Recent policies and practices have made the Southern U.S. border especially hostile for asylum seekers:

  • Anti-immigrant COVID-19 response measures: On March 24, 2020 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) published a final interim rule effectively allowing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to close U.S. borders to asylum seekers using COVID-19 as a pretext.  The order, which has since been extended indefinitely, allows the rapid deportation or “expulsion” of individuals seeking asylum without requiring a humanitarian relief screening, which means that many survivors of torture and other trauma, including unaccompanied minors, are summarily returned to the danger from which they fled. Public health professionals and medical experts nationwide – including in Georgia, a state widely-recognized as a global center for public health and home to the CDC – have opposed the use of public health authority to justify politically-motivated asylum bans.
  • Cruel and unlawful border policies:  The Trump administration has long obstructed asylum seekers from accessing ports of entry by turning them away outright or significantly limiting the number who can enter each day (a practice known as “metering”). It has now implemented additional policies and practices at the border meant to deter people fleeing torture and persecution from seeking asylum in the U.S. Not surprisingly, these deterrence policies and practices force more asylum seekers to cross the border irregularly, further exposing them to human trafficking, to sexual assault, or to getting lost in the desert. These policies include:
    • In January 2019, the Trump administration began to implement the Migrant Protection Protocols – known more commonly as MPP or “Remain in Mexico” – a policy that returns Central American asylum seekers to Mexico to wait during the pendency of their asylum cases. As of August, 2020, large numbers of individuals seeking refuge have been living in dangerous Mexican border cities for over a year, and many have been kidnapped, assaulted, and tortured. During the COVID-19 crisis, the wait has become longer and more dangerous as the pandemic has led to the closure of MPP courts and shelters. In the best of circumstances, individuals live in crowded shelters with limited hygiene, while others have had to roam the streets. 
    • In October 2019, the Trump administration launched two programs to more easily remove individuals seeking asylum. These are the Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP). Both programs are designed to remove individuals without giving them meaningful opportunities to consult with attorneys, and both otherwise strip asylum seekers of due process during the first step in their asylum case, the credible fear interview. The two programs are identical, except that Mexicans are subject to HARP, while nationals of others countries are subject to PACR.
    • The Trump administration abused its global power and privilege by exerting diplomatic pressure on El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to enter into Asylum Cooperative Agreements—also disingenuously known as “safe” third country agreements. Under the agreements, the administration sends asylum seekers to these countries forcing them to seek refuge there, even when a significant number of them are escaping from criminal groups that have reach in the regions covered by these three countries, among other known dangers.
  • Detention at the Border: The first destination for individuals crossing the Southern border irregularly, including those with minor children, is the hielera, or “icebox”—known as such because of the cold conditions in these short-term Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention centers. In some facilities, there are no windows and the lights are on twenty-four hours per day. Immigration detention, even for short duration, is particularly harmful for survivors of torture. As CVT clinicians have explained previously: the presence of uniformed personnel and guns, being handcuffed and shackled, institutional surroundings and other detention experiences are acutely triggering, bringing the original torture experience back to mind. As CVT has reported, detention of torture survivors can bring back a “profound sense of powerlessness and loss of sense of self, contributing to further psychological damage.” Many asylum seekers coming to the U.S. had no idea they would be handcuffed and put in prison-like cells once at the border. As Habtamu* told CVT in 2013, “I’m not a criminal. I didn’t expect to be held like a criminal.”
  • Criminal Prosecution: Historically the U.S. has criminally prosecuted individuals for having multiple “unlawful” entries into the country. But in April, 2018, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance policy,” ordering prosecutors along the border to prosecute to the extent possible anyone who crossed the border irregularly, including asylum seekers. Not only is prosecuting asylum seekers for irregular entry a violation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol – a treaty the United States helped lead efforts to draft and the provisions of which the U.S. is bound by ratifying its Protocol – but also the policy led to family separation on a massive scale. As explained below, the devastating consequences of forcibly taking children from their parents are still being felt. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General and other organizations, some separations continue.  
  • Indefinite detention and threat of contracting COVID-19: Detention that is indefinite in nature, which is typically the case in the immigration context, is even more damaging. An increasing number of adult asylum seekers who overcome border policies designed to rapidly remove them to Mexico, Central America, or back to their own country, are kept in detention while their asylum cases are pending, which can last many years. Although the agency in charge of detaining asylum seekers has full discretion to release the vast majority of them, most often they remain detained. The many factors that impact the length of their detention are out of the individual’s control and may not be understood, especially when language and cultural barriers are present. This uncertainty, particularly when prolonged, can cause such severe and protracted health problems that it rises to the level of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and can seriously harm even healthy individuals.

    Today, torture survivors held in detention today must cope with the additional threat of COVID-19, which has spread rapidly throughout Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities nationwide. Survivors and others held in these facilities have pled for better health and safety protections, including face masks, soap and improved social distancing. There have been hunger strikes and protests met with tear gas and rubber bullets.

    Georgia, where CVT provides services to survivors, is home to some of the nation’s largest and most trouble-plagued detention facilities, including Stewart Detention Center and the Irwin County Detention Center.  The facilities have long histories of medical staff shortages, inadequate health care and unsanitary conditions that have endangered people long before the current pandemic and continue today. There have been hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 cases at ICE facilities in Georgia alone and, at Stewart, three individuals have died from the disease, including two men who were medically vulnerable to the virus, due to their older age and underlying illness, and were still not protected or released.

    In September 2020, a nurse at Irwin and several detained women alleged a pattern of gross medical abuse and neglect at that facility that shocked the nation, including reports that women were subjected to unnecessary hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures without their informed consent. The allegations implicate the United States’ obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As the United Nations special rapporteur on torture has made clear, “medical treatments of an intrusive and irreversible nature, when lacking a therapeutic purpose, may constitute torture or ill-treatment when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person concerned.”

  • Separation or threat of separation of children from parents: Highly-traumatized populations are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of detention and separation from their loved ones. In a letter to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, over 20,000 medical and mental health professionals and researchers working in the United States (including Dr. Andrea Northwood, LP, CVT director of client services), stated that “[t]he relationship of parents and children is the strongest social tie most people experience, and a threat to that tie is among the most traumatic events people can experience.” Although family separation came into the public eye in 2018 due to the separation of children from their parents at the border – caused by the “zero tolerance” policy mentioned above – family separation in the immigration context takes many forms:
    • Families are separated when border officials choose to put only some members of a family in the “Remain in Mexico” program, while detaining others in the United States.
    • Asylum seekers who are parents trapped in Mexican border cities pursuant to the “Remain in Mexico” policy have to make an agonizing choice about whether to send their children alone across the border, to give them a better chance at safety, because unaccompanied children generally have special protections. Some understandably make that choice.
    • When ICE detains individuals living in the interior of the U.S. – who in many cases have been in the country for years – families are separated for long periods, which can cause significant emotional pain and financial hardship.
    • In June 2020, the judge presiding over the case that sets national standards regarding the detention, release, and treatment of all immigrant children – known as the Flores Settlement Agreement – ordered ICE to release children detained with their families due to the risk that COVID-19 poses for them.  Although ICE officials have discretion to release the parents with their children, they are making parents choose between waiving their children’s rights under Flores or releasing their children only, leading to their separation.   


Read all Eight Facts about Refugees and Asylum Seekers here.

*Names and some details have been changed for security and confidentiality.


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