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Asylum Fact 4

Last updated: October 6, 2023

4) Harsh Treatment of Asylum Seekers Compounds Trauma

Although experiences vary across detention centers, clients have described particularly troubling treatment when detained in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 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, 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 exacerbates these harms and inflicts new ones.

Policies and practices in recent years have made the U.S. Southern border especially hostile for asylum seekers. Over many years these policies have included use of “hieleras,” or iceboxes, which are short-term detention rooms kept at extremely cold temperatures – cold enough to cause significant distress. In addition, practices have been used including “metering” to significantly limit numbers of people coming in, forcing people to remain on the Mexico side of the border for months, criminal detention under the guise that asylum seekers have entered the country “illegally,” indefinite detention, and many more.

Georgia, where CVT extends care to survivors, is home to some of the nation’s largest and most trouble-plagued detention facilities, including the Stewart County Detention Center and Folkston ICE Processing Center. The facilities have long histories of abuse, excessive use of isolation, medical staff shortages, inadequate health care (which led to unnecessary COVID death and infection during the pandemic) and unsanitary conditions.

Separation of family members at the border has also had negative impacts on people seeking asylum. Highly-traumatized populations are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of detention and separation from their loved ones. Over 20,000 medical and mental health professionals and researchers working in the United States, expressed their deep concern with family separation among asylum seekers, stating 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, family separation in the immigration context takes many forms, including:

  • Border policies that force parents to make an agonizing choice about whether to send their children alone across the border to seek asylum, because unaccompanied children generally have special protections. Some parents 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.

For up-to-date information about the process of seeking asylum, go to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).