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Asylum Fact 4

Last updated: July 19, 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, 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 exacerbates these harms and inflicts new ones.

Policies and practices in recent years have made the Southern U.S. border especially hostile for asylum seekers:

  • Anti-immigrant COVID-19 response measures under the Title 42 ban: 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 was repeatedly upheld, allowed the rapid deportation or “expulsion” of individuals seeking asylum without requiring a humanitarian relief screening, which meant that many survivors of torture and other trauma, including unaccompanied minors, were 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 – opposed the use of public health authority to justify politically-motivated asylum bans. Although the Biden-Harris administration promised to “reassert America’s commitment to asylum seekers and refugees” it took an extremely long time to eliminate this barrier.
  • Cruel and unlawful border policies: The Trump administration 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 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 forced 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:
  • Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP): In January 2019, the Trump administration designed and 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. While the Biden administration started the MPP wind down in February 2021—allowing many in the program to pursue their asylum claim inside the U.S.—due to a court decision the administration re-started the program. Shockingly, the administration chose to expand the program to include all citizens of Western Hemisphere Countries. Even if the Biden administration has taken some steps to diminish the damage of the policy, the core of the policy is plagued by due process violations and people are still exposed to danger and discrimination in Mexico.
  • Detention by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 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 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 prosecutions: 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 to which the U.S. is bound by ratifying its Protocol – but also the policy led to family separations on a massive scale. As explained below, the devastating consequences of forcibly taking children from their parents are still being felt. Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration ordered the creation of the Interagency Task Force for Family Reunification (Task Force), to address the “human tragedy that occurred when U.S. immigration laws were used to intentionally separate children from their parents or legal guardians.” CVT provided input in January 2022 as a response to a request by the Task Force regarding how to prevent family separations.
  • 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 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. Likewise, because detained immigrants are often held in detention facilities far from their family members, or in remote locations that are difficult to access, immigration detention often results in family separation, which itself has a devastating impact on families. When an individual is detained, it might mean that a family lost someone providing social and financial support, which can create social, mental and financial strain on their family members, including children.

In recent years, torture survivors held in detention were forced to cope with the additional threat of COVID-19, which spread rapidly throughout Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities nationwide. Survivors and others held in these facilities pled for better health and safety protections, including face masks, soap and improved social distancing. At the height of the pandemic, there were hunger strikes and protests met with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Georgia, where CVT extends care 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 were hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 cases at ICE facilities in Georgia alone and, at Stewart, individuals 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 past United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, 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.”

As of December 2021, the Biden administration discontinued the practice of detaining families in ICE facilities for periods beyond the initial custody by CBP of 72 hours. The shift goes along with an increase in the use of “tracking technology” by ICE, which includes the use of ankle bracelets.

  • 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, former 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 chose to put only some members of a family in the “Remain in Mexico” or Title 42 programs, while detaining others in the United States.
  • Asylum seekers who are parents trapped in Mexican border cities pursuant to the “Remain in Mexico” or Title 42 policies had 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.