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Asylum Fact 6

Last updated: October 6, 2023

6) The Asylum Process in the United States Complicates Healing

Even for those asylum seekers who make it into the United States notwithstanding the many barriers they face, the asylum-seeking process can exacerbate survivors’ suffering and make healing more difficult. Factors that cause this include:

Legal representation, although critical, is often hard to obtain: Individuals represented by counsel are five times more likely to win their cases, and asylum seekers are often aware they are significantly more likely to succeed with representation. However, many private attorneys charge from $5,000 to $10,000, and organizations providing free or low-cost services are overwhelmed by high demand.

Even for the minority of asylum seekers who are able to find counsel, the process can be difficult and stress-inducing.

Asylum seekers must wait before they can work: Even with the help of an attorney, asylum seekers must wait to become eligible for a work permit.  Studies have demonstrated that unemployment negatively affects mental health. Indeed, for many of CVT’s clients – including doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and engineers, as well as others with more modest educational backgrounds – all of whom have suffered unimaginable loss, stable and fulfilling employment is a foundational step in healing and rebuilding their lives.

Lack of access to regular employment also exposes asylum seekers to exploitation and additional trauma as many have no choice but to work “off the books” for little money to afford basic needs—and for those without counsel, potentially an attorney.

The legal process can take years: Most asylum seekers face a years-long and often painful period of waiting. Unless and until they are granted asylum, they cannot bring even immediate family members living abroad into the United States, no matter the degree of danger those family members might face.

“Clients tell us about years of waiting, without their families, without their children,” said Alison Beckman, MSW, LICSW, CVT senior clinician for external relations. “They feel so alone, without hope. The asylum process in the United States is like a void, nothing but waiting.”

Several of CVT’s asylum-seeking clients have described in their own words the anguish associated with family separation of this sort, which is often made worse by uncertainty surrounding their own status in the United States:

  • After five years waiting for asylum without her husband and six children, who had to stay behind in their country in Africa, Mary* told us: “I can’t concentrate. I am depressed and exhausted. How can I stay in this situation? It’s hard to keep living a life interrupted like this. What is my life for, here without my kids?”
  • Adam* described his asylum-seeking process similarly: “It is painful, stressful…. I have had suicidal thoughts at times, living a life without my family, not knowing how long that will be. At the same time, I continue to worry for the safety of my family back home. No guarantee for their safety. My absence puts them at risk. I can’t plan for my future.”

Torture and trauma survivors are forced repeatedly to re-live the trauma associated with their persecution: To develop a strong legal claim, survivors must tell the story of their persecution and suffering over and over—to their lawyer (repeatedly), to an immigration officer, to a doctor conducting a psychological evaluation, and sometimes in court in response to intrusive and often adversarial questioning by government attorneys and immigration judges. Survivors’ attorneys need to encourage them to remember in detail the pain they suffered so they can draft their clients’ declarations and develop convincing legal arguments (Note: There are effective ways for attorneys to minimize the potential for re-traumatization by working with mental health providers.)

Clients often must also participate in – if not lead – the evidence gathering process for their cases; asylum officers and immigration judges typically expect “hard evidence” of asylum seekers’ persecution, but most refugees flee without being able to give much thought to anything other than staying alive. As a result, they have little to no evidence beyond their word and the signs of past torture left on their body and mind. While testimony by medical and psychological experts that corroborates asylum seekers’ claims of human cruelty and abuse can strengthen their cases, these assessments are hard to obtain, with limited numbers of health professionals trained and willing to do them on a pro bono basis. Asylum seekers must look for other evidence by contacting individuals back in their home countries, which is expensive, time consuming and sometimes dangerous.

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

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