Yet, the problems of the current asylum process have caused further harm to this vulnerable population who seek protection and freedom. The challenges can further exacerbate the severe mental health symptoms of the torture survivors we treat, thus making their healing more difficult.
Extended delays in the immigration court process leave torture survivors in limbo with significant human costs, sometimes for years, as they wait for the opportunity to present their claim to an immigration judge. During this time, they are often separated from family members who may be in danger overseas and they live in constant fear of being returned to the hands of their torturers. For asylum seekers facing the possibility of return, there is no “P” in PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). They can’t heal because they are not safe. The trauma is ongoing.
Overly broad definitions of terrorist organization and terrorist activity in the immigration laws have devastated refugees, asylum seekers and their families by labeling individuals who are not guilty of any wrongdoing as “terrorists” and barring them from protection in the United States. These provisions are intended to serve a critically important goal of preventing terrorists and their supporters from claiming refugee or asylum status in the United States.
Unfortunately, the result has been that many refugees and asylum seekers have been barred from protection in the United States even though they may have been victims of violent groups.
Immigration reform should address the flaws in these laws by refining them to target the dangerous individuals they were intended to bar, not refugees and asylum seekers who were, for example, forced against their will to provide food, shelter, or other coerced “support” to terrorist groups.
Each year, thousands of asylum seekers and survivors of torture have their claims to asylum denied or delayed solely on account of a technical filing deadline and without regard to the merits of their underlying claim to asylum and need for protection. Immigration reform should eliminate this procedural hurdle.
The Obama Administration has stated its commitment to working with Congress to eliminate the deadline, acknowledging it does not serve any functional purpose and, rather, creates major inefficiencies in the asylum adjudication process and harms many of the people the asylum system was designed to protect.
Finally, immigration detention has a particularly detrimental impact on survivors of torture. In the over 33,000 beds and over 250 different facilities the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses on a daily basis, immigration detainees, including survivors of torture, are forced to wear prison jumpsuits, kept in a “pod” with other detainees for up to 23 hours a day, given little or no access to the outdoors, held by jailers who do not speak their language, and isolated from legal counsel. This treatment is highly retraumatizing for torture survivors, and may actually lead them to relive their experience of torture.
When torture survivors come to the United States in search of protection, they are seeking healing and protection from those responsible for their torture.
The United States has a system designed to provide that save haven but that system is badly broken and in need of urgent repair. These challenges should be addressed as a matter of urgency as the White House and Congress take on immigration reform.
Goering is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, an international nongovernmental organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota and dedicated to healing victims of torture.