The nomination of Jeh Johnson to serve as Secretary of the Department Homeland Security (DHS) presents a new opportunity to reinvigorate the agency’s resolve to make much-needed immigration detention reforms and commit itself to improving the egregious conditions at holding cells along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Senators should press Johnson to make these important issues top priorities upon his confirmation.

In 2009, DHS and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) committed to overhaul the immigration detention system and began to take several steps to “enhance the security and efficiency of ICE’s nationwide detention system while prioritizing the health and safety of detainees.”


Unfortunately, after four years, the system remains deeply flawed for vulnerable asylum seekers who have fled their home countries because of torture and persecution. Torture survivors seeking asylum in the United States continue to suffer inhumane treatment at the border and languish in immigration detention facilities, despite the availability of less costly but highly effective alternatives to detention programs.

As a party to the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the United States has procedures in place to ensure we do not return refugees to countries in which they fear religious, political, ethnic, and other forms of persecution. Nevertheless, the harsh treatment they endure at the border and in immigration detention may lead survivors to relive their torture and suffer further psychological damage, all while impeding their ability to navigate the complex asylum process and obtain protection.

Tortured & Detained: Survivor Stories of U.S. Immigration Detention, a new report from the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) and the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), estimates that in less than three years the United States has detained 6,000 survivors of torture as they fled for their lives and arrived here in need of protection. In a series of interviews with asylum seekers and torture survivors who were held in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding cells and in detention facilities used by ICE, staff from CVT and TASSC heard harrowing stories of fear, isolation, confusion, and dread. 

The report sheds light on the impact of the detention experience on survivors of torture or severe trauma who recall being shocked upon being arrested in the United States, a place perceived as providing “safety” and “protection.” They felt dehumanized by the conditions under which they were held, particularly in CBP holding cells where the temperatures are painfully cold and they have no privacy—even when using the toilet.  They were deeply confused about their situation and in agony at the indefinite nature of their time in detention, as they are provided with little or no information about when, if, or how they will be released. Throughout the process, they were all terrified at the possibility of being returned to the place of their torture or the country in which they fear persecution. These experiences may trigger additional chronic emotional distress, exacerbating symptoms of anxiety and depression often already present in torture survivors.

While it appears unlikely comprehensive immigration reform will proceed during the remainder of 2013, there are immediate steps that the Administration and Congress can take to lessen the harmful impact of detention on torture survivors and improve the immigration detention system overall.

DHS can start by issuing regulations establishing basic minimum standards of care at all CBP facilities. These standards should include maintaining proper temperatures, limiting the use of shackles, and providing individuals in custody with basic information about immigration law and processes. DHS can also cease using actual prisons and jails for immigration detention purposes and make more effective use of community based alternatives to detention programs, including those that offer case management services and shelter options. 

Congress should eliminate “mandatory” detention and end ICE’s requirement to detain a set number of individuals on a daily basis so that detention decisions can be made on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, Congress should expand the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) nationwide so that individuals in detention can receive basic information about their options and increase funding for torture survivor rehabilitation to help survivors and their families recover from their wounds, enabling them to participate and contribute fully in family, community, and economic life.

Sovcik is director of the Washington Office at the Center for Victims of Torture, an international nongovernmental organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota and dedicated to healing survivors of torture and violent conflict and to advocating for human rights and an end to torture.