The importance of restoring asylum is easy to see

The importance of restoring asylum is easy to see
© Getty Images

A young man came to our asylum clinic a while ago and, even though I’ve been evaluating torture victims for years, his story was especially harrowing. As gangs in his Central American country hunted, captured and then tortured this young man, his fear and desperation grew. Only when the specter of imminent death became undeniable did he flee the country he loved for the United States.

He’s not alone. Around the world, record numbers of individuals continue to be displaced as they flee torture, violence and human rights violations. Yet for the past four years, these people were not welcomed in America because of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance — despite our nation’s longstanding international commitments, legal obligations and traditions of providing refuge to those subjected to persecution. 

In recent months, thousands of unaccompanied children with experiences like the young man I met have come to the southern border fleeing danger. The Biden administration has said it is attempting to meet their needs in a humane way. It won’t be easy. But with this new administration, it’s time for the legislative, judicial and executive branches to restore the fundamental tradition that has been the cornerstone of the lives of many Americans


Gaining asylum is difficult. But it should be possible again for those whose lives are endangered in their home countries. 

The Trump administration attempted to systematically dismantle asylum in the U.S. Joe Biden spoke forcefully during his campaign about the need to change how we view and treat individuals fleeing persecution. As president, he has begun to reverse executive orders that interfered with torture survivors’ ability to access asylum and has demonstrated a commitment to reinstating and reforming asylum for those who are persecuted and seek safety here, as supported by numerous U.S. laws and international treaties. President BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: White House thinks extending student loan pause is a 'bad look' Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Former New York state Senate candidate charged in riot MORE also emphasizes the urgent need to reunify families separated as they pursued asylum.

I work with people who have been hurt by these policies. As a physician in the field of asylum medicine, I perform medical forensic evaluations to document scars of torture in asylum seekers and write a medical-legal affidavit that becomes part of evidence presented to immigration officials. For years, I have observed the difficulty that these vulnerable people experience as they seek safety in the U.S. Their hopes for asylum diminished dramatically with each year since 2016 as barriers to asylum were put in place. Most poignantly, I saw children separated at the southern border from their parents who had journeyed to the U.S. to protect their families.  

In my role as an asylum medicine evaluator, I don’t advocate for individual asylum seekers. But as a doctor and concerned American, I strongly support a just and evidence-based asylum policy. Physicians have been at the forefront of documenting many of the most egregious harms that have resulted from cruel policies, including the effects of the family separation

Providing asylum for suffering individuals has always been challenging. Irish immigrants were denigrated in the 19th century, and we turned away Jewish people desperate to enter this country during World War II. Some of my own ancestors fled dire circumstances in Italy in the 1870s and found safety, freedom and eventual prosperity. Anti-immigrant rhetoric remains common today and asylum seekers are vilified when, in fact, many are net contributors to the U.S. economy


Such outrage is ironic when it comes from many of those who one, two or three generations ago sought the same safety in this country. People in life-threatening circumstances are reaching for this protection today, with no guarantees as they navigate a complex immigration system and prove their past persecution. They don’t ask for special treatment; instead, they hope to be given a chance to seek the protection that this country has offered to countless migrants in the past.  

It will be a daunting endeavor to restore an equitable and manageable asylum system and to convince others of the value of doing so. For the asylum system to be effective and fair, physicians who play a unique role will be key, along with others, to seeing that the long tradition of supporting asylum seekers in their quest for safety in the U.S. is reestablished.  

Katherine McKenzie, M.D., FACP, is the director of Yale Center for Asylum Medicine, a founder of the Society of Asylum Medicine, a board member of the Society of Refugee Healthcare Providers and the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, and a medical expert at Physicians for Human Rights. Follow her on Twitter @KMcKenzieYCAM.