New report “Tortured & Detained – Survivor Stories of U.S. Immigration Detention” via @cvt_staff, @TASSCintl & @UUSC
via Annie Sovcik, The Center for Victims of Torture,
Today, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) in partnership with the Torture Abolition Survivor Support Coalition International (TASSC) and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) released a report, “Tortured & Detained: Survivor Stories of U.S. Immigration Detention.” To view the report, please visit CVT’s website. To read an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor by UUSC’s Executive Director, William Schultz, see “Give me your tired, your poor? Asylum-seekers in the US find shackles.”
A short summary of the major findings and recommendations is below.
As they flee for their lives, most survivors of torture carry the heavy weight of multiple and cumulative traumas in addition to the on-going traumatic experiences that can be associated with being a refugee. Receiving asylum in the United States can be a lifeline to safety and provide a path to healing. However, when asylum seekers arrive at a U.S. border or port of entry, they are frequently shocked at the treatment they endure upon reaching a perceived destination of safety and protection, as they are arrested, shackled, and confined.
- Beza, a Christian woman fleeing religious persecution in Eritrea, arrived at the U.S. port of entry at Hidalgo, TX, and asked for protection. “I was shocked,” she explained. “I walked to the border to ask for asylum and was put into a small cell with eight people. There was a toilet in the middle. I was there for 24 hours with nothing—no blanket or mattress, just a cement bench. It was so cold.”
- Fahran worked as a translator to the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. He fled to the United States after being targeted for this work. “I was tired, thirsty, hungry, and in bad health conditions, including cuts on my legs that were infected. I was put in a cell for 24 hours, given a little piece of bread and some water. The floor was cement. I was begging for help.” He was detained for 23 months before being granted asylum. During that time he kept thinking, “I was on the frontline for the United States. I left my family, my life, for safety. Now I’m in a cell.” He recalls, “I was so ashamed to tell my family at home I was locked up.”
Asylum seekers describe feeling dehumanized by the conditions under which they are held—both in short-term holding cells managed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and in the detention centers used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE):
- Adama, an asylee from Mali, walked up to a CBP agent at a port of entry. “I came on the bridge and I asked the United States for help,” he said. He was handcuffed and leg-cuffed, then put into a room. “The room was very, very cold,” he said. “I asked for a blanket or something but they refused. I complained about my pain. I pounded on the door and told them I couldn’t stay in that room any more. It was too cold. But they kept me there for two days.”
They recall an utter state of confusion and isolation they feel as they are held with limited access to information about their situation and without knowledge of when—or if—they will be released:
- Habtamu, an asylee from Eritrea, waited one month and two weeks for his credible fear interview. Then after the interview he waited another month for the results. “I couldn’t ask anyone. Time would pass. I was worried. There was no consistency. For some people, it would go fast. For others it would go slow. I couldn’t figure out why mine was so slow. The only information you got was from other people in detention.” During that time, he was frustrated that there was no one to ask and nowhere to find answers.
While in custody, many suffer an on-going sense of dread at the possibility they may be returned to the country in which they experienced torture and/or other forms of persecution and/or in which they fear being subjected to future torture or other forms of persecution:
- Meron, an asylee from Ethiopia, describes, “I was so bored. All I could do was wonder about what was going to happen or when. I was so scared they were going to deport me.” Without anything to distract her mind or make the time pass she agonized about the unknown. “I met people who had been there for two or three years. One lady had been there for two years and then was deported. I was so scared.”
Due to the long-term impacts of torture and trauma, the fact of being detained at all is often retraumatizing for survivors of torture. Further, particular elements inherent in the detention experience—including a profound sense of powerlessness and loss of control—may recapitulate the torture experience. Beyond this, the indefinite nature of immigration detention is a blanket over it all, contributing to severe, chronic emotional distress. In less than three years – from October 2010 to February 2013 – the United States detained an estimated 6,000 survivors of torture as they were seeking asylum protection.
Given the extreme hardship, particularly in light of less expensive and more humane alternatives, survivors of torture should not be detained. There are several steps that Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice can take to mitigate the harmful impact of detention on survivors of torture and improve the immigration detention system overall, including:
- Provide the Executive Office for Immigration Review with adequate funding for nationwide expansion of the Legal Orientation Program and legal counsel programs;
- Eliminate mandatory detention and cease mandating that ICE detain a set number of individuals daily so that all detention decisions can be made on a case-by-case basis and alternatives to detention programs can be fully utilized; and
- Provide funding to support Community Based Alternative to Detention Programs to facilitate the safe and supported release of survivors of torture and reduce ICE’s overall reliance on detention.
To the Department of Homeland Security:
- Promulgate regulations establishing basic minimum standards of care at all CBP facilities;
- Clarify that placement in a secure alternative to detention program can be considered “custody” for purposes of mandatory detention requirements; and
- Cease using actual jails and prisons for immigration detention purposes.
To the Department of Justice:
- Expand the Legal Orientation Program to serve all detention facilities used by ICE and guarantee that all immigrants in detention receive a legal orientation presentation as soon as possible; and
- Establish systems for government-funded counsel for survivors of torture and other particularly vulnerable immigrants in detention.