Traumatic Memories, Well-Founded Fears, and Credibility

Judy Eidelson

Each year, more than 40,000 people come to America seeking refuge from persecution. While it is U.S. policy to provide asylum to refugees who have a “well-founded fear” of persecution in their home countries, most of these claims will be denied by the Department of Homeland Security.

The outcome of these cases often hinges on the perceived credibility of the asylum seeker’s testimony. This is perfectly understandable. But as a psychologist working in this area, I am struck by its perverse consequence: trauma survivors are often denied asylum precisely because they show the signs of the traumas they have experienced.

The standards adopted by immigration courts seem oblivious to the large body of research documenting the psychological effects of torture and violence. In particular, we know that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not only an anxiety disorder, but also a disorder of memory.

PTSD often occurs when a person directly or indirectly experiences a horrifying event that threatens his or her life or emotional integrity. The cardinal symptoms include severe anxiety and conflicting waves of intrusive re-experiencing (remembering) and emotional numbing or avoidance (forgetting). Long after the initial event, the trauma victim is often besieged by disturbing memories, visual images, and other unwelcome sensory experiences, all triggered by associations beyond the individual’s control.

Asylum officers and immigration judges typically assess the credibility of a refugee’s testimony by scrutinizing it for inconsistencies. Many asylum claims are denied because the case record includes conflicting accounts of details in the asylum seeker’s story, or because aspects of the story deemed important by officials only emerge late in the proceedings. But these kinds of inconsistencies are a hallmark of PTSD. It should come as no surprise that victims sometimes struggle to present–and defend against cross-examination–a coherent account of traumatic events that have profoundly disrupted their cognitive functioning, including their ability to integrate fragmented memories into a unified narrative.

Part of the problem is that many of us cling to the idea that no matter what people have been through–including rape, mutilation, and the slaughter of loved ones–they will act in just the way we like to think we would have acted. We would remember exactly what happened. We would know what parts of our long trails of misery are most relevant to immigration authorities. We would report exactly the same details each time we were asked. We would have no trouble talking about it, even in front of strangers who accuse us of lying. We would look appropriately upset while telling the story–crying at the sad parts and making eye contact throughout.

I am reminded of an incident that occurred while I was testifying at an asylum hearing. The judge was inclined to believe the asylum seeker’s story about the horrifying series of events that led her to flee for her life. But the judge could not get past the fact that this woman had left her children behind, in the place that she almost lost her life. “How could she do that?” asked the judge. This comment has stayed with me. None of us wants to believe that the best we could do might be to leave our children behind–to save our lives, hoping the children will survive long enough for us to come back for them.

Assessing credibility is a complex task. In this setting it requires an appreciation of the well-documented psychological effects of war, torture, and persecution. When immigration officers and judges are better informed about trauma–and therefore stop punishing people for behaving in ways that are entirely consistent with the reasons they seek refuge in the first place–we will be one important step closer to justice.

PsySR member Judy Eidelson is a licensed psychologist. She conducts psychological evaluations and testifies in immigration court as an expert witness on behalf of individuals seeking political asylum in the United States. Judy is also co-coordinator of PsySR’s Political Asylum Project. She can be reached at


6 Responses to “Traumatic Memories, Well-Founded Fears, and Credibility”

  1. J. Lamar Freed Says:

    Thanks for this excellent summary of these tragic circumstances. I hope there can be a follow up essay on what psychologists can do to make an impact by way of advocacy and education.


  2. Gunnar Orn Ingolfsson Says:

    If I remember correctly there was a drastic difference between the asylum seekers that do or do not have an expert witness on their behalf on the likelihood of being granted their wish to stay.

    Were there ever any published numbers on that?

    Thank you Judy…

    • Judy Eidelson Says:

      Yes, Gunnar, Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health published an article on grant rates and found that asylum claims that included expert medical testimony had an 89% grant rate, compared to a 37% grant rate nationally. I will send you the article via email.

  3. Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies » Blog Archive » Two Member Essays: Psychologists for Social Responsibility Says:

    […] In “‘Traumatic Memories, Well-Founded Fears, and Credibility,” Judy Eidelson describes the difficulties faced by asylum seekers as they struggle to “prove” their trauma in immigration court ( […]

  4. “Refuge” Work-in-Progress Showing | Caring for Survivors of Torture Says:

    […] who is working with asylum seekers under Judy’s supervision. (See Judy’s thoughtful post, Traumatic Memories, Well-Founded Fears, and Credibility on the PsySR blog.)             The audience discussion was thoughtful and […]

  5. Are Asylum Seekers Lying? A Personal Story | Caring for Survivors of Torture Says:

    […] just been re-reading Judy Eidelson’s PsySR post, ,Traumatic Memories, Well-Founded Fears, and Credibility (mentioned in yesterday’s post about the group’s national conference.) The article is […]

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