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 email@example.com.