Face to Face with the Trauma of Asylum Seekers

The Honduran couple had fled their home just a few weeks earlier, racing to get away from the gang that had tormented them. As the woman’s partner told us about the horrific gang rape that she had survived, she did not speak. She only stared straight ahead and tore a Styrofoam cup into little pieces. Her pain was palpable.

I spend most of my work day screening requests for forensic evaluations from attorneys working with people, like this couple, who are desperately seeking safety from violence and persecution by applying for asylum in the United States. I also recruit volunteer clinicians from Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) Asylum Network to conduct these medical and psychological examinations. Forensic evaluations are integral to asylum applications: by corroborating a migrant’s story of physical and psychological trauma, they can persuade an asylum officer or immigration judge to approve a case.

I work with over 1,300 Asylum Network members throughout the country, but almost all my interactions with them take place via email or phone. It is very rare that I get to interact with the members in person. It is even rarer for me to directly interact with the asylum seekers themselves.

But on a recent trip to Tijuana, Mexico, I spent several days in migrant shelters speaking with asylum seekers about their journey to the border, the dangers and trauma they had fled back home, and their hopes of finding safety in the United States.

This one woman’s story deeply impacted me and reminded how personal this work is, how it affects lives, and can shape the trajectory of a person’s future. The PHR team learned from the woman’s partner that gang members in their home country wanted to retaliate against him for refusing to join the gang and pressure him to give in. Her gang rape was his punishment. The woman silently nodded along as her partner recounted the details of this traumatic event. I could feel how profoundly sad she was and continued to listen as my eyes teared up.

In the past year and a half working at PHR, I have coordinated more than 1,000 forensic evaluations for asylum seekers – but this time the asylum seeker was standing right in front of me. I knew that this family’s best chance for safety was to wait in Tijuana for weeks, or even months, hiding in their small tent in the shelter until the day the U.S. government allows them to present themselves at the border and make their case. Their greatest fear is to be returned to the very dangers they traveled thousands of miles to escape.

Those fears are well founded. Over the past several years, the United States has adopted increasingly restrictive border policies which prevent migrants from exercising their legal right to seek asylum. The medical community has been quick to respond. Over a year ago, I supported the establishment of the Los Angeles Human Rights Initiative and two other PHR partner clinics in Los Angeles and helped organize a training there to teach clinicians how to conduct forensic evaluations.

Now those same clinicians had joined PHR in Tijuana to carry out evaluations of asylum seekers, including the family from Honduras. With the medical evidence we gathered, we are advocating for an end to the harsh U.S. policies that victimize these already extremely vulnerable people.

We are continuing to train doctors at the border and in the interior of the United States to perform evaluations of asylum seekers, both those in detention and those living in the community. Just this past week, I helped organize a training in Houston with a new medical school partner attended by more than 120 health professionals. And we are continuing to conduct medical evidence-based research, which sheds light on the persecution asylum seekers have fled and the legitimacy of their asylum claims, as well as the harms arising from severe and punitive U.S. policies of apprehension and detention.

I often think about the survivor’s story that I heard in Tijuana, and the hundreds of others that I’ve come across while working with PHR. I think about the dangers these asylum seekers faced and the fear they felt. But most importantly, I think of the hope they keep alive. The hope that one day they will be safe and secure, despite all that they’ve endured.

Get Updates from PHR