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How Long Does Trauma Last?: Longer than the U.S. Asylum Filing Deadline

Ellie, a 27 year-old woman from Honduras, was almost killed several times by her ex-partner, who beat her severely, tried to drown her, and even attacked her with a machete. She fled to seek asylum in the United States, where she again suffered abuse at the hands of a different partner. For more than a year, Ellie was unable to sleep or eat and also experienced intrusive memories about the violence she had suffered. Due to her devastating circumstances and the mental trauma that resulted from them, Ellie failed to complete her asylum application within the one-year deadline mandated by U.S. asylum law.

Ellie’s case is not unusual. For many who have experienced similar trauma, a simple retelling of their story can cause overwhelming emotion. It’s often easier to block out these memories than to have to relive them in the course of an asylum claim. Since many asylum adjudicators don’t understand the full effect of mental trauma on refugees, especially long-term, attorneys rely on the expertise of medical professionals to gather impactful medical and psychological evidence that can help prove the legitimacy of their client’s claim. Ellie’s lawyer, for instance, contacted Physicians for Human Rights’ Asylum Network in order to request a psychological evaluation that could confirm the consistency of her symptoms with her story of trauma, and provide a medical explanation for why she missed the one-year filing deadline.

A significant hurdle for many asylum seekers, the one-year rule, enacted by Congress in 1996, requires applicants to submit their completed forms requesting asylum within twelve months of their arrival in the United States. For many refugees who have experienced great trauma, this time frame is far too short. Once they have completed their extremely difficult journey to the United States, asylum seekers must gather documents and evidence, work with experts on their testimony and fill out the lengthy I-589 application. But perhaps the greatest obstacle many asylum seekers face in meeting the deadline is trauma. Rates of mental health disorders in resettled refugees can range as high as 40 percent for anxiety, 44 percent for depression, and 36 percent for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Many, like Ellie, cannot bear to think about the persecutory events that led them to flee their homes – including witnessing the murder of loved ones, direct physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse and neglect, and torture. So instead, they push extremely vivid and horrific experiences to the back of their minds, quite possibly for a time period of more than a year. In fact, one-third of people who develop PTSD can remain symptomatic for more than three years. Filing for asylum requires applicants to rehash their incredibly painful story to their legal team, any clinicians they meet with for forensic documentation, and asylum adjudicators. This can be extremely retraumatizing and make it difficult for some to file a timely asylum application.

There are existing exceptions to the one-year rule, but most are difficult to meet. One is if the applicant faces “extraordinary circumstances.” These can include being legally disabled, having a “serious” mental “disability,” the death or illness of a family member, or extreme isolation within the immigrant community. But, while PTSD constitutes a “serious disability” to some judges, for others it is not a valid excuse to get around the one-year rule. And even when an exception is granted, the claim still must still be filed within a “reasonable” time frame, a term which is left vague. An asylum adjudicator has discretion over determining what is and is not considered “reasonable.”

Overall, the one-year deadline is constricting and unfair to asylum seekers who have experienced extreme physical and mental trauma. In many cases, missing the one-year deadline is the sole reason asylum applications are denied. Ellie’s case is pending, but many others, left to navigate the complex application process without legal representation, have no such recourse. This problem must be fixed. Lengthening the time frame of or completely abolishing this rule must be one of the ways the United States begins to introduce trauma-informed practices and policies into the already complex asylum-seeking process.  

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