Despite an official policy of affording asylum to individuals with “a well-founded fear of persecution” in their country of origin, at least two-thirds of the 50,000 to 80,000 people who seek refuge in the United States each year are turned away.
Often, asylum-seekers are denied asylum because symptoms of torture and trauma are misinterpreted by Department of Homeland Security personnel and judges who adjudicate their cases. Trauma impacts people differently, but often it makes it very difficult for applicants to present their claims successfully. Traumatized individuals may withhold information, display strange affect, or become irritable when asked the same question repeatedly. Often traumatized individuals remember different parts of their experiences at different times, leading to the perception that they are not being truthful.
Because psychological scars may be viewed as evidence of maltreatment, mental health professionals have come to play a significant role in the asylum process. By conducting psychological evaluations, we can provide a crucial bridge between trauma survivors and the immigration adjudicators because we can speak both “languages.” Our credentials are respected in immigration court, and the judges are often eager for explanations that make sense of confusing trauma narratives.
Several factors make it difficult for mental health professionals to meet the growing need for psychological evaluations of asylum-seekers. These obstacles include unfamiliarity with immigration law, a lack of training in multicultural competence, and limited knowledge of the conflicts and contexts that generate political violence. Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) aims to play an important role in providing education and support to individuals who are interested in contributing some of their time to assist in the asylum process.
The PsySR Political Asylum Project is designed to offer a much needed forum where individual practitioners can learn and seek advice from colleagues, where databases of relevant background materials and assessment tools can be maintained, and where collaborative efforts and support can minimize the ever-present risk of burnout among clinicians working with traumatized individuals. Over time, the project may develop in directions that enable participants to work together in designing and conducting symposia and workshops and in preparing publications and training materials. In addition, the project will hopefully encourage more PsySR members to become involved in this work.