For Many Refugees, the Journey to America Ends in a Cold Jail Cell

While the United States decides their fate, asylum seekers sit in immigration detention.

Partnering with the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, Sovcik coauthored a report in 2013 about detention's psychological toll on asylum seekers. Drawing on testimony from dozens of former detainees, the report details the appalling conditions found in some detention facilities along the southern border. The findings echoed another report from 2013 by Americans for Immigrant Justice.

"The temperature in the cells is so cold that [Customs and Border Patrol] officers themselves refer to them as 'hieleras,' or iceboxes, in Spanish. Detainees' fingers and toes turn blue and their lips chap and split due to the cold. Blankets are not provided. These crowded hieleras have no mattresses, beds or chairs," the Americans for Immigrant Justice report states.

"They've signed up for a certain degree of hardship during these journeys," Sovcik says of asylum seekers in general. "But at that moment when they believe they've reached a place they can ask for help, they're handcuffed and taken into cold rooms. They have no idea what's going on. There's a certain degree of shock in that experience that adds to the intensity of their trauma."

Benicio "Benny" Diaz, staff attorney at American Gateways in San Antonio, spends a lot of his time visiting detention centers.
Courtesy of American Gateways
Benicio "Benny" Diaz, staff attorney at American Gateways in San Antonio, spends a lot of his time visiting detention centers.

Research has shown that the longer asylum seekers are incarcerated, the more emotionally fragile they become. A team led by Dr. Allen Keller, an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, interviewed 70 asylum seekers detained in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for a study published in The Lancet in 2003.

"What we found were very alarmingly high levels of psychological distress among asylum seekers in detention," Keller tells the Voice. "There was a clear correlation between the length of time in detention and the severity of these symptoms, including depression, sadness and hopelessness, as well as profound symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress."

In 2009, ICE issued new parole standards: If arriving asylum seekers pass a "credible fear" interview, they can be eligible for release. Nevertheless, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report in April 2013 concluding that ICE "continues to detain asylum seekers under inappropriate conditions in jails and jail-like facilities."

A spokesman for ICE did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Megan Bremer, who helped organize the LIRS's pilot program, says her organization received approval from ICE before agreeing to discuss the project.

"Until there's some movement from Congress on the bed mandate, ICE really feels its hands are tied," Bremer says. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of divisive rhetoric right now and fear-mongering about who is coming into this country."

In Texas, even as illegal immigration has fallen in recent years, the number of children arriving alone at the border has soared. Before 2012, only 6,000 or so "unaccompanied children," as the system labels them, were detained at the border in any given year. That number has doubled every year since, and this year, experts estimate, agents will nab 50,000 or 60,000, most of whom are fleeing gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Recognizing this surge, the Department of Justice, which appoints and employs immigration judges, has worked to create special juvenile dockets, assigning all the children's cases in each city to the same judge.

It's designed to help judges tailor the proceedings for children and to avoid having kids mixed with adults on busy hearing days. But in Dallas, that meant many of these cases landed on the desk of Dietrich Sims, easily the city's most controversial immigration judge. He rejects pleas for asylum at a rate higher than that of almost any other judge in the country, and he's known for routinely ignoring the will of the government's own attorneys, especially when they opt not to pursue deportation.

Between 2007 and 2012, Sims, who would not talk to us for this story, denied 84 percent of asylum applications, a higher denial rate than all but about 30 of the 275 judges in the system.

Early one morning in January, the wooden pews in Sims's courtroom were filled with spiky-haired teen boys, nervous relatives and young girls draped in pink. It was the morning of Sims's juvenile docket, a series of rapid-fire hearings for kids facing deportation. Out in the hall, a two-year-old was sleeping in her mom's arms, waiting her turn.

Before Sims entered, the government's lawyer, Lynn Javier, chatted with the opposing attorney. His client, a teenage girl from El Salvador, was seeking something called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. For her to get it, a state family court judge would have to rule, separately, that her parents had abandoned her or that at least one had been killed.

Her lawyer planned to ask Sims for time to pursue that ruling. The government was on board, too. Yet everyone seemed unsure about whether he would agree.

"Judge Sims's concern is that the state court is handing them out like candy," Javier told the lawyer. "That's why he gets a little crazy about it."

The judge would eventually oblige. But throughout the hearing, he would flash signs of a unique disagreeability that frustrates immigrants, their lawyers, and even the Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers who pursue deportation.

It started with the case of a tiny Honduran girl in pink, two tight braids tracing the back of her hair. She was ten. When Sims asked her lawyer how she pleaded, Javier, the attorney for ICE, interjected. She asked Sims to terminate the case.

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Wonder how many immigrants seeking asylum are from countries that have been wrecked by U.S. intervention? Yeah yeah, I know the U.S. has not caused all the problems in unstable countries, but not for lack of trying.


To All,

May I suggest that all of these people who  are whining/whimpering/ about "the poor, pitiful refugees" start PAYING FOR their expenses from their own pocket instead of expecting the taxpayers to pay?

When we adopted our daughter from overseas about 2 decades ago, we were REQUIRED by the US Government to assure that she "would not become a burden on the public".

Until/Unless the "immigrant advocates" start PAYING for the people, who they whine about, themselves  I'll believe NOTHING that they bray about. = "Put your money where your mouth is".

yours, tn


@texasnative46 - Perhaps the U.S. should stop wrecking so many countries, stop inducing factional civil wars that increase refugees, etc. That would save money enough to provide healthcare and advanced education for Americans - like other first world industrial countries provide. Several of the smaller, weaker countries the U.S. helped to wreck lately even provided healthcare and advanced education for their people - well, they don't so much now, since the U.S. wrecked their infrastructure and shattered their societies, e.g., Iraq, Libya.



Perhaps the people should go to India, or China for work...Here illegals are not welcome ..but jailed..
  In reality who knows they are criminals or not?   God bless the good folks who really need help.


The GOP has gotten really good on sitting on a lot of issuies


Asylum advocates ignore reality and dwell on sentimental stereotypes.


Accepting any refugees who are practicing Muslims is suicidal. They aren't the victims - they are the aggressors. We should be accepting the Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and other non-Muslims that the Muslims persecute in every Muslim-run country.


@ad1389 - The U.S. encourages factional conflict in the Middle East because it keeps the people divided. When the factions within a state are united they have a history of wanting more control of their natural resources and less external influence, e.g., Iraq, Libya, etc.

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