Did you know that about 4% of immigrants held in detention are torture survivors? Every year, LIRS finds and helps at least 200 survivors locked away in US immigration detention.
Take a moment to think about what it is like for a survivor of torture to be locked in a cell once again. That first night in detention, what do you think plays through their mind as they try and fail to sleep? What memories come to the surface as a correctional officer yells at them in a language they probably don’t understand?
There is a great risk of re-traumatization for detained torture survivors. They flee to this country hoping to leave behind the tragedy, suffering, and pain of torture and instead we lock them up reopening the barely healed scars of a haunting past.
Imagine you are a Jamaican asylum seeker locked behind bars for fleeing from violence in your home country that has tortured your body and mind as well as claiming the lives of your son, your son’s mother, your uncle and badly wounding your daughter.
Imagine watching a Haitian detainee, locked in a cell with five hardened criminals, have a sheet thrown over his body and beaten; then seeing his body being carried off to be put on life support.
“Sometimes I felt like just signing my deportation papers,” Junior confesses, looking back on the harrowing experience. “Go home, be killed, and just get it over with. It is not an easy road. You face a lot: criminal inmates intimidating you, correctional officers abusing their authority over you. All as if you were a criminal.”
Junior did go back once. The first time he was detained in Chicago immigration authorities scared him in to thinking he would be indefinitely detained and so he agreed to be deported. Within two days of returning to Jamaica he was shot and knew he could not stay.
What the detention system essentially tries to do is force asylum seekers to make an impossible decision between Life and Freedom: stay here and lose your freedom, or get deported to your home country and risk your life.
Why do we put people through this? In an attempt to try and safeguard the asylum system, immigration authorities force people who have been through deep suffering and trauma to endure more.
What’s worse is we leave them in an indefinite limbo. Even convicted criminals get a definite sentence which gives them a real sense of time. However, as asylum cases drag on at an incredibly slow pace and are often appealed, detainees are left wondering whether their lives will be on hold for three months or three years.
Mohamed, another detained torture survivor, felt the stress of the unpredictable future made him feel angry and paranoid. “I felt I was both free and not free. I would have gone back, but my family was killed.” For years he endured what he can only describe as “psychological torture,” as he tried to fight for his right to live and breathe free.
LIRS and our network of partners in the Detained Torture Survivors Legal Support Network advocates for a change in this philosophy. Detention does not equal protection. We will not stand by as our overzealous system unnecessarily prolongs the suffering of those who have, against all odds, fought to stay alive. They come to this country because we are a beacon of safety and protection to the world. But when they get here we welcome them into a jail cell.