The Reality of Asylum Seekers


The Rio Grande Valley is a very unique place that is not only a popular destination for hundreds of birds migrating north, but also a migratory path for countless of humans fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution across the globe and predominantly in the northern triangle. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), many people enter the United States to seek protection as they have suffered persecution or because of a well-founded fear that they will suffer persecution due to their:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Membership in a particular social group
  • Political opinion

Who is Considered an Asylee?

The National Immigration Forum defines an asylee as a person who has sought and obtained protection from persecution, war, or violence from inside the United States or at its border regions. An important distinction to acknowledge is that a refugee is a person who applies for protection from outside the United States.

Applications for Asylum in the U.S.

An individual may apply for asylum through an affirmative asylum process or a defensive asylum process. Applying for asylum is a humanitarian and legal right. Candidates begin with a Credible Fear Screening Interview. Based on the credible fear screening interview facilitated by a USCIS asylum officer, it will be determined whether the interviewed individual has a “significant possibility” of being eligible for asylum as per federal guidelines.

This interview provides the applicant with the opportunity to elucidate how they were persecuted in their host country and/or lets them explain their well-founded fear of persecution if returned to their country.

The Statistics & Research 

The recent high numbers of Central American immigrants increase the necessity of adequate mental health services for this population. Given that many mothers and fathers flee war-torn countries, this exposes them to violence and trauma, which can lead to the poor mental health of their children and themselves. Most experience pre-migratory trauma, trauma during their migration journey, and some encounter continued traumatic events in U.S. soil, such as family separations.

  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s 2018 Annual Flow Report showed that an estimated 20,455 of individuals were granted asylum to the United States in 2016, in which the three leading countries of nationality of asylum-seeking persons were from China, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
  • An analysis report by the WHO revealed that rates of PTSD among refugees and asylum seekers are higher when compared to host nations.
  • Additionally, political persecutions, witnessing traumatic events, torture, and overall traumatic events are identified as pre-immigration risk factors for poor mental health (WHO, 2016).
  • Similar reports find the uncertainty about the asylum application, detention experience, length of detention, and limited social integration can negatively affect the overall well-being.
  • The Multicultural Clinical Lab at UTRGV lead by Dr. Alfonso Mercado and his students have conducted local research on health, trauma, and PTSD among incoming refugees and asylum-seeking immigrant families. The results noted high rates of trauma and PTSD, demonstrating the need for screening and proactive measures. The trauma rates in the youth and parents far exceeded trauma cut off scores in the measures used and the rates were similar to trauma rates in countries that are at war.
    • Measures to investigate the levels of trauma and rates of PTSD among the children population are currently in the works.
    • Gender differences in self-reported overall and mental health are under investigation.
    • Efforts for psychoeducation and to bring awareness on the immigration crisis at the South Texas border are implemented by the MMHL. Bringing awareness of the crucial mental health status of the arriving immigrants is paramount to having a full picture of the current situation.

Upon being granted asylum, families are given court documents and information on seeing an immigration judge in their respective communities where they will live with their sponsor, who most likely is a family member they have not seen in years. The majority, approximately 94 percent of them, show up to their hearing and continue their asylum process. Those who are not processed and released are taken to family detention centers like in Dilley, Texas, which is the largest detention facility in the country, housing over 5,000 mothers and their children, or taken to tent cities across the U.S. It is the hope of many that the current humanitarian crisis will be attended to in order to effectively manage the system in a humane and legal manner.

For the Public

Although the process for asylum seekers can be a long and complex one, several different organizations and support groups exist. The organizations and support groups include:

  • The Asylum Seeker Assistance Project
  • Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
  • Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP)
  • Human Rights First
  • Probar and legal assistance agencies across the country

References Available Upon Request 

(Co-authors include Dr. Mercado’s Mental Health Lab at UTRGV: Stephanie Arellano, Andy Torres, and Jose Garcia)