Perspectives on Asylum Policy: Going to the Borderlands and Coming to Terms with US History, Social Sentiment, and Hope

Jenifer Wolf-Williams, Ed.D., LPC-S

Editorial credit: Stephanie Kenner /

Perspectives on Asylum Policy: Going to the Borderlands and Coming to Terms with US History, Social Sentiment, and Hope

It was not a typical Sunday morning.  Most Sundays in our White, suburban, upper middle class church do not include open conversations about immigration.  But that week, a few of us attained permission to place an information table in the foyer.  We displayed simplified graphs of tangled processes, stark images from the southern border, a video depicting children’s court, and high above the table, a gnarled strand of barbed wire. 

Most congregants moved by quickly, but a few stopped to look.  Some were supportive.  Some wanted to know more.  One woman said, “I don’t think we can let that many in, but I don’t want anyone to be hungry.  Where can I make a donation?”  But more than one person was openly angry, and one man complained, “We can’t have all these ‘illegals’ taking our jobs.  You can see them everywhere, right here in this neighborhood, and we can’t have this.” 

I pressed him to tell me more.  “What do you mean, ‘You can see them everywhere?’” 

“Oh, you just go out here and drive up the streets,” he indicated, waving toward the windows.  “You can see them.”

“But sir,” I asked, “how do you know a person’s legal status by looking at them?”  He was silent for barely a moment, then simply repeated his claim.  We both knew he was talking about race. 

This congregant’s statement illustrates two prominent themes offered by those who advocate restricting asylum and other immigration processes, the rule of law and economic impact.  In this paper, I review both these themes and a frequently stated third, criminality.  I also explore the congregant’s (unacknowledged) reference to connections between immigration status and race or apparent ethnicity.  This connection, historically an overt citizenship criteria (Allen 2011; Chiarello and Kerwin 2014; Dobkin 2009; VOA 2013), remains an unacknowledged factor in current immigration policy (Bender 2015; Douglas, Saenz, and Murga 2015).  I briefly explore how this transition from overt to covert treatment of race and ethnicity has resulted in more deeply entrenched discrimination (Bonilla-Silva 2015; Douglas, Saenz, and Murga 2015).  I also review a series of studies that help explain the congregant’s conflation of stated themes (rule of law and economy) with the unstated one (apparent ethnicity).

The paper includes a partial review of current US immigration practices and their psychological and sociological effects on immigrant communities, participating federal employees, and bystanders.  It offers socio-psychological theories that help explain the widening acceptance of harmful government practices.  It includes reflections on UN definitions of genocide and ethnic cleansing, not in order to classify US asylum practices as either of these, but to underscore the gravity of and damage caused by these policies.  I then explore practices that promote recovery, particularly active bystandership and community level emergent leadership.

The paper offers personal observations on the US asylum and immigration systems through a variety of vantage points, including my experiences as an immigration trauma therapist, staffer for US Senator Tom Coburn, three-year resident of Honduras, and post-trauma leadership instructor.  It seeks to: 1) examine social attitudes regarding US immigration policy, 2) outline socio-psychological effects of current policies, 3) identify evidence-based steps toward socially healthy responses, 4) encourage active bystandership, and 5) integrate immigration-focused research from psychology, sociology, history, law, economics, and leadership.  It affirms, drawing on scholarship from distinct academic fields, that a welcoming society is a healthy society.

Coming to Terms with US History

Lawfulness of US asylum

The perception of “illegality” placed on those who seek asylum at our southern border is inconsistent with US law.  US lawmakers, with the blessing of most citizens, enacted current asylum laws in acknowledgement of our failure to protect European Jewish applicants who sought protection during the Holocaust (Germain 2006), including Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, whose daughter’s diary would be read by generations of American school-children (Kristof 2016).  Asylum law states that any person without legal status who is present in the United States or arrives at our border has the right to apply for asylum “whether or not at a designated port of arrival” and at any time within the first year of arrival.[1] Despite the law’s clarity, many political leaders and pundits continue to characterize asylum-seekers as “illegal” entrants. This misperception manifests in attitudes toward all immigrant groups (Abrajano and Hajnal 2015), and it has deep, historic roots.

Race-based entry restrictions

US immigration law reflects our nation’s historical and contemporary systems of racial hierarchy. At the nation’s founding, the Three Fifths Compromise of 1787 (counting slaves as three-fifths of a person) and the US Naturalization Law of 1790 which mandated Whiteness as a condition of eligibility for US citizenship (Allen 2011).  Over the ensuing years, Congress enacted multiple prohibitions against Asian entry (VOA 2013) and openly declared their purpose “to preserve…the racial status quo” (Dobkin 2009, 21).  The Quota Act of 1924 formalized this pursuit through entry limits that also discriminated against southern and eastern Europeans (Chiarello and Kerwin 2014).

While many European immigrants preserved the hopeful narratives of their Ellis Island entries, few Americans know the histories of those who entered through its West Coast counterpoint, Angel Island.  These newcomers, primarily from Asian countries, often endured years of detention and sometimes torture and death for their desire to enter the United States (Sakovich 2009; VOA 2013).

Meanwhile, Mexican and US citizens in border communities lived in natural and historic fluidity, as the border shifted and labor needs fluctuated. This sense of fluidity, however, was never shared by the nation as a whole, and tensions between Washington D.C. policymakers and border dwellers were constant (Spener 2011; Bender 2015).  The Civil Rights Era emphasis on racial equality brought to the fore the overtly discriminatory system of immigration quotas by nationality. Many Congressional leaders were inclined to ignore the nation’s newly stated commitment to racial equality (Douglas, Saenz, and Murga 2015; Keely 1971), yet President Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965 with the claim, “We can now believe that (prejudice and privilege) will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation” (Johnson 1965).

The 1965 Act opened doors for non-White immigrants, and the nation’s racial and ethnic makeup began to shift (Lopez, Passel, and Rohal 2020).  But this shift was not the goal for all the Act’s creators.  During its formation, conflicts arose between lawmakers who espoused humanitarian values and those who advocated “maintenance and preservation of American society as it is” (Keely 1971, 158).  Both philosophies shaped the final product, and ironically, the same Act that removed overtly racist quotas introduced new caps for immigrants from neighboring Latin American countries.  Entrance to the United States became substantially less attainable for many from nations south of the US border, and subsequent legislation exacerbated unattainability by preferencing high-skilled professionals over laborers and by eroding family reunification provisions.  These changes had profoundly unequal impacts, and to this day, legal immigration remains unavailable to most citizens of Latin American countries (Bender 2015; Douglas, Saenz, and Murga 2015; Ramírez 2018).

Racially profiled removals

No history of the US southern border would be complete without acknowledgement of the race-based deportations conducted in the 1930s under President Hoover (Wagner 2017) and in the 1950s under President Eisenhower (Blakemore 2018).  In each case, the US government arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of Americans, often based solely on perceived ethnicity.

Reports of depression-era deportations include local removals of employed persons with “Mexican-sounding names”, Sunday afternoon park visitors in a Latino neighborhood, and even Latino hospital patients on stretchers (Wagner 2017).  These deportations were not based on legal status.  Instead, US citizens and legal permanent residents were deported “because Mexicans, across legal statuses, were popularly blamed for the country’s economic crisis” (Ramírez 2018, 322).  The actions were both governmental and social.  Bender (2015) reported that at the time of the removals, “Oklahomans threatened to burn Mexicans out of their homes, while signs in Texas warned Mexicans to leave town” (40).

In 1954, the US Border Patrol initiated a mass sweep of farms, restaurants, and Latino communities across the Southwest. The government gave these raids the derogatory label “Operation Wetback,” and estimates of deportation numbers are generally between 1.3 and 3.7 million Latino individuals “that included US citizens caught up in racially profiled sweeps” (ibid., 40).  Historian Kelly Lytle Hernández argued that actual deportation numbers were far lower than reported, and the operation, though billed as US law enforcement, was a covert collaboration between the US and Mexican governments in response to conflicts with Texas ranchers.  It is important to note that, whether or not the public face of the campaign was an accurate depiction, the removals satisfied anti-immigrant social sentiments of the period.  And either way, the human cost was substantial.  Hernández described perilous, sometimes deadly, journeys of packed buses, trains, planes, and boats that carried deportees to the Mexican interior, where they were abandoned with no connections or assistance (Hernández 2010).

Coming to terms with US history

As I suspect is typical, I learned little about these darker chapters in my high school or college history courses, and when I did, I dismissed them as aberrations of the national narrative, rather than the central theme they actually were.  I had not experienced racial injustice and failed to see its systemic pervasiveness or its connection to immigration.  Years later, when I questioned the textbooks and read more deeply, I was appalled to learn that my nation’s immigration practices had been a model for Adolf Hitler as he planned the Third Reich.  He wrote in Mein Kampf:

It is not, however, in our model German Republic, but in the USA that efforts are made to conform at least partly to the counsels of common sense…(B)y excluding certain races from the right to become naturalized citizens, they have begun to introduce principles similar to those on which we wish to ground the People’s State (Hitler 1925, 342).

Conflation of Race and Legal Status

Non-immigrant White US residents, like the man in my church foyer, connect observable ethnicity to immigration status.  They may verbalize specific negativity toward a segment of the immigrant population they label “illegal.”  But in carefully designed, broad-scale surveys, participants who expressed this view overtly showed little or no difference in covert responses to questions regarding “illegal” immigrants, immigrants in general, or even Latinos in general.  Most Americans surveyed did not distinguish between these groups (Abrajano and Hajnal 2017).  In short, stated views can vary from unspoken attitudes in important ways.

Color-blind racism

The above observations are consistent with decades of research in implicit bias (Perez 2010), aversive racism (Dovidio 2008), and color-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva 2015).  Post-Civil Rights Era US culture overtly espouses racial equality, yet inequalities remain in all facets of American life.  In color-blind racism, those with racial privilege do not see these inequalities as discrimination and engage instead in “’raceless’ explanations for all sort of race-related affairs” (ibid., 1364).

Douglas, Saenz, and Murga (2015) reviewed connections between color-blind racism and immigration in transcripts of Congressional debates. They found that the tenets of color-blind racism that perpetuate structural racism generally also inform immigration policy, and immigrants’ undocumented status serves to uphold the stratified racial system.  Systemic privileges held by White, non-Latino citizens “combined with the prevailing notion that race has nothing to do with their standing” (1449) constitute a powerful barrier to immigration reform.

US interventions and Central Americans’ need to flee

Asylum seekers at the US southern border come from all parts of the globe, but the majority are in flight from gang warfare and violence in Central America (UNHCR 2020).  Few US citizens are aware that clandestine US interference is largely responsible for these conditions (Hiskey et al.  2018), and our collective ignorance is by design (Pereira 2014). Despite my own presence in the region during a key period, I did not connect the nearby turmoil to US intervention.

In the summer of 1988, my husband and I drove from Abilene, Texas, to our new home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where we would live for the next three years.  We buckled our six-month-old baby into the back of our compact car and traveled south with the hopeful naiveté of pre-internet-era young adults.  We did not expect the Guatemalan Civil War.

Our ignorance was an inevitable result of our own government’s attempt to hide its role in what would later be known as the Guatemalan Silent Holocaust (Pereira 2014). We made our way through countless military checkpoints, where soldiers with machine guns ordered us out of our car. But no one hurt us. Our White skin and blue passports protected us, while a short distance away soldiers from this same army slaughtered Guatemalan indigenous peoples in a land-grabbing genocide (Gibney 1997).

After we settled in Honduras, we began to meet war refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua as well. Honduras was peaceful, and we felt safe. But all around us, the world was on fire.  What I would not understand until many years later was the role of my own government in this deadly chaos. The United States bankrolled each of these military atrocities under the Reagan Doctrine and weaponized them, in part, through his Iran-Contra arms deal (ibid).

The atrocities the United States inflicted on Central American countries contributed to the increased internal violence of the region in the twenty-first century.  The US government’s cover-up of the wars it funded led US leaders and immigration adjudicators to deny refugee status to Central American asylum seekers from states deemed to be US allies, and the denial of Central American horrors continues today (Hiskey, Córdova, Malone, and Orcés 2018).  Such denials often attribute asylum-seeking, not to a flight for safety, but to a desire for economic gain.  This view is inconsistent with the realities in Central America, and as seen in the next section, it is incongruous with economic research.

Economics as a Predictor of Attitude

Like my fellow congregant, many who oppose new arrivals state that increased immigration creates an economic burden for US residents. Banerjee and Duflo (2019), recipients of the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, described the common belief that “The world is full of poor people who would obviously earn a lot more money if they could find their way here (wherever that might be)” (12).  This view, based on the supply and demand model taught in high school economics, cannot explain what actually occurs in cross-border migrations.

Data consistently show immigration, even on a large scale, to be an economic benefit for the recipient nation.  Population increase expands both supply and demand as newcomers buy groceries, rent apartments, get haircuts, and eat in restaurants.  Their presence increases economic activity and creates jobs, particularly for low-skilled native workers. Immigration of low-skilled populations slows down industry mechanization processes and encourages employers to reorganize production, both of which create jobs for native workers.  And because immigrant populations provide services such as yard work and food preparation, skilled women in receiving communities are more likely to enter the workforce (Banerjee and Duflo 2019). The researchers suggested that governments focused on economic growth should incentivize immigration. They concluded, “The myths about immigration are crumbling.  There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives; nor are labor markets like fruit markets, and the laws of supply and demand do not apply” (31).

Banerjee and Duflo (2019) also observed that economics appear to have little impact as a migration push factor.   The authors pointed to Iraq, Syria, Guatemala, and Yemen as countries whose citizens are most desperate to flee, despite having better economic conditions than Liberia, Mozambique, or Sierra Leonne, where emigration is less common.  They noted that Mexico, though often the target of US anti-immigration policy, is an upper-middle income country with a welfare system other nations emulate.  And they pointed to data from nations as diverse as Greece and India indicating little population movement in periods of economic hardship, even when movement was not restricted.  Populations are more reluctant to move than economics would predict.  Mass violence and social collapse in countries of origin are better predictors.

Similarly, studies among receiving communities have consistently found economic concerns to be a weak predictor of immigration-related attitudes, even for those who cite it as important.  Hainmueller and Hopkins (2015) reviewed a series of more than 100 studies, which they categorized as primarily economic or primarily sociotropic (concerned with group identities).  The researchers concluded that labor market competition theories “have repeatedly failed to attain support as explanations of attitudes toward immigration (241).”  In contrast, sociotropic theories that focus on attitudes toward such social categories as ethnicity or national origin usually do find empirical support, as do measures of prejudice, ethnocentrism, and stereotype.  Economic impact, though frequently stated as a reason for immigration restriction, predicts neither economic effects nor social attitudes.  Another commonly noted concern, the link between immigration and crime, similarly finds no support in the literature.

Crime Levels and Sense of Security

Those who oppose asylum entry often convey a dehumanizing stereotype of immigrants as threatening and criminal. They argue that immigrants, particularly those from devalued populations, are dangerous and should be feared.  For example, President Trump initiated Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) that urges Americans to call and report “crimes committed by removable criminal aliens” (ICE 2019) which consistently shows either no link between immigration status and crime rates, or that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants. Undocumented immigrants have the lowest crime rates of all (Nowrasteh 2016; Orrenius and Zavodny 2019; Ousey and Kubrin 2018).

Duncan and Darger (2019) reported that during a recent, 23-year period in which the immigrant population rose from 7.9 to 13.1 percent of the total population, and the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants nearly quadrupled, violent crimes decreased 48 percent, and property crimes decreased 41 percent.  The authors analyzed state-specific data from this period and found differing immigration rates to have no effect on property or violent crime rates.  They concluded that, “higher immigration rates are associated with negative rates of violent crime” (18).  Similarly, Rumbaut, Dingeman, and Robles (2018) reviewed macro-level and individual-level studies using diverse data sources and analytical approaches.  Increased immigration correlated consistently with decreased crime.  Across national origins, citizenship statuses, and types of offenses, immigrants committed crimes at lower rates than nonimmigrants and “appear mostly to revitalize rather than threaten communities (10).”

Even so, immigrants who are undocumented or are in the asylum process are often trapped in a system that criminalizes daily life and such ordinary activities as driving a child to school (Enriquez, Vazquez and Ramakrishnan 2019).  Migration itself, once a normal process, has been criminalized over time (Spener 2011).  Rumbaut, Dingeman, and Robles (2018) refer to this criminalization process as crimmigration and assert it exacerbates the problems of orderliness it claims to address.  Crimmigration is responsible for family separations, detentions, deportations, and fear of normal activities.

Increased immigration does not increase violence or property crime, and stated fears are better explained by the sociotropic factors described previously: attitudes toward such social categories as ethnicity or national origin (Hainmueller and Hopkins 2015).  When fear of “the other” becomes an impetus to punish the other, that fear must be noted as a risk for devolving societal health (Stanton 2013; Staub 2013).  The following section describes my personal observations of this devolution.

Coming to Terms with the Power of Social Sentiment

Upon return from Honduras to the United States, my intercultural experiences informed my work as a therapist and teacher, but it was not until I served as a US Senate staffer that I saw the harmful role of federal policy.

In 2010, I left my academic and clinical work for two years as a legislative correspondent for US Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), certain the Senator’s faith values and medical background would provide a compassionate working environment in which to discuss important humanitarian issues.  I was assigned to immigration and immediately began to share academic resources I assumed would contribute to decision-making.  I was energized when Dr. Coburn (as he preferred to be called) agreed with my work and allowed me to correspond supportively with an undocumented constituent.  I was even more energized when he initiated public discussion of undocumented childhood arrivals during a packed townhall event in Tulsa.  This Republican Senator asserted before a large public gathering that an undocumented person who arrived as a young child and grew up among us “is as American as I am.”

It might have been a pivotal moment had we staffers been prepared for the challenge and risk.  I was naively stunned by the immediate vitriol of the crowd, the booing and shouting, the furious complaints for weeks afterward, and the local woman who flew to Washington, D.C., to reprimand the Senator.  Senior staffers were taken aback and quickly pulled me from the assignment.  What might have been historic change died silently into status quo.  Yet the episode demonstrates surprising openness to policy change from a Senator who embraced the nickname “Dr. No.”  It also points to the power of social attitude in policy formation.

Witnessing Harm in the Borderlands

What I learned as a Senate staffer propelled me back to my clinical profession with clearer vision, and for several years now, I have practiced as an immigration-focused trauma therapist.  I offer pro bono counseling and case support to Dallas area asylum seekers, observe and teach along the southern border, and enter immigration detention centers to conduct mental health assessments.  I have seen the silent tears of a small girl whose mother was missing in US custody, heard the sobs of a father who had not yet held his two-year-old son, and witnessed the abject fear of a torture survivor who made it to the US border only to be locked into a cell resembling the one he had fled.

One afternoon, I scanned the faces of small children in a private churchyard.  They had just been released from detention and were breathing open air for the first time since.  I wandered among them with bubbles, cherishing their smiles, and then I saw a boy, sitting alone at the base of the fence.  His father stood nearby, but the boy stared blankly ahead, arms and legs curled around himself, eyes fearful.  He was sick, his father told me, sickened by the ice-cold cell and inadequate food they had received for the last several days.  I asked whether there had been a place to lie down, and the father said, “Ni para sentarse.”  Not even room to sit.  Other detainees have told me of medical neglect and of their fear that seeking treatment could lead to punishments such as improper care or isolation.  An in-depth review by Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with three other non-profit organizations, reported that the rapidly increasing number of immigration detention deaths are almost always related to “subpar and dangerous practices including unreasonable delays, poor practitioner and nursing care, and botched emergency response” (Long 2019, 1).

In December 2018, my colleagues and I walked across the Brownsville/Matamoros Bridge into Mexico and made our way on foot to the adjacent Gateway International Bridge.  At the time, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) allowed a maximum of four asylum seekers to wait on the bridge, and my team spoke with the four young adults whose numbers were next.  They had been waiting for days and could not leave for fear of missing their turns, so they depended on volunteers to bring food and water.  Asked why they wanted asylum, they described horrific, random disappearances and assassinations in their home country.  When I asked about the US entry process, they replied that CBP had processed two people the day before but none so far that day.

Farther out, asylum seekers “camped” under tarps along the streets, most of them families with young children.  Most were Central American, and all told us of extreme violence and extreme poverty in their home countries.  They too depended on volunteers for survival and reported they had been waiting for months to pursue their cases.  One man had come from the Honduran city where my husband, children, and I once lived.  We smiled at our shared nostalgia for familiar places, but the difference in our privilege was stark.  Nearby, my colleague asked a mother why she had left her home.  The mother wept and looked away.  Composing herself, she acknowledged rampant killings, including personal losses she could not speak out loud.

For me, the most disturbing sight came at reentry.  The line for US passport holders was short and simple.  But through the adjacent glass wall, a huge empty room with rows and rows of vacant chairs was plainly visible.  Our local guide whispered that this was the room where asylum petitions had previously been processed.  We continued silently, knowing the irony of this empty space, while families in flight had just told us they remained in the streets because CBP had no room today.  Others would soon corroborate these observations (AIC 2018; Tyx 2019).

In January 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began its enactment of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a policy that forces asylum seekers to wait outside the United States for the duration of their application process (DHS 2019a).  Asylum hearings, normally public, were relegated to makeshift tent “courts” in which immigration judges were available only through videoconference.  Immigration attorneys described these closed hearings as “secretive, assembly-line proceedings for lawful asylum seekers” (Fernandez, Jordan, and Dickerson 2019).  Without resources and fearful of missing a Border Patrol appointment, migrants gathered in crowded, unsanitary tent communities just outside US ports of entry.  Most are young families, terrorized by the ever-present cartels through regular kidnappings, rapes, and disappearances.  In the end, almost none of these applicants attains asylum (Rose 2019; Tjersland 2019).

When I returned to Matamoros after MPP, privately donated tents lined the streets and the levee beyond, many so close there was no space to walk between them.  Young parents held babies, gathered firewood, and cooked on open fires.  There were no structures, no showers, no utilities.  Children played in the dirt, and two small boys ran to hug my knees as though they had known me forever.  I was there to distribute mental health information I had prepared with Dr. Selma Yznaga, UTRGV counseling professor, and to assist Elisa Filippone, Angry Tias and Abuelas cofounder, in her work to encourage twenty select people to accept the camp’s only available flu vaccines.

Despite generous donations from private citizens, a tangle of binational and local policy restrictions prevented adequate flu vaccination (Filippone 2019), just as they now restrict adequate COVID-19 responses (Sheridan 2020).  On that day, we invited only those refugees who shared a tent with the camp’s youngest babies, and after twenty vaccinations, we had to stop.  I continued with mental health conversations, attempting to assure camp residents of the normalcy of their distress symptoms, to offer basic self-care ideas, and to plant the seed that counseling might be helpful if they ever have the chance.  Sometimes, I just listened.  One conversation impacted me greatly, and I described it in a blog post a short time later.

I climbed the levee, walked through a gate flanked by razor wire, and looked around.  A few yards higher, a woman sat alone on a castoff lawn chair, her expression empty as she watched me approach.  I climbed toward her and glanced briefly at the chair beside her.  It had no seat, so she stood and grabbed another from nearby.  They were the only three chairs I had seen in the camp, and her act felt precious.  “Me llamo Jeni,” I told her. 

“Soy Violeta,” she responded. 

Below us, the bright orange arches of the International Bridge pierced the morning sky, palpable through coils of military wire.  Small camping tents, including Violeta’s, covered the levee, while more lined the streets below.  We could just see the tops of the portable toilets, ten of them for this community of about 2,000.  The smoke from Violeta’s campfire blew across our faces, but she didn’t flinch, so neither did I.  It wasn’t long before she said, too matter-of-factly, “I sent my daughter across yesterday.” 

Her daughter is nine years old.  Violeta had stood near the bridge and watched her child leave.  She waited until an officer took custody, and then Violeta walked back to her tent.  Alone.

“I couldn’t let her suffer anymore,” Violeta explained.  “She was raped here.  We were both raped.” 

“Here in the camps?” I asked, and Violeta nodded. 

“Sometimes people disappear from here too.  Adults and children.  I couldn’t let her stay any longer.”  Violeta looked away and tightened her arms across her chest.  “I’m going back to Honduras now,” she added.  “The gangs murdered my parents when I was three, and my grandparents raised me.  Now the same gangs are targeting me.  But I’m going back. There is nothing else for me to do” (Wolf-Williams 2019).

Tragically, Violeta’s loss is far from unique.  Cartels prey on the vulnerable families that the US government rejects, and they live in constant threat of kidnappings, violence, death, and disease (Solis 2019; Tjersland 2019). When I visited a similar encampment in Nogales in October, two mothers requested birth control for their eleven- and twelve-year-old daughters.  Rape was inevitable, they explained, and birth control was the only protection they could hope for (Wolf-Williams 2019).  By the government’s own admission, family separations and the conditions imposed by MPP are intentional harms, instigated to deter potential applicants (Rosenberg 2018; DHS 2019, Oct. 28).

Asylum Policies in Clinical Context

The clinical harm inflicted by such policies as MPP, family separation, detention, or deportation is well established.  Decades of research confirm lasting damage from such adverse childhood events (ACEs), also classified as toxic stress.  Injuries include impaired neurodevelopment with long-term negative impacts on cognitive functioning, decision-making, and socio-emotional functioning (Shonkoff et al. 2012; Shonkoff 2016).  ACEs are linked to lifelong risk of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as for such adverse physiological conditions as asthma, severe recurrent infections, cancer, diabetes, and stroke  (Geltman, Grant-Knight, and Gehta 2005; Shonkoff et al. 2012; Oh et al. 2018).  Separated parents are also at risk, and some have already succumbed to suicide (Miroff 2018).

In 2018, the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) released a statement confirming these well-known effects of separation and adding, “Parent-child separation has long-term effects on child well-being, even if there is subsequent reunification” (Bouza et al. 2018, 1).  SRCD reported that in other types of trauma the primary caregiver can serve as a buffer for potential long-term damage, but this is not possible in the caregiver’s absence. The report also cited multiple studies that confirmed the harmful effects of separation on children of all ages and for all types of immigration-related forced separations, including detentions and deportations (Bouza et al. 2018).

Intentional harm to deter asylum-seeking

Family separations take many forms.  Deportations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, multi-year asylum and refugee resettlement processes, and unequal access to the legal immigration system result in long-term, sometimes permanent family separations (Rojas-Flores, Clements, Hwang Koo, and London 2017).  The highly-publicized separations caused by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policies took family separations further by enforcing them to create fear and to deter migrants from coming (DOJ 2018).  The administration piloted the plan in the El Paso region in 2017 but managed to avoid public notice (COR 2019).  In spring of 2018, residents of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) were among the earliest US citizens to observe distraught, detained parents pleading for their missing children.

In April (2018), Selma Yznaga, a counseling professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, got a call at home from one of her students, who was at work at the federal courthouse in Brownsville.  “Dr. Y,” the student began, “the courthouse has gone nuts.  There are people screaming, people wailing.  There are tons of people in here.  They’re shackled.  What’s happening?” (Tyx 2019, 2).

The administration was slow to acknowledge its actions.  As late as June 17, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period” (Nielsen 2018). Just one day later, ProPublica released audio of young, detained children crying for their parents.  In the recording, a very young child sobs, “Papi! Papi!”, while a determined six-year-old repeats her aunt’s phone number and pleads with an officer to call it (Thompson 2018). The Congressional Research Service (CRS) later estimated, “Since the zero tolerance policy was implemented, up to 3,000 children may have been separated from their parents. In addition, thousands more were separated prior to the public announcement of the policy change” (Kandel 2019, 2).  The administration had no plans for identification or reunification and many remain apart (COR 2019).

Family separations continue, despite President Trump’s televised signing of an executive order to end them.  The stated reasons for the separations are not always clear, but they include children who present with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, sibling, or other non-parent primary caretaker, even when the custodial relative has documented guardianship of the child from the country of origin.  Other stated reasons include a parent’s minor or long-ago legal infractions, including traffic violations or previous entry (HRW 2019).

On May 16, 2019, when the Border Patrol apprehended 16-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vásquez and his adult sister, who was his designated caregiver.  CBP agents separated the two, holding Carlos alone for well beyond the maximum allowable period of 72 hours.  On the sixth day of his imprisonment, a nurse practitioner diagnosed Carlos with flu and measured his body temperature at 103 degrees.  Instead of taking him for medical treatment, agents placed Carlos in an isolated cell with a single cellmate, where they did not check him again until the next morning when his cellmate alerted them to his death.  Surveillance video shows Carlos writhing on the floor in a pool of blood for hours (Robinson 2019, December 13; Villafranca 2019, May 21).

On May 28, 2019, reports emerged from medical providers at an unnamed Texas hospital that pregnant immigrant women in US custody were being brought to the hospital in shackles, and were sometimes required to remain in shackles during delivery.   Even more heinous, immigrant mothers who give birth at this hospital regularly lose custody of their newborn children.  “Late last year, Dr. Shelly (a pseudonym), an OB-GYN in the Western District of Texas, said there were multiple cases where pregnant migrants who had just given birth at her hospital were forced to give their children up to Texas DFPS” (RewireNews 2019).

The MPP program, implemented incrementally in 2019, introduced a new type of family separation and exacerbated other intentionally inflicted harms. Touted by the US government as a disincentive “for aliens to assert claims for relief or protection” (DHS 2019b, 6), MPP brings alarming risks to those who seek refuge.  As stated, MPP frequently leads to kidnappings, rapes, violence, and disease for adults and children alike (Fernandez, Jordan, and Dickerson 2019; Rose 2019; Solis 2019).  Effects of the current coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on MPP camps are still unfolding.  At a time when nations across the globe are instructing their citizens to wash hands and maintain “social distance,” asylum seekers are forced into encampments so crowded their tents literally touch.  They share portable outhouses, stand in crowded food lines, and have limited access to handwashing facilities.  Because they are effectively stateless, they lack access to public healthcare or any plan for health protection (Mukpo 2020; Coronado 2020).

The physical and emotional cruelties outlined above have their most profound impact on asylum seekers and their close relations.  But as shown in the next section, hurtful policies also affect US citizens who enforce them or who observe their effects.

Harmful effects on perpetrators, bystanders, and society

Family separation, asylum denial, and other harmful policies place government employees who implement them at risk for perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS), also known as participation-induced traumatic stress (MacNair 2002, 2015).  Under psychiatric trauma definitions, anyone who witnesses harm to another experiences their own trauma through that witness (APA Committee 2013).  An individual who has caused harm to another, even under direct command and in belief the harm was necessary, is vulnerable to both PITS and PTSD, including such symptoms as re-experiencing, mood disorders, hypervigilance, and avoidance (MacNair 2002, 2015). If the perpetrator sees the act as a violation of their own moral values, the mandated action brings the additional harm of moral injury (Lancaster 2017).

MacNair (2015) asserted that carrying out a mandated act of harm can lead to rage, emotional numbing, substance and psychological intoxication, and even a dangerous felt need to repeat the trauma.  Mandated perpetration “feeds the dehumanization and acceptance of euphemisms necessary for societal violence. It makes destructive obedience to authority more likely and it makes authority more likely to give the destructive orders” (ibid., 318).

Bystanders who fail to help can experience self-condemnation, and their sense of shame or guilt is exacerbated when they perceive their actions or passivity as contrary to their personal values (Wilson, Droždek, and Turkovic, 2006 132).  They may adapt to these painful experiences by changing their internal beliefs about what they have seen, which leads to increased probability of repeating the action (Tavris and Aronson 2008).  Empathy results in personal pain, so bystanders distance themselves from victims by seeing them as less good, and eventually, as less human.  Simultaneously, they rationalize their leaders’ harmful actions.  Without active resistance, this pattern will continue to increases in severity, eventually ushering in norms of acceptance for social violence.  This process, known as moral shift, historically corresponds with increased levels of mass violence, including increased risk for genocide (Staub 2013).

Moral Shift

Moral shift (Staub 2012, 2013, 2015, 2019) offers a theoretical framework through which to understand societal justification of broadly harmful acts. Socially accepted violence arises over time through gradual devaluation of target groups (Stanton 2013).  Societies maintain such core values as love, kindness, compassion, honesty, and courage.  But in the earliest stage of moral shift — moral disengagement — dominant group members begin to think there are contexts in which it is acceptable to disregard those values (Staub 2013).  Punitive measures toward asylum seekers in the context of their perceived “illegal” journeys across the US border exemplify moral disengagement.

In the second stage of moral shift, victim exclusion, dominant group members expand moral disengagement from being applicable solely in a specific context.  They now apply it to an associated non-dominant group.  Statements about “illegal immigration” conflate to “illegals” and often to immigrants or to Latinos in general (Abrajano and Hajnal 2017).  This is the level at which dehumanization occurs.  It becomes socially acceptable to compare the excluded group to non-human entities such as floods, cockroaches, rats, or rattlesnakes (Utych 2018).  The excluded group is “dangerous” or detrimental to the dominant group, so exclusion is justified.

The third and most dangerous level of moral shift is moral reversal.  At this level, perceptions of the outgroup’s dangerousness solidify and dominant group members perceive a need for self-protection.  This imagined need, in turn, justifies harmful acts toward members of the excluded group (Staub 2013).  When asylum seekers from Central America are defined as dangerous, even such brutal acts as taking their children or forcing them into dangerous camps are described as necessary to prevent harm to the dominant culture (Rosenberg 2018; DHS 2019b).

Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

The concept of moral shift originated in genocide research.  Ervin Staub, a child Holocaust survivor and prominent social psychologist, identified these patterns through his work in Rwanda and other high conflict regions, where moral shift was a consistent social pattern in pre-genocide and early genocide phases.  Its nadir, moral reversal (using perceived danger to justify harm) is the social psychological basis of societal violence, which increases as moral reversal spreads and deepens.  Unchecked, moral reversal can end in such mass atrocities as genocide and ethnic cleansing (Staub 2012, 2013, 2015, 2019).

Social psychologists focus on genocide prevention and reconciliation, not on determining responsibility and punishing perpetrators. Prevention requires the identification of patterns that manifest pre-genocide and in genocide’s early stages.  Umut Özsu (2020) argued that legal definitions of genocide “are key to illuminating some of the structural forces underlying and animating a range of events that may otherwise appear unrelated” (62).  Any one policy choice, legal decision, or socioeconomic structure may appear innocuous, but legal definitions of genocide and ethnic cleansing offer a clarifying lens through which these policies can be seen as an integrated whole.  In 1948, the UN General Assembly negotiated a resolution that defined genocide in two parts: intention and action.  Putting aside the issue of intention, the resolution lists five acts, any one of which constitutes genocidal action.

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (UN Office on Genocide Prevention, 1948).

In this paper, my aim is not to equate US immigration and asylum policies with genocide – the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,” coupled with the commission of genocidal acts. However, I use the frame of “genocidal action” to underline the violence and grave risk posed by these policies, and the need to turn away from them.

Reports of killings of (immigrant) group members (action (a)), are relatively small in number and difficult to investigate. The Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), a collaboration of 60 organizations based in the US southern border regions, tracks “deaths by border patrol since 2010… based on media coverage and/or press releases” from CBP (SBCC 2020).  Few deaths on this list seem to involve intentional killings, and fewer still are confirmed as such.  An exception is a series of fatal shootings by a Border Patrol agent whom authorities identified as a serial killer (Bova 2018), but these do not constitute evidence of the systemic intentional killings described in the UN definition above.

US policies of family separation, detention and deportation do, however, cause “serious bodily or mental harm” (action (b)) (Shonkoff et al. 2012; Shonkoff 2016; Geltman, Grant-Knight, and Gehta 2005; Oh et al. 2018).  The US government acknowledged family separation policies as intentional harms, meant to deter asylum seeking (Rosenberg 2018; DHS 2019b).  Detaining asylum seekers — adults and children alike — in crowded, unsanitary conditions with no access to family and inadequate medical care is another manifestation of action (b) (Long 2019).  In the current global pandemic, the harm of detention has increased exponentially.  On March 30, 2020, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) published an anonymous audio recording of fathers detained in Karnes, Texas. The fathers reported they had received no information or instructions regarding the virus and no soap or other basic protective supplies, or even news reports from the outside world.  They also described undiagnosed illnesses in the center and reported, “People are totally desperate because of that” (RAICES 2020).

Action (b) harm extends beyond recent arrivals, to immigrants who have lived in the United States for decades and to their US citizen children.  In a multi-state study of US children under age eight with at least one immigrant family member, Cervantes, Ullrich, and Matthews (2018) found high levels of fear and distress, often centered on fear their parents would be taken from them.  The researchers reported similar distress among participants’ parents.  In a review of border enforcement practices, Physicians for Human Rights (2019, January) reported, “CBP officials regularly misinterpret or even disregard the limits of their legal authority while conducting border enforcement activities, constituting human rights violations and resulting in harms to health” (3).

Action (c) above is evident in life-threatening detention conditions (Long 2019) and high-risk MPP camps (Rose 2019; Solis 2019).  The effects of current policies are unquestionably deadly.  In a study of women fleeing violence in Central America, Alberto and Chilton (2019) stated, “The US is intentionally failing asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle region as soon as they arrive at the US-Mexico border, and once they are in the US, their situations can be exacerbated” (208).  Countless US citizen volunteers have witnessed. As of March 28, 2020, with much of the US isolated to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and with tests in short supply, nearly 7,000 immigrant children remained in crowded detention facilities (Jordan 2020, March 29).  A few months prior, a federal judge ordered that detained children be granted access to soap and sleep (Flores v. Barr 2019, June 18) after the government argued that Flores does not mandate such necessities (Flores v. Barr 2019, August 15; Flynn 2019).   By April, Amnesty International reported “credible, consistent, and disturbing accounts by detainees of dangerous conditions in ICE’s immigration detention facilities, which needlessly put all those detained there at a higher risk of contracting Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)” (Amnesty International 2020, 1).

Action (e) of the UN list of genocide actions, the forcible transfer of children from the target group to another group, is evident in the separation of family members upon apprehension or request for asylum.  “Zero tolerance” separations did not include plans for reunification, and many families remain permanently separated (COR 2019; Tyx 2019).  Action (e) is also evident in the growing number of families who are pressured into separation through MPP.  US citizen volunteers witness countless numbers of children who cross the international bridges alone when their parents, in desperation, decide it is the only way to keep the child safe (Burnett 2019).  In the current pandemic, DHS is deporting unaccompanied minors to the countries they fled with no attempt to reunite them with family or to process their legal claims.  Four leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees wrote a plea for DHS to end this practice. They asserted, “Children do not have to be put in harm’s way to protect us from the coronavirus pandemic.  DHS has the ability and capacity to protect both these children and the public”. [2]

It is also worth considering the UN definitions for ethnic cleansing. These are not codified by resolution, but a UN Commission of Experts defined ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area” (UN Commission of Experts 1992, 16).  The Commission’s final report expanded the definition to require an intentional policy, ethnic or religious basis for the removals, and methods that include violence or inspire terror (UN Commission of Experts 1994).  Efforts to remove Latino or Latino-appearing populations from the United States have been  well-documented (Johnson 2019), and these removals merit consideration as an example of such practices.

Understanding asylum policy in the combined context of genocide definitions and social psychology is essential to harm prevention and societal reconciliation.  Reflective comparison illuminates the scope and gravity of our current practices and clarifies our thoughts about what we observe (Özsu 2020). The noblest purpose for reviewing the law is to learn good behavior.

Coming to Terms with Hope

Genocide experts agree that citizens who acknowledge warnings can prevent atrocities (Stanton 2013), and they encourage intervention as soon as a problem is identified (Staub 2013).  Further descent toward mass violence is preventable.  On the moral shift continuum, social psychologists have identified one more level, moral recovery, and they have outlined processes that draw communities—even nations—toward that recovery (Sherif 1956; Staub 2013, 2019).  This can be accomplished, in part, through guided dialogue between groups, identification of shared goals, and working together to meet those goals.  Inviting those who were victimized into leadership roles promotes both individual and collective healing.  Commemorations contribute to social healing when they acknowledge shared pain and promote a shared vision of a positive future.  Visual and performing artists can promote connections, respect, and kindness.  Teaching active bystandership can prevent violence and promote positive social norms (Staub 2013, 2015, 2019).

Bystandership, leadership, and collective hope

Bystandership studies revealed that most adults in simulated emergency situations remain passive, assuming pluralist ignorance in which they imitate others who appear unaware of an openly unfolding act of harm, especially if the target of a harmful act belongs to a social group that has been historically devalued (Staub 2013).  Adults interviewed after failure to act cite fear of being wrong, perhaps wrong in their perception of what they saw or the reasons for it.  They fear embarrassment and worry about breaking social norms.  They decide someone else probably has responsibility.  Sometimes they fear harm.  But the primary reason cited for passivity is preoccupation with the bystander’s own life (Staub 2013, 2015).  When I shared this finding to an adult church group, one member gasped with sudden insight, then exclaimed:

 It’s like a Holocaust movie I saw! The camera was behind a wall with people who had been rounded up the night before.  On the television screen, we were watching through a hole in the fence, and people walked by as if nothing were happening.  They were just going to work or going shopping, when everyone knew there were people behind the wall. I could see myself doing that.  Just going to work.  Because what else could I do? 

Passive bystanders watch social atrocities quietly and reduce personal stress by creating distance.  They assume helplessness and do not discuss the cruelties with others.  But studies have identified key steps to change this pattern. Passive bystanders watch their leaders. They rely on leaders’ interpretations and act on leaders’ models.  Importantly, leadership might not come from an authority figure, but from anyone who acts.  This is a crucially important insight at a time when elected officials establish and champion – through the repetition of dehumanizing language – morally repugnant policies.  Those of us with no positional power can still lead change.  In experimental contexts, only 25 percent of adult participants actively responded to the sound of a crashing object and painful groans in the next room.  Yet a confederate with no apparent authority who verbalized the need to help generated 100 percent active participation (Staub 2013, 2015, 2019).

Leaders, including emergent leaders, can model appropriate language and introduce terminology that avoids dehumanization. They can humanize crises by sharing narratives and by creating connections across groups. They can also teach active bystandership principles to their communities. Leaders’ words and actions inform others, model core values, and unmask the immoral acts around us. Prepared leaders can help groups promote justice, prevent violence, and recover moral equilibrium (Staub 2013, 2015, 2019).

Historically, broken societies have emerged from turbulent eras of oppression and violence to renewed connection (Staub 2013).  Leaders trained in community peacebuilding were able to influence their communities toward healing and growth.  Social psychologists working in nations with collective trauma histories have taught violence prevention principles to national policymakers and witnessed positive changes in legislation (Staub 2013, 2019).

Leaders also inspire hope.  Even in an era of moral reversal, hope need not be elusive.  Hope is a measurable psychological construct, consisting of goals, pathways, and agency.  Those who choose it can grow it in themselves and others (Snyder, Rand, and Sigmon 2002, Gwinn and Hellman 2018).  They identify goals by imagining the future as they would like it to be and shaping this image toward attainability, clarifying details until the goal is defined.  The next step, pathway, is to chart a path to that goal using evidence-based applications of social healing, reconciliation, and community peacebuilding.  Finally, they exercise agency by acknowledging that they will hit barriers, and they will miscalculate.  Yet the hopeful will study their maps, study the landscape, and chart alternate routes to their goal.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Peaceful resolutions to harmful asylum policies and anti-immigrant social discord will not come easily.  Prevailing, unfounded arguments from the administration, Members of Congress, the press, and other sources regarding the “illegality” of asylum seekers, the negative economic impact of immigrants, and the threat they pose to public safety do not reflect actual immigration effects or correspond with attitudes toward immigrant populations.  Instead, sociotropic factors such as ethnicity and national origin better explain social attitudes (Abrajano and Hajnal 2017; Hainmueller and Hopkins 2015).  Racism, with its seeming intractability, underlies both policy and social attitude, and it has done so throughout US history (Bender 2015; Douglas, Saenz, and Murga 2015; Ramírez 2018; Weiland 2017).

Yet there are moments in our national immigration narrative that reveal our nobler selves: the (painfully slow) expansions of citizenship eligibility, the post-Holocaust creation of asylum, and the removal of national admission quotas are noteworthy examples.  These steps came through collective acknowledgment of wrong, when community members, including those not personally affected, recognized injustice and worked to end it.  These steps were inadequate, but they moved us toward moral recovery.

Historical and experimental studies alike bring this hope: leaders, including emergent leaders who choose to speak, hold the potential to move society toward wholeness.  Effective actions will include acknowledgement of wrong, protections for vulnerable groups, survivor empowerment, and bystander education (Bell, Coker, and, Clear 2019; Staub 2012, 2015, 2019; Staub, Pearlman, Gubin, and Hagengimana 2005; Williams and Allen 2015).  These courageous steps can shift social direction, and by extension, improve policy.


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Author Names

Jenifer Wolf-Williams

Date of Publication May 8, 2020
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy050820