Monday, February 27, 2017

Trauma Sensitive Interventions: Helping Asylum Applicants Receive Protection

Guest blogger: Marshal Arnwine, University of San Francisco Law Student:

In order to qualify for asylum, an applicant must prove that he or she is a refugee, a person unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country or place of last habitual residence because of past persecution, or a well-founded fear of persecution, on the basis of race, nationality, membership in a particular social group, religion, or political opinion. When the applicant is presenting their case, the story must be credible. A tremendous challenge asylum applicants face is the ability to tell a consistent and highly detailed story of their past persecution or experiences. The inability to tell a consistent story can derive from the severe trauma an asylum applicant experiences. The severe trauma often leads to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can cause a person who suffered torture and beatings to blend the different occurrences together and not remember details from a particular event.

PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event, either by experiencing it or witnessing it. PTSD can affect an asylum applicant’s credibility. For example,

imagine if you were faced with the task of recalling a traumatic event in your life to an immigration judge and if your story does not “sound” credible, your asylum application can be denied. That is an incredible amount of pressure. Unfortunately, this is the pressure that asylum applicants often feel, and worse, they often lack guidance on how to alleviate that pressure. Attorneys should be diligent in preparing their client for their asylum hearing.

I propose that immigration attorneys send asylum applicants to trauma sensitive interventions before a hearing; that will improve the client’s chances of telling the story credibly, increasing their chances of having a winning asylum application. As of 2016, Veteran Affairs provides two forms of therapy to Veterans who suffer with PTSD. I believe that the same therapy Veterans receive can also benefit asylum applicants in being prepared to tell a consistent credible story.

The first form is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is known to be the most effective type of counseling for PTSD. In cognitive therapy, the therapist helps patients understand and change how they think about their trauma and its aftermath. The goal is to help the patient understand how certain thoughts about their trauma causes stress and worsen their symptoms. I believe CBT would be helpful to asylum applicants because they would know what thoughts and words trigger certain negative feelings that could cause them to inaccurately recall what happened.

 In the initial sessions of CBT, the patients learn how to identify their thoughts and what makes them feel afraid or upset. The therapist helps replace those thoughts with more accurate and less distressing thoughts. I believe it would be important for the asylum applicant’s attorney to be present at the therapy sessions too. In preparation for a removal hearing, it would be beneficial for the attorney to hear how the therapist uses alternative phrasing to help the client tell the traumatic story without getting consumed in negative emotions.

In the CBT sessions, patients talk about any negative or unhelpful thoughts they had about the trauma and work with therapist to consider other ways of thinking about the situation. When considering CBT as an option for asylum applicants, attorneys must keep in mind that CBT is most effective when the sessions are completed. Normally, sessions occur over a twelve week period are sixty to ninety minutes each. If the asylum applicant has time to participate in CBT before their hearing, it would be worth the investment. The trauma sensitive program would allow the asylum applicant to be mentally prepared to recall their traumatic story and tell it consistently to persuade an immigration judge that their story is credible.

The second form of therapy offered to Veterans with PTSD is called prolonged exposure therapy (PE). PE teaches individuals to gradually approach trauma related memories, feelings, and situations they have been avoiding since the trauma occurred. The goal of PE is to confront the challenges the patient has with rethinking the trauma and decrease the PTSD symptoms.

The therapist starts by giving the individual an overview of treatment and getting to know more about the individual’s past experiences. It would be important for the attorney, the asylum client and the therapist to develop a relationship. Being friendly and personable with the asylum client would make it more effective to advocate for them. Also, the client would feel more comfortable sharing this very personal information to the therapist and attorney.

Lastly, in PE the therapist teaches breathing exercises to help the patient manage anxiety. If an attorney can get their asylum client to manage their anxiety when telling their traumatic story, I believe that would increase the probability of the client telling the story accurately and consistently.


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