“The Perilous Path to Asylum” Transcript
Guest: Dr. Hawthorne “Hawk” Smith
Hawthorne Smith: Who are we as a nation? Do we draw on this, sort of, nationalistic momentum or do we adhere to what’s written at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty?
Michael Epstein: Welcome to another episode of Mind of State. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty Teng: And I’m Betty Teng and together, we are your hosts for Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. Hi, Michael.
Michael: Hey, Betty.
Betty: Michael, do you remember the Dos Equis beer commercial? I think it started a few years back.
Michael: Sure, sure. The most interesting man in the world.
Betty: Yeah. It features this debonair white guy who climbed mountains, jet skis, drives fancy cars, and seems at home in really wealthy environments. All the things that, I guess, beer commercial people think makes someone fascinating. The tag line was something like, if you drink beer, consider drinking Dos Equis or stay thirsty, my friends. Something like that.
Michael: Yeah, I remember.
Betty: So for me, and for everyone else listening, just hold onto that thought as I welcome today’s guest, Dr. Hawthorne “Hawk” Smith. And it’s such a pleasure, Hawk. Welcome to Mind of State.
Hawk: Thank you so very much. Thank you for having me.
Betty: So Dr. Hawthorne Smith is a clinical psychologist and program director of the Bellevue NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, one of just a handful of organizations nationwide that provides comprehensive medical, legal, psychiatric, psychological, and social services needs for asylum seekers. He is also an associate clinical professor at the NYU School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Smith has been recognized for his work with such awards as the Robin Hood Foundation’s Hero Award and the International Youth Leadership Institute’s W. E. B. Du Bois Award. He was also a cofounding member of Nah We Yone Incorporated, a nonprofit organization working primarily with refugees from Sierra Leone as well as other displaced Africans in New York, and helped coordinate the International Youth Leadership Institute, IYLI, a leadership program for marginalized New York City teens.
In addition to running the Program for Survivors of Torture, Dr. Smith provides forensic evaluations, human rights consultations, and mitigation services to organizations like the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Office of Federal Defenders. Hawthorne Smith is also a professional musician, a saxophonist and a vocalist with international experience. So really, the reason why I mentioned the Dos Equis, the most interesting man in the world, Michael and Hawk, is that, Hawk, I think you are the most interesting man in the world. If there was a contest, I’d nominate you. I read this bio and I’m just like, this is enough. You know, I get to saxophonist and vocalist and I’m done. I am. It’s time for me to go home. So without further ado, Hawthorne, or Hawk, as I know you to be. Tell me a little bit about what we wanted to talk about today, which is this new change in policy of, very easily the acronym, the LIFO versus FIFO, which has happened in our current administrative change in immigration policy. It’s something that you wanted to highlight, and I think it’s very interesting.
Hawk: Absolutely. And once again, thank you for having me. I wasn’t nervous until you gave me that introduction, but now I better be interesting first thing in the morning.
Michael: Or just drink a beer.
Hawk: There you go, exactly.
Betty: Have a Dos Equis and we’ll talk.
Hawk: Right. That sounds wonderful.
Michael: We need a sponsor anyways.
Hawk: Yes. We’re talking about the asylum process. And it’s something I’ve been involved with through the Program for Survivors of Torture for these past 23 years. We’ve seen a lot of changes and some of the recent changes have been really, really daunting. We’re seeing a system that is increasingly not systematic at all. People are paying a very severe and significant psychological cost while being involved in this system. The acronyms you just gave, FIFO and LIFO, FIFO was first in first out, LIFO is last in first out. And the explanation is, let’s assume, for example, Betty, you came to the States and you applied for asylum three years ago. And I just show up today and I’m applying for asylum now. First in first out would signify that your case will be treated before my case, first come first serve sort of thing, which makes logical sense.
Betty: And it’s about an average of a two year, two to three year wait, as it’s been.
Hawk: Exactly, as the system is very waterlogged right now. But what has happened recently is there has been a change in policy to LIFO, which now stands for last in first out, meaning that even though you were here three years before me, if I come in and apply, my case will be treated first. And part of the rationale, I’m doing air quotes here which you can’t see on the podcast, but the rationale behind that is sort of the assumption that most people coming to apply for asylum are applying frivolously. That these are cases that really have no legal standing and, understanding that the system is so waterlogged right now, there is a fear in terms of the administration that people will just apply with frivolous cases and then get into the system, be able to get their employment authorization documents, etc., and be here in the country for four or five years while they adjudicate their case. So what they’re sort of saying is almost an assumption of-
Michael: A lie.
Hawk: –of lying. Exactly. So they’re having their cases treated first.
Betty: So my example would be as a liar. I’m assumed to be a liar if I’ve been here for three years waiting for my asylum period.
Michael: You’re assumed to be a liar if you walk in the door today, right.
Hawk: Well, I don’t want to go and prejudge what it is they’re saying, but it does seem to be a presupposition that those people coming in, they’re a lot of frivolous cases, let’s get them out of the way first so that they don’t get into the system, get work authorization, etc.
Betty: I see.
Michael: Can you take a step back for us? And can you just tell us, before we get too deep into the woods or weeds of the process, why someone’s seeking asylum in your experience? The people you see, because if the assumption now of the Trump administration or people like Jeff Sessions, who’s no longer the attorney general, but just in general, that we should be turning refugees away, and we can talk about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the fact that we signed on and refugee rights in a sec. But if the assumption is, we should not be taking in refugees. We should be working hard to deter people from even showing up at our door. I think it’s a fair assumption at this point. I think that’s the Steve Miller, Trump, you’re shaking your head, but I’m going to say yes, for the podcast folks listening.
Hawk: Yeah. And now just to get to your initial question on that, who are the people who are coming–
Michael: Right, who are those people we’re turning away then?
Hawk: Oftentimes I do trainings on this material and I’m going to a crowd that might not be as well versed in what’s going on. I will start by asking a few questions. I will ask people to raise their hands, for example, if they have ever voted in an election or if they have ever written a letter to the editor, which immediately dates me as an old guy. Or I’ll say, have they ever written a blog post or–
Michael: Comment thread.
Hawk: Exactly. I will ask if anyone belongs to an identifiable religious group or if they don’t belong to an identifiable religious group. Do they identify as a woman? Do they have or are they close to somebody who has a sexual orientation other than heterosexual? And then I’ll sort of stop and say, okay you’re probably wondering who is this guy and why is he asking all these intrusive and semi-inappropriate questions? But the answer is that if you raised your hand to any of those questions I just asked, I can say that the people we are treating at the program are people just like you. You know, we are not looking at an exotic other when we’re looking at torture survivors or people who are fleeing persecution. It really is a question of shared humanity–
Michael: Or terrorists, right. I mean, that’s the presumption that the people that are seeking refuge are going to be criminals or they’re going to be–
Hawk: Yeah. There’s a great deal of fear and I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding regarding who these people are. So I think that this is very important, what we’re talking about, is that when you look at what’s written at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty and what this country has always supposedly stood for, these are people coming and seeking solace, seeking safety, and under very harrowing circumstances. Literally, in the last two or three weeks, we have had families referred to us from detention centers along the border with Mexico and Texas, from Laredo, Texas, who were paroled on again, air quotes, humanitarian grounds, but who were given their next address as 462 First Avenue, New York, New York. They were just sent–
Betty: Which is your address.
Hawk: –which is our address at Bellevue. And people coming from Central African countries and coming through and being detained at the border, a very long, arduous journey, but coming through the correct way and at the correct places and then being just sent. Good luck, no bus ticket, anything, and forced to find a way to New York. And we’ve had a couple of occasions where we’ve just seen families who have arrived come up to our offices on the seventh floor with suitcases and are very surprised to find out that we’re not a hotel or a hostel or something like a youth hostel or what have you. And then we have to scramble. So it’s happened a couple times in the last few weeks. I don’t know if this is gonna happen more often, but–
Michael: And what are their experiences? Who are they?
Hawk: You know, again, as I was saying, and that, for example, a couple of the folks who’ve just recently arrived were people who were manifesting and being involved in opposition politics against dictatorial regimes in their home countries.
Betty: In what countries?
Hawk: One country, for example, was Democratic Republic of Congo, where there has been ongoing violence since 1997. And for a lot of really complex, sort of, network of reasons. There are incredible natural resources in the eastern part of Congo, including uranium, coltan, things that go in all of our cell phones, all of those things, and they’re being exploited. And that is also where there’s a great deal of violence going on. There has been a regime in place since the late 90s after the assassination of the first president, Kabila, the second president coming in and trampling on the Constitution. Oh I’m only supposed to have two mandates, but we’re gonna rip up the Constitution. I’m going to present myself for a third or for another. And people are pushing back and those people who push back are horribly abused and detained and oftentimes forced to flee the country, often into a border with the country right next to it, where, again, we always say if you’re fleeing a war-torn, chaotic, impoverished nation, seems like four out of five times, you’re crossing the border into a chaotic, impoverished–
Betty: Right, so it’s a frying pan into the fire kind of situation.
Hawk: Exactly. And then they hope that the, you know, finally the end of their journey here will, sort of, be the antidote to that. What we’re seeing now is increased–
Betty: Another frying pan.
Hawk: Another frying pan, indeed.
Betty: We’re becoming another frying pan. I mean, this language that you’re talking about, which is the language of the USCIS, paroled, detained, frivolous. I mean, it’s just interesting because it points to a criminalization of immigration, of asylum seekers. And I want to ground us in the fact that, you know, these people are people who have been subjugated in their own countries, flee, come to us with a process that they have learned that is possible, get detained. And how long are they detained? Has this particular family from the Democratic Republic of Congo been detained?
Hawk: It can be a wide range. A couple of the recent families that were just sent to us, the detention was not long at all. It was only a few days. We’ve had other clients from other countries who were detained for well over a year and oftentimes some of their cases adjudicated while they are in detention. So, again, as I sort of mentioned up front, it is a system that is becoming less systematic over time, more, sort of, capricious and this, sort of, lack of control, lack of knowing what’s coming next is also something that weighs on survivors in a very strong emotional sense. And, you know, again, as we were sort of talking about that FIFO LIFO situation, for people who have been here for three years and are still waiting for that initial asylum interview and now are being told that they’re being placed at the end of the line, it is emotionally wrenching and really has a negative impact on their functioning when everyday could be that day that they get the notice that they’re going to get an interview and every day going to the mailbox, every day, sort of, checking that out. And it doesn’t come. It doesn’t come.
And having no sense of control, just being able to go check the USCIS website and all you see is that your case is pending, no more information while they’re getting calls from their family back in their home country. And I think this is one of the most wrenching things because we actually begin to see families disintegrate as someone’s been here for two and a half, three years. There’s no progress and then someone might express doubt, a spouse might be, have you found a new family? Have you given up on us? Parents who have not seen their children for years, I mean, we have these wrenching images of what’s going on at our southern border now. But a lot of the family separations we don’t have images of are these people who came over again, quote unquote, the correct way, have been sitting in this system for three years while their children, while their spouses are sitting behind a firewall in, still, what is a very chaotic, dangerous place.
Betty: And once they get a hearing, they, what do they hope for? They’re looking for a ratification that they’re here, of their asylum status, and then they can seek citizenship or seek work permits, seek to stay here, seek a green card.
Hawk: Yes. So through the asylum process, oftentimes it moves so slowly now that one might be able to get employment authorization while still in process. I think that that’s some of the reasoning behind the LIFO thing is that we don’t want people in this long process and still be able to work. We want to get the frivolous, quote unquote, cases out. But what they want is a normalization of their status so that they, while their case is pending, they’re here legally. They are not illegal in any sense. They’re not fully documented, but they are legal in the United States while this case is pending. The first step is usually an asylum interview at the level of the asylum office. We find that it’s a very high bar to get your asylum granted at the level of the asylum office, even at our program. Oftentimes, we sort of do a little stress inoculation with our clients that if you don’t get it at that level, if you are referred to the immigration court, it doesn’t mean they didn’t believe your case. It doesn’t mean that you have a weak case, but the asylum officers don’t have the wherewithal to grant as readily as an immigration judge.
Betty: So you’ve seen the cases approved go down in the last couple years?
Hawk: Yes, there’s statistics out that, yes, the cases, the level of approvals are going down. But what we are really sitting with is that lack of rapidity, how slow these cases are. So even if someone has a strong case, what you’ve mentioned before, maybe it’s two or three years it might take, now it’s more easily four or five years.
Michael: What’s the cause of that? Is it just that the system’s overloaded?
Hawk: The system is overloaded and there have been times with what has been going on at the southern border that sometimes asylum officers have been relocated and sent there to, sort of, deal with that situation so that we don’t have as many at Lyndhurst, New Jersey, or in Rosedale, Queens, where they adjudicate cases here in the United States. And also, I think that there’s been an increase in need. And so, as we were saying before, when people go to the asylum office, if it doesn’t work at that level, they’re referred to immigration court and it’s at that level that they will see the immigration judge. That’s where we have more of a chance to bring in expert witnesses to provide affidavits. We really helped to prepare people to, sort of, tolerate what is generally intolerable in terms of this process and, sort of, hang in there.
I’ve heard statistics that anywhere from like 23 up to 35, 40 percent of cases, of asylum cases, that are adjudicated, only, you know, a minority with 25 to 40 percent are actually adjudicated successfully. At our program, we have about a 97 percent success rate. And some of that, I think, is selection bias, that we’re getting some of the more highly traumatized people and working with them. Also, the fact that we are able to provide the support to help them to tolerate this process, we’re able to help provide medical affidavits, psychological affidavits, even help them get pro bono attorneys or whatever it might be, we’re able to really help solidify the cases. But again, most people are not able to get to a program like us. People are knocking on the door and our waiting list is extensive. And so–
Michael: How many people do you help right now?
Hawk: We helped between four to five hundred people last year in terms of active cases–
Michael: And how long is your waiting list?
Hawk: At the time, we had to push the pause button on our waiting list because of staffing issues, etc. Our waiting list was approaching a year. And again, for people in distress, and particularly now, again, with this LIFO situation where people are coming and getting, you know, so the exact opposite problem of someone who’s been waiting here for three years and can’t get any movement on the case, some of these people who are coming in are now getting court notices that they need to be there in four weeks or six weeks. And at that point, they probably have not found a lawyer. They have not been able to–
Betty: So they’re ill-prepared for that hearing.
Hawk: Ill-prepared and perhaps can fall prey to some less than reputable services within the community. You know, we’ve talked about notarios in places like that. A lot of my Francophone clients talk about le conseiller de la rue, you know, sort of, street street advice.
Betty: Street lawyers.
Hawk: Street lawyers who do this and that, kind of a slipshod thing. And if you go there now and your story is not airtight or there are contradictions, or things that don’t make, kind of, sense, the bar is even higher. So–
Betty: So in a way, this last in first out, first in last out is hurting people on both ends of this waiting list. The people coming in first, don’t have the time to prepare a viable case in front of USCIS and then the people who have been waiting are falling apart or losing hard or also not not getting their hearings. They’re they’re being bumped to the back of the line. So they’re waiting even longer. So both, this whole thing is a subjugation or a persecution of people who are seeking asylum. It’s to harm them.
Hawk: Well, you’re absolutely correct that people on both ends of this equation are suffering. You know, I hesitate to go so far that it’s purposeful to harm them, but there is harm being committed, people are definitely suffering. I remember I had a group session, I run a group for French speaking African survivors that’s been up and running for about 22 years now. And there was a particular session where a gentleman from Guinea said, you know what, I’m done, I’m going home. My kids are calling me. I can’t do anything for them. I’m going home. I know I’ll be killed. I know as soon as they find out, the authorities, that I’m back in the country, they will kill me.
Michael: What did he do that he thinks his life is in danger?
Hawk: He spoke up in terms of corruption. He spoke up in terms of human rights and the rights of women regarding FGC.
Michael: Female genital mutilation.
Hawk: That’s correct.
Betty: Genital cutting.
Hawk: Yeah. So he spoke up on these issues and he suffered greatly for it. Anyway, he was saying that I’m ready to go home because at this point I can’t hug my babies. And if I go home, I know they’ll kill me, but maybe I’ll have a few days, maybe I’ll have a couple of weeks where I can hug my babies because I can’t even do that yet. And people in the group really responded in support of ways people shared their stories. There was a gentleman from Congo Brazzaville who talked about when he first came to the United States, he had set up a way to get into the airport, but it had to be when a particular officer who had been bribed or someone else was there to get him on the plane because he was being sought, again, for political opposition. And when it came, okay you need to get to the airport now. You need to be here within 60 minutes, we’re flying. But his son wasn’t home, his older son wasn’t home. And he waited as long as he could. He couldn’t. He left. And when he got to the United States and he first activated his cell phone, all he saw were text messages from his son. Daddy, you didn’t even say goodbye to me. And so his first few days in this country, just wandering around like a zombie. How do I respond? My son.
He shared this story, but then was also able to talk about the fact that now he has successfully adjudicated his asylum case. He’s in the process of trying to reunite his family. But what he said to the gentleman from Guinea, and I thought was very poignant, was like, you can no longer think about your family as the family you left behind. You have to think about the family that you’re moving toward, that is in front of you, because if you sort of place them in that context that you’re moving towards this, that you’re you’re working, you’re going through this horrific pain that you’re going through right now, but they’re in front of you, that will give you the strength to persevere. But if you think of them as behind you, you will drown. And it’s this sort of insight, it’s this sort of mutual support that clients give one another that I think they can speak to more poignantly because they’re involved in it. They’re really walking in those shoes and that’s what we try to provide.
Michael: So that young gentleman who successfully adjudicated his case, he’s the gentleman who came here, found the text messages.
Michael: Is his son able, in his future self, does he have any reasonable hope of reuniting with his family or no?
Hawk: Yes, that is in process now. This is one of the things that we really work with our clients on is, as arduous as this is, one of the only tools we have left is this notion of hope that our clients have. And this person who was now able to successfully adjudicate and get his asylum is in the process of family reunification. There are things around DNA tests and tickets and blah blah blah, visas. But if an adult wins asylum, then their biological children under the age of 21 can be covered within that. So we’re in the midst of trying to make that happen. And again, it’s a question of resources, even, you know, plane tickets from New York, from Congo Brazzaville, not easy. Things like that–
Betty: And how many years has it been since they’ve been separated?
Hawk: That’s been about five years.
Betty: So this is the real, I mean, this is without any kind of policy change and persecution or attack on immigration. This has just been happening for decades now. This is the challenges of seeking asylum in the United States.
Hawk: That is, yes, that’s very accurate. But I do think that what has been happening recently, it sort of turns up the temperature in terms of the anxiety or the potential for hopelessness. Again, those street rumors going out there, we’ve had group sessions where there’s a text that goes around, has gone sort of viral. Do not take the train up to 125th Street because they’re rounding up all the Guineans on 125th Street and sending folks back. And it wasn’t true, but it’s still enough to make someone not want to leave their apartment, not come to their appointments, not go to work. It’s getting in the way–
Betty: Not go to their hearing appointments, perhaps.
Hawk: Perhaps, that’s right.
Betty; So where do you think these things are sourced from? These, kind of, viral text messages, these rumors. Is it from the atmosphere? Is it from somebody in the community who just gets anxious, hyper-anxious and hears something? It’s an anxiety response, clearly. And is it a result of this macro environment becoming very, very heightened and antagonistic towards immigrants? Are people very aware that they could get stopped on the street and sent home in a second?
Hawk: Yeah, I couldn’t identify the particular source of the text, but I definitely do think that the environment and the anxiety that is prevalent, not only perhaps can increase the number of these sort of rumors that go around, but also change the way in which they’re heard. So we work with different partners, Lutheran Social Services, etc., in terms of trying to do know your rights trainings for our clients, what to do if someone approaches them on the street, what to do if someone knocks at their door and identifies themselves as an immigration officer, what sort of things, what sort of rights they have. You know, in terms of asking for a warrant, in terms of, you know, their right to speak with their lawyer before engaging with folks, even if things happen on the street, you know, while identifying and moving very slowly, perhaps even having their phone out to record what is happening, things, different sort of steps that they can take. But knowing that there are still within their rights, because a lot of times what is being said in the neighborhood is something that sort of contradicts that and lets them know that they are absolutely powerless. And we let them know, you know, you are, you have legal status. You have applied. Your case is pending. And–
Michael: You can’t just get kicked out.
Hawk: Exactly, exactly.
Michael: I’m curious how, if you look back at the Obama years or before that, George W. Bush, do you look at those as like the golden years? I mean, because, you know, one of the things that I think was missed during the Obama administration was they were quite hard on immigrants. And I wonder if, in the Trump era, we look back and don’t honestly assess that what we’ve been doing for a very long time, regardless of political party or any administration, has been less than generous.
Hawk: I think that’s fair. I came into this work in 1995. There were landmark immigration laws passed in 1996 during the Clinton administration. It made things harder. We had the 12 month bar that was placed in, that if you didn’t apply within 12 months of arriving in the country, it made things much more difficult to adjudicate. There’s a lot that was going on there. So it has not been my experience, I can not point to any golden era with this. It has always been hard. It’s always been an uphill struggle. I think that the majority of cases have been denied through the course of the time I’ve done this work. But I think what’s going on now is that there is more of that sort of sense of anxiety in a system that is becoming less systematic. I’m actually on call right now for an asylum hearing that was scheduled for this afternoon, but it has, we just got notice yesterday, they switched it to this morning.
Michael: Check your phone, man. No, I’m not kidding. Go check your phone.
Hawk: It’s all good. I let them know–
Betty: Why did they move it to, last minute, what is the, is this just the way it goes now?
Hawk: I do not know the reason.
Betty: It’s very idiosyncratic. It’s just spontaneous. You just have to deal with it.
Hawk: Yeah, that I don’t know. And again, folks are very powerless to sort of change that, especially the last minute. And you don’t want to say, oh we’re not available in the morning, please move the case forward, because then it might be a considerable amount of time before you have that opportunity again. One thing I can talk about that seems to be systematic is there were a few, a number of people who were being planned to be deported. But then the courts overturned that because their notices to appear in immigration court didn’t have a specific time or date. They were just, sort of, like date to be determined. So they said, well how can you sort of calculate the amount of time they’ve overstayed? So what has happened in the last year or so is now we’re actually beginning to see some people get notices to appear, whether before the asylum office or the courts, with dates that are fictional dates. And we’ve had people, and we’ve been reading about this, you know, people getting the date, asylum date, of September 31st, which, of course, doesn’t exist, or, you know, coming in at midnight when the courts are closed. And again–
Michael: Wouldn’t that be a technicality then in a court?
Betty: And are they delivering these dates that are not existent dates, like February 30th, on purpose or–
Hawk: Yeah, let me continue with that. I think they were doing it at first to make sure that there was some date on the paper, thinking that this would sort of smooth over that mistake that was made. But of course courts are looking at this, well if it’s a fictional date or something–
Michael: So they’re just idiots.
Hawk: But they have now gotten, I think they’ve learned from those mistakes and people are now getting court notices or notices to appear before the asylum office that are legitimate dates but that are not scheduled within the calendar. So people might be going to see the asylum officer on a particular date and they’re not even on the docket. So this is something that lawyers are beginning to look at now. I don’t have the, it’s sort of like this is bubbling up right now, hot off the presses.
Betty: So there’s a discrepancy between the date that the asylum seeker gets and there’s no date that is recorded within the court system.
Hawk: Because they didn’t want to put a date to be determined or whatever on their notice because they know that might have ramifications later down the line. So, again, it’s just another example of how this system is becoming less systematic. And imagine being an asylum seeker and you get this letter. You must show up at this particular date and you speak with your lawyers who go on the website and check and you’re not on the docket and they say, you know what? Ignore that. You don’t have to go that day. And people are like wait a minute. I have a letter that says I have to go. Again, just the amount of anxiety or the amount of, perhaps, people wanting to sort of push back or not go through the system, the proper system as we keep on hearing about it. There feels like there’s a lot of punishment or at least perceived punishment that it doesn’t, I’m trying to do all these things the right way, but it doesn’t seem like it’s working out in my favor. You know, they’re giving me years to wait or they’re rushing me before I can even get ready or give me a notice to appear for a hearing or an interview that doesn’t even exist.
Betty: And Hawk, do you think this is a breakdown of a system? Because we’re, you know, to Michael’s point, in that right now we’re seeing this immigration temperature heat up, as you just said, but it’s always been bad, as it’s always been difficult to be an immigrant coming into the United States. And if you look at history and what came to mind for me was post 9/11, that things got really difficult post 9/11 because of terrorism, because of the perception that people from the outside were going to come here and do violence to Americans. And so, and I noticed and read at that time, that immigration and even airport security became highly tightened and people were more detained. Those, even citizens who had had passports but were perceived as, brown folks were detained. And so now it seems worse. And we can blame this on the Trump administration. Is this a symptom or a cause? Like, is this, is Trump using immigration as a central point of his campaign and his presidency as a scapegoat for all the problems that Americans are suffering from or one of the main drivers? Is this creating this chaos in the USCIS system or is this a result of ongoing negligence? What’s happening that, this is chaos. This sounds like, you know, a kind of absurdist dystopian bureaucracy that, you know, a Cheshire Cat is standing there pointing in different directions. So where does this come from?
Hawk: I think there’s no doubt that the issues surrounding immigration and asylum seekers are very active and very potent in the political sphere. And they’re being used in different ways, particularly by the administration. But I think that there are multiple factors going into what’s happening now, and some of it is more distress around the world and people trying to flee, people trying to come to this country. And the resources not being adequate to really respond to that. And, you know, we talk about the people who are coming in. We talk about the political aspect. Sometimes we forget about some of the service providers who were sort of caught in between. And I had the opportunity to do a training out in New Jersey for the asylum office in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, they work in the Newark office there, and just the amount of stress, the amount of anxiety, the amount of pressure on these folks, and to talk about, you know, knowing that there are people knocking on their doors that are waiting for so long. But then also wanting to have more time to deal with the three or four cases they might have to deal with that day, feeling constrained by some of the bureaucratic restrictions that they have, but also how they’re perceived and it was interesting, you know, I asked the question, we were again doing this sort of talk on provider wellness. And I asked folks, I said, when you go to a cocktail party or whatever it might be to go have a Dos Equis or whatever it is, do you–
Betty: To meet you, the most interesting man in the world.
Hawk: Do you identify yourself as an asylum officer? How many, and there were maybe about 75 officers there, maybe five or six hands went up. And I said, well do you identify, if someone, you know, what do you do for a living? How many say, you know, I work for the government or something like that. And maybe another dozen, couple of hands went up. And I said, well how many of you, like, make up some stuff? I’m an airplane pilot or whatever. And a bunch of hands went up and it was a little bit of laughter, but at the same time, and then one of the officers said, you know, it’s funny. No one knows what we do. If you watch, for example, if you watch Fox News or you talk to someone who watches a lot of Fox News, they probably think that we’re just these people who are opening the doors and just letting anyone come in, MS13, come on in, whatever whatever and open borders. But if you talk to someone who watches a lot of MSNBC or someone who might be listening to this podcast, they might say they think that we’re these draconian people who are just intent on ripping apart families and all that. And people don’t know what it is we do. So it’s just an example of in all the areas of this system, people are feeling overwhelmed and overwrought and it’s beyond politics.
Betty: And ashamed. If these people are lying about what they do, making stuff up so that they can hide what it is because of a grand misperception about what it is they do, which is necessary. And so that there’s a lot of pain around the system, that there are these people who are waiting to get in. They’re subject to these very mercurial changes in policies. They don’t know what time and what place. They don’t know about the dates. And then there are these agents who are there, and are they clear on what the system is? Are they also equally as confused?
Hawk: I think when, a couple things, you mentioned shame, you mentioned pain. And I think I would emphasize the pain more than the shame. And even just again, when you’re out in a social setting, like, do I really want to have this conversation with this person who’s probably going to come at me from one way or the other. So let me be neutral. But I think that they are very well aware of what the limitations are. I think they are very well aware of where the potential pitfalls are. And they see the pain on the people who are applying face to face, the uncertainty of the cases where they know if only a couple of other pieces of information were there, questions that remain unanswered, we would probably be able to grant at this level, but we can’t. And so it has to go to the immigration court, so this person’s gonna be in the process for another two to three years. And how they feel about that, you know. And also the fear of not making a mistake, of letting someone come in who might be dangerous or who is lying and not wanting to be taken advantage of like that. I remember in New York when we had the situation many years back with Amadou Diallo, who was gunned down in the vestibule of his building, 41 bullets, 19 hit him, a young African immigrant who just went for his wallet and they thought it was a gun and they shot him down. And I remember that in the aftermath, such a great outpouring of advocacy around the city and defending his rights, but what a lot of people didn’t realize is that Amadou Diallo was here as an asylee. He claimed to have been from Mauritania and seen his parents killed and everything in front of him. But then after he was killed in a barrage of bullets, here come his parents from Guinea and then his mom–
Michael: I remember that.
Hawk: Yeah, his mom was quite the celebrity, media celebrity, how dignified she was and all that. But it became very, very hard for anybody from Mauritania to go through the system the next couple of years because there was always a sort of presupposition.
Betty: It wasn’t true.
Hawk: Yeah, maybe this is someone from another country claiming to be from Mauritania.
Michael: Can I ask you, as you were talking before, even before you mentioned all of this, I wanted to know, you know, you clearly have a point of view, right, in terms of asylum seeking and those seeking asylum, right. The right to do it, what America should do, so on and so forth. And yet you, and you struggle clearly in and against a system that sometimes moves to slow. I’m curious, what’s your experience in terms of the counterpoint? The people who you are either going to court, sit on the other side of the table, right. You know, are you looking at people and saying, well we all are entering this with good faith or are you seeing your counterparts inside the government acting in bad faith? Or is it just a system that’s fundamentally broken, as you seem to be saying, because there aren’t enough resources, there aren’t enough days in a calendar year. And there are so many people now in a world torn apart by civil war, by all sorts of things. I mean, female genital mutilation has nothing to do with civil war and yet, you know, there’s violence, rape as a weapon of war, for example, right. Things that people seek asylum for. What’s your experience with the system itself? Is it just broken or is it actively resisting people who have a moral and humanitarian right?
Hawk: I think that the system is overwhelmed. When I think of something that is broken, I almost think of something that is beyond repair or that is so beyond its ability to function, that it’s almost better to do without it. I wouldn’t go that far. In terms of my point of view, as a psychologist, I’m a human rights psychologist, but it’s not every client that comes to our program or tries to get in that we provide affidavits for or will go to testify for if, even in terms of how they present to us or the potential for secondary gain or things like that, it’s not everyone that I will. Well yeah they’re saying they need asylum. I’m going to bat for everyone. There have been times when people have come up and said things to us that are demonstrably untrue or whatever. So I only go to court, I only write affidavits for people with whom I’ve had clinical experience and that I find to be credible, who are here in terms of trying to heal themselves.
Michael: And how do you determine that? I mean, how do you, what standard do you have that can differentiate them?
Hawk: Yeah, I think that one of the things we have an advantage at Bellevue is really that we have sort of a course in treatment with folks, that we see them over time and if their story, and, you know, doing this for a long period of time and being familiar with some of the history of a lot of the countries where our clients are coming from, and, you know, do they sort of over, if there’s something that’s not it, I always get the benefit of the doubt. We start there. But unless there’s something egregiously wrong like, just a quick example, someone who came to us from Guinea in 2010 and there’d been a huge manifestation riot and public rapes and people who were killed at their independent stadium, the 28th of September stadium. And the event was actually on the 28th of September 2009. He had a visa. He came to the United States on the 24th of September 2009, but was still telling the story of all the things he witnessed in the stadium and being locked up for months. And I was like, are you sure this is your ticket and when you came in? He was in Brooklyn when this thing happened.
I can’t go to court for that guy, right. I mean, so there’s, when things are egregious, I won’t go there. So I don’t have a point of view that whoever knocks on the door does this. But so my assumption is good faith. It has to be good faith on our end. I cannot write something. I cannot write an affidavit. I cannot testify to something I have not observed or believe in. And I hope, believe, and I’m knocking wood that the folks on the other side too, whatever their political point of view or leaning might be, that justice and a sort of clear eyed weighing of the facts is where they’re coming from. I still do believe that that exists.
Betty: That there’s a rule of law and people are following it, on either side, on your side for the survivors of torture that you’ve done your due diligence along with the survivor, that this is a story that that is valid. On other side, that they’re following this rule of law as well.
Michael: But what’s interesting here is that there, you know, one side says it’s all fraud. The other side says everybody seeking asylum should get it. And what you’re saying is, is that there’s more nuance in some of this, right, and that, you know, we’re so divided, we stopped listening to these cases. So that young man who was in Brooklyn, I mean, first and foremost, he’s lying, which is a bad idea when you go to court or talk to a federal agent, which a lot of people in the Trump administration are learning. Don’t lie. Like if you don’t, right, I mean. But, does that man then have a valid asylum narrative or not? And now you can’t listen to it and he can’t tell it. And it’s just, in listening to you, I’m thinking if somebody is hearing that story, it’s going to validate an opinion on one side saying, see there’s fraud rife throughout the system and somebody else is going to listen and say, okay but why is he here in the first place? He still should get, you know. I mean, there’s an emotional attachment to our politics that strike me as not particularly helpful in situations like this because there are real problems.
Hawk: Yeah. And I think that, you know, that particular case is an outlier. But what you said at the very beginning of that question, I think is very important, that there is a great deal of nuance on both sides. We have immigration judges who are former Peace Corps volunteers and people who gravitate, and asylum officers, who gravitate to this field because of a true concern for human rights and wanting to see people [cough]. There are others who have much more of a, sort of, defend the borders kind of mentality. That exists. There’s a wide range of folks. I worked with an asylum, an immigration judge, one time who said, you know, there are some judges who grant almost 80 percent of the cases that come in front of them. There are other judges that only will grant two percent of the cases. And he says in both of those extremes, those are people who don’t work for a living. You know–
Betty: They’re not thinking about it.
Hawk: It’s almost like this preconceived notion. So–
Betty: I’m going to approve or I’m going to disapprove without thinking.
Hawk: Exactly. So there is a lot of nuance. And I think that, you know, in terms of a conversation that’s going on out there, that it’s all either, you know, it’s either the draconian folks who just want to block the borders or, you know, these hordes that are coming in, like those sort of extremes. If there’s anything that sort of comes from this conversation we’re having today, is I hope that people will think beyond that, to the humanity of that person who is sitting in front of them. I remember working with a woman from Ethiopia and, you know, she said it very, she said a number of things, but one that she said that was very poignant was just imagine that I’m a person with no home, no family, no resources, and I’m asking if I can come to stay with you. And, you know, that in a very real way, that’s sort of where she was seated emotionally.
Now, let’s look at her experiences. Let’s look at her case. We often see people who, over the course of treatment, you know, we see their, sort of, symptoms go down a little bit. But there might be spikes and troughs depending on bad news they get or good news or getting a job or doing things like that. But we definitely see people who are engaged in their treatment in a way, with it or not, just sort of like spinal tap with the things always turned up to eleven, you know, like I’m always in crisis, like we see someone really engaging with us. There are things that we can put forth, again, to really help take the tooth out of a cross examination where someone might be getting accused of malingering or faking or exaggerating and all that. We, again, our success rate is around 97 percent. And I think a lot of that is because we go into this with open eyes.
We, you know, the other question you had about that gentleman, there is a potential that there were other things that happened in his life and, or might’ve been other traumatic things, but that’s not what he came to us with. That’s not what he was going to the government with. And if it’s just judged on what he went forth with, he’s going to have trouble. And again, that’s problems with the street advice, because some people have legitimate claims and then are told, yeah that’s not going to be enough for you. You need to exaggerate it or what have you.
Michael: Exactly. Use this lie. You’ll get in.
Hawk: Exactly. So that’s part of the reason that we do as much as we can to get out there and educate in the public. And even, you know, again, in terms of the groups that we run to let people know if there are things in your story or things in your past, and we can talk about the nature of traumatic memories, that you don’t remember when you’re asked about them, you need to say I don’t remember. Or if there is a particular question that is asked, don’t try to create anything, even if you think that this is what the officer or what the judge is looking for. If it’s not part of your history, these folks are very well trained and they will ask you the same question four or five different ways and if it’s inconsistent, they’re going to think the whole thing is inconsistent. Tell your truth.
Michael: Truth will set you free.
Hawk: Well that’s certainly what we hope. You know, but in terms of just having mentioned traumatic memories and the fact that sometimes there are inconsistencies, people don’t remember was it four people in a room or was it five people, which date, and all those sort of things, and part of trying to demystify that. And we saw this in the Kavanaugh hearings when Dr. Ford was talking about the hippocampus and all that. One way I try to demystify this is that, you know, almost thinking of the brain as a library and the memories like books that are filed away and under normal circumstances there is a very, sort of, systematic way we do it. But when there’s a situation of trauma, of terror, or whatever. And the amygdala is, you know–
Hawk: –saying I don’t know, things kind of hit the fan and those books are placed any which way, you know, so that later on when you want to retrieve it and you go to the shelf where you think it would be, it’s not there. You might not be able to recall everything that happened on a particular date or what have you. And then there are other times when you’re just going around your life and you pick a book without even looking for it. And there it is. And it could be a flashback. It could be an intrusive thought if things are sort of scattered. So sometimes if someone has some inconsistency in their story or whatever, that’s not a deal breaker. That might actually be something that is part and parcel of traumatic memory and how things are encoded and how things are expressed. And part of our job as psychological experts is to be there and help explain this so that the person has a chance and we can really get at the heart of what’s going on.
Betty: And if the system is overwhelmed, Hawk, that means that, you know, you say, you make a very strong distinction between it’s not broken. And that means that there’s too many people for a system to handle, that it’s overwhelmed. There’s enough providers, not enough asylum officers, not enough judges to meet the needs of what’s going on. How do we deal with this in terms of policy so that it doesn’t, apart from the fact that it’s a political football, if we really want to think about it beyond the Fox News, beyond the MSNBC idea of this, there is a real issue going on, which is that it’s overwhelmed and it’s becoming chaotic or it is already chaotic, where a very distressing fact that dates and times and people are showing up for people’s hearings, you’re on call right now because of this very frivolous or very last minute change, which affects a lot of people’s lives. What do we do then on a policy level to take down this level of an overwhelmed system? Or how do we create more roads on the highways, so the traffic isn’t this bad? Do we even, is that a role in the world?
Hawk: There are a couple of ways to look at that. And some of it is content in terms of policy and where resources go. And I know this is a huge issue. This, you know, in terms of security of the country right now, do we build a wall or do we place these billions of dollars elsewhere that might be more effective? And that’s something for the politicians and social advocates to really get into. And I know that they are, but I think there’s also process questions. And how do we talk about this? And Michael, your point earlier that, you know, oftentimes people don’t recognize the nuance. They don’t recognize that there are a lot of people who are doing not only a lot of thinking about this, but feeling within this and trying to figure this out so that we can go forward.
And also maybe having that conversation about who are we as a nation? Do we draw on this sort of nationalistic momentum or do we adhere to what’s written at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty? How do we all who have immigration histories in our families, and we all do, some of us forced immigration, do we now sort of shut the door on those others who are coming who might be fleeing persecution or what have you? Again, is it a question of us and them or is it a question of us? Are we spending so much time talking about them, those people, those aliens, those illegals, those what have you, that we forget that we’re talking about people who seek freedom, people who are seeking a better life and trying to do something to help move this country forward. Where does it become us? And I think that we need to have those conversations in ways that aren’t so tribalized.
Hawk: And in having those conversations, perhaps that’s part of the key to unlocking some solutions in terms of how do we get more resources and smartly placed resources to make this system, I won’t say easier, but let’s say less difficult.
Betty: Less backlogged, less clogged, less chaotic, less literally absurd, it sounds like.
Hawk: More humanistic.
Betty: So, in what you’re talking about is something that we’ve been seeing in a lot of our interviews, that there is a narrative that is changing. You’d point to the words at the bottom of a Statue of Liberty and there has been a narrative arc of our country. Give us your poor. Give us your cold. Give us your hungry. And that, as you put it, many of us have immigrant backgrounds or immigrant histories. Most of us do. But there’s a denial of that in these debates between in group and outgroup status, that people who have been here for a while, whatever they identify with, might say that’s them. We have what we have. We don’t want to share what we got. We may have gotten it earlier, we may have come here earlier, but we do want to share it with people who are coming now. We don’t have enough. There’s a scarcity model, but that clashes with a narrative of the United States as a beacon and as a beacon on ideas.
According to the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal. So what you’re pointing to is a very big picture discussion then, Hawk. At the bottom, at the end of the day, that one of the takeaways here is that we need to, unfortunately, then I’m popping into my head as a Rumsfeldian issue, expand the problem. That not just process, we got to think about what the big picture, what we are as a nation, where we want to allocate our many resources, because we have the resources to deal with this overwhelmed system. So that’s intense.
Hawk: That’s a lot and I think that sometimes I look at these issues in terms of the micro and the macro. And as we move through this sort of enlarged space and looking at the macro issues, I think that sometimes the best education in this is to be in the micro and have that experience. Whether advocating, volunteering, people in the legal profession who are taking on some of these cases pro bono, law students, medical students, psychology students, psychiatric students, and everything getting involved in this and understanding and then being able to advocate from a place of some experience, of some contact, because an immigration judge told me one time in an informal conversation. He said that if I read The New York Times and I hear that there has been an attack on a village and 1500 Congolese have had to flee across the border into Uganda, I get that. But when there’s one woman who was among those 1500 who comes to court and tells what her experience was of that night, it almost becomes unbelievable because it’s so shocking in its intimacy and its realness. And I think that–
Michael: And it’s inhumanity.
Betty: And it’s personal. It’s individual. It’s not a number, it’s not a statistic of people moving, you know, being shoved across the border.
Michael: Can I go back to a thought you had earlier, because we’re a little bit more mind, a little less state, and I know we have like one question left. You were talking about trauma, that these asylum seekers are, the trauma of the experience, the trauma that they’re, not here, but the trauma for which they’re fleeing. How, if you can then, and you did your beautiful library metaphor, how responsive is the system then to those people who are still dealing with their trauma from wherever they’re fleeing? How much flexibility or sympathy or just care does the system afford them? How much does it understand the psychological toll that they’re still paying for what they’re here seeking asylum from?
Hawk: Two things with that. We’ve had a number of cases referred to us by asylum officers or even immigration judges where they’ve seen people decompensate in front of them and they’re like you need assistance–
Hawk: Sort of fall apart.
Hawk: Deteriorate in front of me. But that has been–
Betty: Have a breakdown
Hawk: –the exception as opposed to the rule. Oftentimes, it might be the legal teams who are like okay this person really needs help to go forth through this process, to tolerate what is intolerable and we may be called in or other service providers. The other thing I would say with that library metaphor and everything, in one of the diagnoses that gets bandied around a lot is post-traumatic stress disorder. But we are not just dealing with an isolated event of a really bad day of something to happen in Congo. We’re dealing with recurrent and reinforcing stressors that tend to keep the trauma alive very much in the present. So we’re not really dealing with post. And then again, are we also looking at a disorder when someone who’s been through the awful things we’re talking about and then the stress of coming here, not speaking the language, being the 14th person in a one bedroom apartment, sleeping in shifts, and all these other things are going on, wouldn’t we expect some difficulty sleeping?
Michael: Right, yeah. But does the system, does the asylum system, make accommodation for that, I guess, is the question. Or do they punish that?
Hawk: I think that there’s a wide variation. I can cite cases from particular judges who weren’t very conscious of that and others who are very open to that and actually will–
Michael: So it’s not monolithic.
Hawk: It’s not, again, what you talked about before, there is a lot of nuance. And I think that the opportunity we have, where we’ve spent a lot of time the day looking at the limitations because they’re very real. But I think what we’re looking at in terms of opportunity is to have conversations like this, to open more eyes to folks to what the barriers are and what it can be that we can do to get over them and help these people who are very deserving of the assistance they seek.
Betty: And as far as I understand it, to the point of Michael’s question, there’s no systematized offering within the USCIS to deal with trauma, complex trauma, in the asylum seekers. They’re purely, mostly, legal and bureaucratic organizations. The individual judges may refer, but there is no accommodation for the psychological impact of what asylum seekers may have experienced and may continue to experience.
Hawk: That is correct. I mean, there’s a national consortium for torture treatment programs, of which Bellevue is part, scattered around the country. There are different resettlement, refugee resettlement, agencies. But as I go around the country and do training at various places, the common theme is there is a lack of adequate mental health support, of services, for folks. So I think raising awareness, doing what you people are doing here is a wonderful step, but it’s gonna be a long, long journey. And, you know, I remain optimistic that we can make progress. You know, one thing, if I can leave you with an anecdote, you know, the Francophone group I run, there was a question asked once by an escaped slave from Mauritania. He asked, what are the things that we need, the characteristics one must have to change the world or at least to survive in the world. And I never thought they’d come to a consensus on this, it’s a pretty deep question, but they did. And that night, they came up with three things.
They said wisdom, courage, and hope. And they went a little further and they said that if you have two of these qualities, no matter which two, it’s insufficient, because if you’re a courageous and hopeful person who lacks wisdom, you’re going to go about your activities in an ineffective way and probably fail. If you’re wise and hopeful, but you lack courage, then you’re going to, sort of, cross your arms and be trapped in a prison of inertia, never act on your ideas. But with the people I work with, the people that you’ve come in contact with, I mean, the wisdom is there, the courage is there. What’s hard to hold onto is hope. And then they went even further and mentioned that, well, hope is not so much something you have. It’s something you do. It’s an attitude. It’s a comportment. It’s a way of, sort of, leaning into the world and to the situation. And it’s a capacity to hope and that perhaps most importantly, that capacity to hope can be shared. And I find that a lot with our client base and how they help one another. That’s kind of how I see our work at the program and what I do and actually helping people to hold on that. Even if this does take five years, even if there is a presupposition that your story isn’t credible until you prove it to be credible and you stay in there and you hang in there, your family can be in front of you. You can work towards that. You got to hang in. And that’s kind of where we sit right now.
Michael: Beautifully said.
Hawk: Thank you.
Michael: Beautifully said.
Betty: Thank you so much for joining us, Hawk.
Hawk: It’s my great pleasure.
Michael: Thank you. Hawk, is there a way that people who are listening in might be able to then, either if they are themselves an asylum seeker or if they simply want to help, can contact you?
Hawk: Absolutely. They can reach us, we have a web page, which is www.SurvivorsofTorture.org, Facebook, which is kind of old man social media here, we have the Bellevue NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, that’s our page. And, yeah come check us out.
Betty: Well, we have reached the end of yet another session. And as I like to say to Michael, time to take our problems home with us. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Caroline Kwash. Our engineer is Jack Dixon. Mind of State’s original music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Betty Teng.
Michael: And I’m Michael Epstein. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Pod, on our Facebook page, and at our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show at Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.