Study: One in Three Asylum Seekers Mistreated While Detained at Border

A page from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General’s report detailing conditions at immigrant detention facilities.

SAN DIEGO (CN) – One in three heads of household seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego reported mistreatment while detained, according to a study released Wednesday, with 61% of them reporting issues with food and water.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center analyzed intake data by the San Diego Rapid Response Network from October 2018 to this past June from its emergency shelter for asylum seekers who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego and needed help connecting with sponsors and family members across the country.

According to lead author Tom Wong, an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego and director of the policy center, the study is the most comprehensive account of conditions asylum seekers face when they are admitted into the U.S.

The study analyzed intake data provided by 7,300 heads of household, over 99% of whom sought asylum as a family with a child 18 years or younger.

In total, 17,000 asylum seekers were assisted by the San Diego Rapid Response Network and its shelter, including 7,900 children ages 5 or younger. Over 86% of the families came from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Wong and his team found one in three heads of household reported issues with their conditions in detention, which lasted an average 3.4 days. Researchers believe the figure is likely underreported.

Of those who faced problems, 61.8% experienced issues with food and water, including being fed frozen or rotten food, not having enough food or water, not provided formula for infants, having to drink dirty water and other issues.

Nearly 35% also reported hygiene issues, including not being able to shower, dirty bathrooms and not having a toothbrush or toothpaste to brush their teeth, according to the study.

Even more respondents – 45.6% – reported issues sleeping, overcrowded conditions and freezing temperatures.

Wong said the data backs up the anecdotal evidence asylum seekers have given regarding conditions in immigration detention.

“We previously only had glimpses. Now we have systematic evidence to support anecdotal accounts of substandard conditions in detention and the abusive treatment of those detained along the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s worse than we thought,” Wong said in a statement.

Nearly 12% of the asylum-seeking heads of household reported mistreatment, including more than 200 who reported verbal abuse in detention, including being told to “go back to your fucking country” and “you’re an ape.”

Forty of the head-of-household respondents reported physical abuse in detention, including being thrown against a wall.

Just under 11% of the households the rapid response network assisted reported medical issues in immigration detention.

While the study found just under 80% of the asylum-seeking households spoke Spanish as their primary language, for the 20% of families who spoke other languages including indigenous languages, they faced barriers to translation and immigration documents they could understand.

Over 87% of non-Spanish speaking heads of household were given “Notice to Appear” instructions for “check-ins” with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Spanish. Less than 1% of heads of household who spoke a Central American indigenous language were given instructions in a language other than Spanish.

Kate Clark, immigration services director for shelter operator Jewish Family Service, said the findings raise due process concerns.

“If asylum-seeking families are not being given vital instructions about their immigration proceedings in a language they can read or understand, how can we expect them to navigate an already complex legal process that is increasingly stacked against them?” Clark said in a statement.

ICE did not immediately return an email request for comment.

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