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How we are unwittingly complicit in incarcerating asylum seekers

The current mistreatment of asylum seekers calls for greater action in combating this structural violence.

Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center
An overcrowded fenced area holding families at a Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center is seen in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas, on June 11, 2019.
Office of Inspector General/DHS/Handout via REUTERS

“Is it nice outside?” the woman asked me as I was finishing up a pro-bono mental health evaluation for her asylum case. She had been in ICE custody for three months and told me that she had not felt fresh air on her skin in those three months.

Her question left me speechless. It reminded me that I had the privilege of being born in a safe place. It made me wonder if I would cross borders without documents just to feel safe. I questioned if there were ways in which I was complicit in perpetuating this woman’s plight.  

photo of article author
Adnan Ahmed
What might I have in common with ICE, CBP and the private prisons where asylum seekers are imprisoned? The answer is that I tacitly support them, even when I say that I do not. And even that one time when I marched on the streets with my protest sign that said, “Stop Separating Families.” The poster paper and sharpies I used to make my protest sign were purchased from Amazon – a company that allows its web-based services to run facial recognition software that helps immigration authorities apprehend undocumented immigrants. There are many other examples of how we support the imprisonment of asylum seekers. Our employers might have contracts with ICE or CBP or they might use a vendor that also serves private prisons — the Geo Group and CoreCivic are the two largest private prison contractors being used to house asylum seekers. It could be our credit card or cable companies that are funding these private prisons. Or our elected representatives who accept money from private prison companies. 

There is a term for this. It is called structural violence. Structural violence is harm caused by systems and structures in our society that prevent people (in this case, asylum seekers) from meeting their needs. Often the victims of structural violence are people belonging to marginalized groups. In the United States alone, there are numerous other examples of structural violence: slavery, colonization, gerrymandering and unaffordable drug prices, to name a few. 

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We have a history of distancing ourselves from our role in perpetuating racism and inequality. When we continue to have white weddings on plantations, when we can say that we are not racists because we don’t use racial slurs and when we defend keeping historical buildings named after known racists, it should come as no surprise that we do not question our part in separating asylum-seeking families. 

We tell ourselves that our employer, or Amazon, or our credit card company is not doing the work of actually separating families, so they are not the bad guys. By the same token, we delude ourselves by saying that we are progressive liberals who did not vote for President Trump, therefore we are also not the bad guys. 

The current mistreatment of asylum seekers calls for greater action in combating this structural violence. We can do this by bringing the protest inside. We can ask our loved ones, employers, schools, financial institutions and elected representatives to cut ties with ICE and CBP. The recent advocacy by Wayfair and Edelman employees is an example of collective advocacy of employees that resulted in both companies divesting from partnering in immigration detention. These employee activists understood, as must we all, that disrupting structural violence against asylum seekers will first require acknowledging our role in perpetuating it.

Adnan Ahmed, MBBS, is a community psychiatrist in Minneapolis. He has been doing pro-bono mental health evaluations for people in deportation proceedings since 2016.


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