Asylum-Seekers Turn To Doctors To Verify Claims They've Been Tortured : Shots - Health News It often falls to health care providers to discern whether the asylum-seekers who say they've been tortured or persecuted in their homeland bear physical and psychological evidence of that harm.
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Medical Clinics That Treat Refugees Help Determine The Case For Asylum

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Medical Clinics That Treat Refugees Help Determine The Case For Asylum

Medical Clinics That Treat Refugees Help Determine The Case For Asylum

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's getting harder for people to seek asylum in the U.S. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced stricter rules on people fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence. Now some applicants are hoping to increase their chances of getting asylum status with help from a special medical clinic in Oakland, Calif. Reporter Anna Gorman has the story.

ANNA GORMAN, BYLINE: Dr. Nick Nelson walks through busy Highland Hospital to a sixth-floor exam room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Over PA) Level 2 trauma - ETA 5 minutes.

GORMAN: It's here Nelson treats people from around the world - Guatemala, Sudan, Mongolia. Most fled abuse or torture. Now they are seeking protection in the U.S. Nelson's patient Juan Lopez Aguilar is from Guatemala. He's indigenous Mayan and says he and his community have suffered decades of persecution and violence.

JUAN LOPEZ AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

GORMAN: Aguilar is worried. He says there are a lot of gangs back home who kill people like him. He's hoping for asylum here.

AGUILAR: (Foreign language spoken).

GORMAN: He switches to his native language and says he has serious headaches. He lays down for the doctor to examine him.

NICK NELSON: And tell me where you feel the pain in your head.

GORMAN: This is the Highland Human Rights Clinic, part of a county hospital in Oakland. Nelson and his team evaluate asylum-seekers.

NELSON: Our job is to make sure that the asylum office understands all the medical and psychological facts about a person's case so that they can make a decision about whether to grant them asylum or not.

GORMAN: To do that, he listens to his patients' stories. He examines their injuries and evaluates their wounds to answer tough questions like...

NELSON: Is this burn scar consistent with the cigarette burn? Because this guy says he was burned by cigarettes by military officials back home.

GORMAN: Asylum-seekers must prove they face persecution or a fear of persecution based on certain factors, like race or political opinion. Federal officials say there's rampant fraud, and they want to make asylum harder to get. That's changed things at the border, where they've separated and locked up families.

NELSON: So a lot more people who are seeking asylum are detained and cannot come to the clinic because they are behind bars. And they're not allowed out for medical visits.

GORMAN: That's what happened to one farmer from Eritrea who showed up at the Mexican border last year.

MUGULETA HABTOM GEBRESLASIE: My name is Muguleta Habtom Gebreslasie.

GORMAN: The government denied his asylum case during the seven months he was in immigration detention. Now he's out awaiting appeal. He wears an electronic monitor around his ankle.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

GORMAN: This afternoon, Gebreslasie listens to music from back home and cooks lunch at his Oakland apartment.

GEBRESLASIE: (Foreign language spoken).

GORMAN: Gebreslasie says he fled Eritrea in 2006 after being conscripted into military service. He crossed into Sudan only to be kidnapped and tortured. He eventually paid smugglers to take him to the U.S. Now he has an attorney, Haregu Gaime, who referred him to the Highland medical clinic for an evaluation.

HAREGU GAIME: They help our clients because they're able to corroborate their stories. Sometimes a traumatized person is not able to relay what happened to them in a way that tells the full story.

GORMAN: The full story is often written on the patients' bodies. The clinic's Dr. Nelson says he sees evidence of acid burns, electrocutions and bone fractures never set. He fears the administration's new policies may mean his patients won't get the refuge they need.

I'm Anna Gorman in Oakland, Calif.


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