“The Department of State gives preference to the most vulnerable refugees, who have been tortured or persecuted at home. Their traumas will inevitably follow them here,” Rachel Aviv writes in a recent New Yorker profile of Nelson Kargbo, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone who was granted asylum with his family. When Kargbo’s behavior became antisocial – a few physical fights, involvement in some minor thefts – Homeland Security detained him for nine months in a Minnesota jail without a charge, a bond hearing, legal counsel, or attention to his psychological welfare. Unlike most detainees with mental illnesses, Kargbo was lucky enough that a judge expressed concern about his mental health and helped connect him with a immigration lawyer. After that, Kargbo waited in prison for over a year and was nearly deported before a judge ruled that he could not be returned to Sierra Leone, where the mentally ill do not receive basic human rights.
We hear a lot in the political arena lately about the fear that Syrian refugees will arrive in the United States having been radicalized by ISIS. For me, Aviv’s piece raises a very different concern: that Syrian refugees will come here hopeful for a new life in America, and then we will fail them. I learned how dangerous the emotion of betrayal can be from Dr. Emile Bruneau of MIT’s SaxeLab, who studies the neurological impacy of peace interventions (he gave a talk for us titled “Getting Beyond Us and Them” in 2014). If refugees' experiences of trauma show up in any sort of difficult behavior, our broken immigration system will deny them care, deport them summarily, and send them out into the world with a new sense that the United States betrays its promises. Syrian refugees are not enemies of America now, but our current policies could certainly help make that happen.