Intercultural Communication, the Influence of Trauma, and the Pursuit of Asylum in the United States

Sarah C Bishop


This project analyzes the roles of communication and culture in credible fear interviews and asylum hearings in the United States to elucidate how autobiographical testimonies enable and restrain asylum seekers in their efforts to establish themselves as deserving of protection. This work shows how trauma influences one’s ability to narrate their past and argues that culturally-bound storytelling norms negatively and unevenly threaten the outcomes of some asylum cases. I support this claim with evidence from oral history interviews with asylum seekers, immigration officers, judges, and attorneys.


narrative, forced migration, intercultural communication, evidence, trauma

Full Text:



Acevedo, M. J. (2008). Battered immigrant Mexican women’s perspectives regarding abuse and help-seeking. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 8(3-4), 243–282. 10.1300/J285v08n03_04

Akin, D. (2017). Queer asylum seekers: translating sexuality in Norway. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 43(3), 458–474. 10.1080/1369183X.2016.1243050

Aleaziz, H. (2019, February 13). Being an immigration judge was their dream. Under Trump, it became untenable. Buzzfeed News.

American Bar Association. (2018). About notario fraud.

American Immigration Council. (2016). Access to council in immigration court.

American Immigration Council. (2018). Asylum in the United States.

American Immigration Lawyers Association. (2019, December 23). Call for examples: USCIS rejection of Forms I-589 due to claimed incompleteness.

Ardalan, S. (2015). Access to justice for asylum seekers: Developing an effective model of holistic asylum representation. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, 48(4), 1001–1038.

Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. (2019). Client demographics.

Bhabha, J. & Smith, J. (2007). Independent children, inconsistent adults: Child migration and the legal framework.

Blommaert, J. (2001) Investigating narrative inequality: African asylum seekers’ stories in Belgium. Discourse & Society, 12(4), 413–449. 10.1177/0957926501012004002

Bohmer, C. & Shuman, A. (2007). Producing epistemologies of ignorance in the political asylum application process. Identities: Global Studies in Cultural Power, 14(5):603–629.

Bond Jr, C. F., & Atoum, A. O. (2000). International deception. Personality and Social

Psychology Bulletin, 26(3), 385-395.

Bremner, J. D., & Marmar, C. R., eds. (1998). Trauma, Memory, and Dissociation. American Psychiatric Press.

Carrillo, H. (2010). Immigration and LGBT rights in the USA: Ironies and constraints in US asylum cases. In Routledge Handbook of Sexuality, Health and Rights (pp. 466–474). Routledge.

Chase, J. S. (2017, June 29). Making your trial record: The importance of dates.

Coundouriotis, E. (2006). The dignity of the “unfittest”: Victims’ stories in South Africa. Human Rights Quarterly, 28(4), 842–867.

Crespo, M., & Fernández-Lansac, V. (2016). Memory and narrative of traumatic events: A literature review. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 8(2), 149–56. 10.1037/tra0000041

Davis, C. (2019, December 23). Bureaucracy as a weapon: how the Trump administration is slowing asylum cases. The Guardian.

Dekel, S., & Bonanno, G. A. (2013). Changes in trauma memory and patterns of posttraumatic stress. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5(1), 26–34.

Demant, T. (2018). A critique of the US Department of State 2017 country reports on human rights practices.

Dolnick, S. (2011, July 12). Immigrants may be fed false stories to bolster asylum pleas. New York Times. false-stories-to-bolster-asylum-pleas.html

Engelhard, I. M., van den Hout, M. A., & McNally, R. J. (2008). Memory consistency for traumatic events in Dutch soldiers deployed to Iraq. Memory, 16, 3–9.

Fisher, W. (1989). Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Fobear, K. (2015). “I thought we had no rights”: Challenges in listening, storytelling, and representation of LGBT refugees. Studies in Social Justice, 9(1).

Gibb, R. & Good, A. (2014). Interpretation, translation and intercultural communication in refugee status determination procedures in the UK and France. Language and Intercultural Communication, 14(3), 385–399. 10.1080/14708477.2014.918314

Graham, B., Herlihy, J., & Brewin, C. R. (2014). Overgeneral memory in asylum seekers and refugees. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 45(3), 375–380.

Gramer, R. (2018, April 21). Human rights groups bristling at State Department report: What’s not in the report is as important as what’s in it. Foreign Policy.

Gramlich, J. (2020, March 2). How border apprehensions, ICE arrests and deportations have changed under Trump. Pew Research Center Fact Tank.

Hellawell, S. J. & Brewin, C. R. (2004). A comparison of flashbacks and ordinary autobiographical memories of trauma: Content and language. Behavior Research and Therapy, 42, 1–12.

Heller, P. (2009). Challenges facing LGBT asylum-seekers: The role of social work in correcting oppressive immigration processes. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 21(2–3), 294–308. 10.1080/10538720902772246

Herlihy, J., & Turner, S. (2007). Asylum claims and memory of trauma: Sharing our knowledge. British Journal of Psychiatry, 191(1), 3–4. 10.1192/bjp.bp.106.034439

Hlavka, H. R. (2014). Normalizing sexual violence: Young women account for harassment and abuse. Gender & Society, 28(3), 337–358. 10.1177/0891243214526468

Jacquemet, M. (2015). Asylum and superdiversity: The search for denotational accuracy during asylum hearings. Language & Communication, 44, 72–81.

Johnsen, G. E. & Asbjørnsen, A. E. (2009). Verbal learning and memory impairments in posttraumatic stress disorder: The role of encoding strategies. Psychiatry Research, 165(1–2), 68–77. 10.1016/j.psychres.2008.01.001

Kälin, W. (1986). Troubled communication: Cross-cultural misunderstandings in the asylum- hearing. The International Migration Review, 20(2), 230–241. 10.2307/2546033

Langballe, Å & Schultz, J-H. (2017). “I couldn’t tell such things to others”: Trauma-exposed youth and the investigative interview. Police Practice and Research, 18(1), 62–74. 10.1080/15614263.2016.1229185

Maryns, K. (2013). Disclosure and (re)performance of gender‐based evidence in an interpreter‐mediated asylum interview. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 17(5), 661–686.

Maryns, K. (2017). The use of English as ad hoc institutional standard in the Belgian asylum interview. Applied Linguistics, 38(5), 737-758.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2),

–122. 10.1037/1089-2680.5.2.100

McFadyen, G. (2019) Memory, language and silence: Barriers to refuge within the British asylum system. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 17(2): 168–184.

Millbank, J. (2010). From discretion to disbelief: Recent trends in refugee determinations on the basis of sexual orientation in Australia and the United Kingdom. The International Journal of Human Rights, 13(2-3), 391–414. 10.1080/13642980902758218

Mossad, N. (2019). Annual Flow Report, Refugees and Asylees: 2018. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics.

Nelson, K. (2010). Self and social functions: Individual autobiographical memory and collective narrative. Memory (11)2, 125–136. 10.1080/741938203

Phifer, D. (2019, March 29). Donald Trump calls asylum claims a ‘big fat con job,’ says Mexico should stop migrant caravans from traveling to U.S. border. Newsweek.

Rasoulpour, A. (2020, January 17). Writing your asylum story [presentation].

SAMHSA. (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach.

Samuelson, K. W. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder and declarative memory functioning: a review. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 13(3), 346–351.

Sharf, B. F., & Vanderford, M. L. (2003). Illness narratives and the social construction of health.

In T. L. Thompson, A. M. Dorsey, K. I. Miller, & R. Parrott (Eds.), Handbook of Health

Communication (pp. 9–34). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Shuman, A., & Bohmer, C. (2004). Representing trauma: Political asylum narrative. The Journal of American Folklore, 117(466), 394–414.

Smith-Khan, L. (2017). Negotiating narratives, accessing asylum: Evaluating language policy as multi-level practice, beliefs and management, Multilingua, 36(1), 31–57.

Smith-Khan, L. (2018). Contesting credibility in Australian refugee visa decision making and public discourse [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Macquarie University.

Smith-Khan, L. (2020). Migration practitioners’ roles in communicating credible refugee claims. Alternative Law Journal, 45(2), 119–124. 10.1177/1037969X19884205

Spotti, Massimiliano. (2018). “It’s all about naming things right”: The paradox of web truths in the Belgian asylum-seeking procedure. In N. Gill & A. Good (Eds.), Asylum Determination in Europe: Ethnographic Perspectives (pp. 69–90). Palgrave MacMillan.

Strange, D., & Takarangi, M. K. (2015). Memory distortion for traumatic events: the role of mental imagery. Frontiers in Psychiatry 6(27). 10.3389/fpsyt.2015.00027

Stuhlmiller, C., (2001) The emotional nature of qualitative research. Narrative methods in

qualitative research: potential for therapeutic transformation. In Gilbert, K. (Ed.), The

Emotional Nature of Qualitative Research (pp. 63–80). CRC Press.

TRAC Reports. (2020). Asylum decisions vary widely across judges and courts – latest results.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2012). USCIS asylum program: Information guide for prospective asylum applicants.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2015). Types of Asylum Decisions.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2019a). Cross-cultural communication and other factors that may impede communication at an interview.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2019b). I-589, Application for asylum and for withholding of removal, 09/10/19 edition.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2020). Obtaining Asylum in the United States.

U.S. Department of State. (2019). 2018 country reports on human rights practices.

Wang, Q. (2001). Culture effects on adults’ earliest childhood recollection and self-description: Implications for the relation between memory and the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(2), 220–233. 10.1037/0022-3514.81.2.220

Wang, Q. (2016). Remembering the self in cultural contexts: A cultural dynamic theory of autobiographical memory. Memory Studies, 9(3), 295–304. 10.1177/1750698016645238

Watson, J. & Lee, M. (2020, October 1). Trump plans to slash refugee admissions to US to record low. U.S. News & World Report.

Wernesjö, U. (2019). Across the threshold: negotiations of deservingness among unaccompanied

young refugees in Sweden. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.201.

Wood, J. T. (2001). The normalization of violence in heterosexual romantic relationships: Women's narratives of love and violence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18(2), 239–261. 10.1177/0265407501182005

Wooley, A. (2017). Narrating the “asylum story”: Between literary and legal storytelling. International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 19(3), 376–394. 10.1080/1369801X.2016.123158

Wyshak, G. (2009). The relation between change in reports of traumatic events and symptoms of psychiatric distress. General Hospital Psychiatry, 16(4), 290–297. 10.1016/0163-8343(94)90009-4



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies  E-ISSN: 2149-1291

Copyright © Center for Ethnic and Cultural Studies (CECS) Publishing Inc.

To make sure that you can receive messages from us, please add the '' domain to your e-mail 'safe list'. If you do not receive e-mail in your 'inbox', check your 'bulk mail' or 'junk mail' folders.

SCImago Journal & Country Rank  EBSCO HostCrossRef DOI – EScience Press News & Views: Analyzing the DOAJ - Delta ThinkICI Journals Master Listerihplus hashtag on TwitterProQuest (@ProQuest) | Twitter