Tom Wong, a UC San Diego professor, has surveyed 600 asylum seekers and says the presidents policy is sending people to die
Tom K Wongs world shattered at age 16 in 1998 when his parents told him he was undocumented. The Riverside, California, teenager thought his life was over.
Now 37, Wong is one of the prominent scholars in the US on immigration, most recently uncovering abuses inside detention centers in his latest University of California, San Diego research. The political science professor, whose family migrated from Hong Kong when he was two and overstayed their visas, released groundbreaking research on Tuesday on asylum seekers, exposing violence and suffering at the border as the Trump administration is escalating its crackdown on migrants.
Wong surveyed more than 600 asylum seekers affected by Donald Trumps controversial remain in Mexico policy, which has forced tens of thousands to return to Mexico while their cases advance. Roughly, 85% reported that immigration detention facilities failed to provide adequate food and water and that they were unable to sleep due to overcrowding, cold temperatures and other conditions. Only 20% reported being able to take care of basic hygiene, such as showering and brushing their teeth.
More than half said they faced verbal abuse inside detention, with some saying they also suffered physical abuse. Roughly 25% also had their property seized when taken into detention, including important documents and cash that was not returned to them, he said.
A majority said they were forced to return to Mexico without any further investigation of the violence they might face there, which Wong said was a direct violation of the policy.
While waiting in Mexico, one out of four said they were threatened with physical violence, and more said they ended up homeless.
Asked about Wongs research, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) said the agency provides safe, humane, clean, professionally run and appropriate conditions of confinement and access to legal and translation services. A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, which also detains migrants, said it takes allegations of mistreatment of individuals in our facilities seriously and that employees found to violate standards will be held accountable.
Wong talked with the Guardian about his non-traditional academic career, the crisis at the border, and how he uses his PhD to fight back. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you tell me what it was like to discover you were undocumented?
My parents told me I couldnt go with my high school basketball team to Canada. Then they told me I couldnt get a drivers license. I couldnt get a job. And there was just a cascade of no, no, no. And finally my parents said its not because we dont want you to do these things, its because you cant. All my hopes and dreams about growing up were literally shattered in a single moment. And it was during a time when there wasnt the undocumented youth movement, so I wasnt able to find other students.
I grew up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and before I found out I was undocumented, California was becoming a ground zero for this emerging anti-immigrant movement. I remember there were policy debates with the white kids on one side, the brown kids on the other, and me feeling like I had little understanding. But everything that was being said negatively toward my Latino classmates actually applied more directly to me.
How did you overcome this and become an academic?
I barely graduated high school after learning I was undocumented, because at the time I thought, whats the point? But I got married when I was 19 and I was able to adjust my immigration status. I paid for a summer politics class, and I thought if this professor can make a living teaching, maybe I can do the same.
It took me years to realize I bring a different perspective to the study of immigration, politics and policy, that my history is my comparative advantage. Its a perspective that helps me ask questions that others dont. It took me a while to talk about my experience of being undocumented, because my parents immigration status was still tenuous. But theyre fine now, and Im able to speak out.
What has been most shocking to you about your findings on what happens to asylum seekers?
Some findings were simultaneously shocking, but also very expected since weve heard anecdotal reports. There were over 200 incidents of verbal abuse, dozens of instances of physical abuse and even property being taken away. I heard of someone losing their life savings.
The findings about language access also really stuck out. Individuals are getting instructions about critically important steps in languages that they dont speak: often Central American asylum speakers who speak an indigenous language by default are given instructions in Spanish. In San Diego, there are a lot of different languages Asian Indians seeking asylum who speak Hindi were given instructions in English or Spanish. I find it hard to believe that we as a country cant find a Hindi speaker. This is a basic due process tenet.
What do we now know about the conditions people face when they are forced to return to Mexico?
So many have experienced or been threatened with physical violence while waiting. Despite the handshake agreement between the United States and Mexico that Mexico is responsible for the humanitarian needs of these asylum seekers being returned, we areputting people in harms way by returning them to Mexico.
What do you think is most important for the public to understand about the impact of Trumps policies on asylum seekers right now?
This administration wants to see net zero refugee admissions, which we are getting close to. This is a core part of the agenda. Its not just in disregard of international and domestic law, but its in disregard of the fact that so many of the asylum seekers who are being turned away are seeking protection from persecution. Its an agenda that is blind to the experiences of these families. The inevitable result is that people will be sent to circumstances where they will likely die.
What do you hope is the impact of your work and your findings?
I used to believe in facts swaying public opinion. But I fear we are in a political moment where the ability to select which facts to consider true is making the work we do less important. Now it may be very difficult to move public opinion when opinions are formed on such a visceral level.
But facts still matter. The truth still matters, because what is happening now is the administration is often acting first, and then the courts are litigating later. So even if the public is less and less swayed by the facts on the ground, judges still are.
Were there moments in your career where you found academia unwelcoming?
It can be strange having lived through something and then hearing about that subject through the perspective of somebody who studies the topic, but doesnt have that personal connection. But I do quantitative work, and at the end of the day, the data speak much louder than my own personal background.
Whats the hardest part of doing academic work that is relevant to urgent policy matters?
A lot of academics are just scared about being wrong and being publicly wrong. But I believe in the importance of the work, and that means I need to be confident that I can stand by it. A few years ago I thought my bar was peer review in an academic journal. Now I understand my bar to be that as well as, Can this pass muster with a federal judge or can this withstand a deposition from attorneys for the Department of Justice?
What effect does the work have on you personally?
Its often miserable. Its difficult to hear. Its difficult to interact with people, to see women and little kids who are the ages of my own children in shelters in Mexico, not knowing whats going on. It is difficult to not internalize it. But I believe in the work. If its not me, Im afraid there wont be others who step up. Because itll be too easy for those others who want to step up to then step out after really understanding how difficult it is to have these conversations.
How do you think we can get out of this crisis moment?
We have to know our immigration policy past. Every generation gets to decide for itself, whether it embraces diversity through our immigration system or pushes it away by closing our golden door. We are defining for this generation how we are answering the question of what it means to be a nation of immigrants. And we have done that historically. And in some periods in our history, we have closed our doors to immigrants, and in other periods we have opened them again. This is cyclical. It is difficult to live through, but this has been a cyclical part of our immigration policy past.
Every four years we as a country get to collectively answer whether or not we still believe in this idea that we are a nation of immigrants. In 2020, we will get to vote.