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  • The Symbolic Criminalization of Asylum: Navigating Encounters with US Customs and Border Protection Officials
  • Alyssa Dormer (bio), Daniel E. Martínez (bio), and Annalise Gardella (bio)


On a hot summer day in one of the US Southwestern Migrant Shelter (SMS) facilities we stand in the dormitory hallway with Ana1 and her 10-year-old daughter, Gabriela, who fits easily in the toddler-sized stroller where she sits. Ana and Gabriela are seeking asylum in the United States. Ana pleads with us to help her contact her 18-year-old daughter, Esmeralda, who has been detained in a long-term immigrant detention facility after their separation by US authorities. Gabriela had remained quiet during our conversation, but as the topic turns to her older sister, she begins to audibly cry. It becomes clear in this moment—as in most others at the shelter—that the bureaucratic process of seeking asylum in the US is one created to instill fear and uncertainty in those who seek refuge in this country.

Forced to leave their home in Guatemala due to violent threats against their family, Ana and her daughters traveled for 20 days before arriving at the US-Mexico border. The journey was long, traumatic, and exhausting, leaving them in poor health and in need of medical care. All three experienced vomiting and diarrhea and symptoms of dehydration, heat exposure, and lack of adequate food and water, which were common experiences among shelter guests. After surrendering to US authorities [End Page 177] and asking for asylum, they were held in a hielera—an overcrowded holding facility with frigid temperatures—where they received no medical attention and inadequate food. Ana was told that she and her daughters would not be separated; however, moments before they were released, Esmeralda was taken from her mother and sister and sent to long-term detention in an unknown location. Sadly, Ana’s story is not uncommon, and the transient nature of the shelter makes it difficult to follow the trajectories of the people with whom we spoke. When we returned to the shelter days later, Ana and Gabriela were gone. We could only assume that Esmeralda remained in detention or had been deported.

Though asylum is a legal right in the US, the process of seeking asylum is fraught with inequity and violence. Mirroring the abhorrent conditions often unjustly endured by undocumented migrants and other immigrant detainees in US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody, the everyday mistreatment asylum seekers experience indicates a larger process of racialized criminalization and state-sponsored violence unjustified by the legal parameters of US asylum law (Martínez and Slack 2013; Martínez, Heyman, and Slack 2020). We contend this routine abuse experienced by asylum seekers must be viewed through a lens of criminalization that has characterized the lived realities of many immigrants in the US and shaped broader societal notions of the immigrant/criminal “Other.” Legalistic definitions of criminalization fail to account for symbolic dimensions of criminalizing processes, including discursive criminalization (the construction of people as criminals through the language used to speak about them), criminalizing treatment (the mistreatment, abuse, and neglect asylum seekers experience while in US custody), and the internalization of these forms of criminalization. As such, we introduce the concept of “symbolic criminalization” to expand our understanding of how these processes (1) negatively affect individual asylum seekers who have a legal right to seek asylum, and (2) contribute to a broader system that fails to treat asylum seekers in a humane manner.

Through the lenses of criminalization and legal violence, this article examines the US asylum process along the Southwest border and documents the lived experiences of asylum seekers seeking refuge in the US while in CBP custody. Drawing on participant observation and in-depth interviews with asylum seekers in the SMS, we identify [End Page 178] concerning patterns of mistreatment by CBP officials that reveal racialized and systemic violence in the first stage of the asylum-seeking process. Our research offers insight into how those who pass through this initial stage conceptualize their own criminalization in relation to their personal and cultural histories, their often-tumultuous journeys to the US, and their short-term detention...