Abstract: Surviving the Holding Pattern: Post-Detention Needs & Help-Seeking Among Latina Asylum-Seekers (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Surviving the Holding Pattern: Post-Detention Needs & Help-Seeking Among Latina Asylum-Seekers

Friday, January 18, 2019: 4:00 PM
Golden Gate 4, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Laurie Cook Heffron, PhD, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s University, Austin, TX
Background and Purpose

Since 2011, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the arrival and apprehension of Latina immigrant families, primarily Central American women traveling with their children (US Dept. of Homeland Security, 2015). Central American women apprehended and detained in immigration detention centers in the US are often fleeing domestic violence, sexual violence, and the highest rates of femicide in the world, yet their experiences after arriving in the US do not support their rights, recovery or healing (Cook Heffron, 2015; UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2015). This study aims to document detention and post-detention needs and services of Latina immigrant women seeking asylum in the United States. In particular, the study explores the experiences and consequences of detention on survivors of violence and women’s bio-psycho-social and economic needs and access to post-detention services that would meet the needs of women related to pre-migration and peri-migration experiences and detention experiences.


Using an exploratory qualitative approach and thematic analysis, this study explores and documents detention and post-detention experiences and needs of Latina immigrant women seeking asylum in the US. Researchers conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with two groups of participants (n=29): adult Latina women recently released from immigrant detention centers (n=13) and service providers working with detained immigrant women (n=16). Participants (originally from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela) had experienced detention at a host of private, for-profit detention facilities that contract with the US government to detain immigrants. Provider participants included case managers, social workers, immigration attorneys, mental health professionals working with detained and previously detained women. This study followed ethical guidelines to protect research participants’ privacy and confidentiality and was approved by the first author’s Institutional Review Board.


Preliminary data analysis reveals six main themes: re-traumatizing and dehumanizing conditions of detention; detention as replicating patterns and characteristics of power and control emblematic of intimate partner violence and human trafficking; increased needs and risks following release from detention; strained familial relationships during and after detention; overburdened network of service providers; and survivor resilience in seeking recovery, stability, and solutions. Following detention, immigrant survivors often experience family separation and remain disconnected from social support and services (legal services, employment, housing, medical, mental health, and culturally-relevant support services for survivors of abuse). The current anti-immigrant climate (including “sanctuary city” discussions and ICE raids) serves to elevate women’s fears about their precarious legal status and hinder access to services, further exacerbating women’s vulnerability to further violence, exploitation and human trafficking. Furthermore, this atmosphere threatens to divert legal and social service providers’ attention and resources away from important direct service objectives.

Conclusions and Implications

By understanding the process of detention and how Latinas experience detention and possible re-traumatization, as well as the unique needs and services required to assist survivors throughout detention and upon release from detention, well-informed policy recommendations and practice priorities can be developed to promote trauma-informed approaches at every entry point for women seeking asylum in the United States.