Special Projects Fund

Grantee Name

Physicians for Human Rights

Funding Area

Special Projects Fund

Publication Date

October 2021

Grant Amount


Grant Date:

October 2019- September 2020

The United States provides refuge to asylum seekers who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of nationality.

Asylum seekers must go through a complex and often hostile process of prescreening, interviews, multiple security checks, and a medical exam. Because asylum seekers often flee their countries with little if any money, frequently do not know English, and have only their own accounts to substantiate their claims of human rights abuses, they often need expert assistance to navigate this process. Medical forensic evaluations by health care providers can frequently make the determinative difference in asylum case outcomes, protecting asylum seekers from deportation back to danger or even death. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has developed a new model for providing asylum seekers with free forensic evaluations, one that makes medical schools the hubs for training and evaluations.

In 2019, NYHealth awarded PHR a grant to implement its model in New York State and help clinicians be among the leaders nationwide in advocating for humane immigration policies and practices based on medical investigations.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

  • Partnered with medical school programs, including Columbia University Human Rights Initiative, Human Rights Initiative at the University at Buffalo, New York Medical College Asylum Clinic, NYU Medical School Asylum Clinic, NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis Human Rights Clinic, SUNY Downstate Medical College, and Weill Cornell Medical College Center for Human Rights.
  • Trained 404 New York State clinicians and medical professionals to conduct evaluations and produce emergency declarations, both remotely and in person.
  • Conducted 219 forensic evaluations for asylum seekers in New York State, yielding 57 cases approved by the courts.
  • Partnered with legal services providers when the coronavirus pandemic emerged to identify immigration detainees at high risk of severe illness or death if they contracted COVID-19, connecting them with physicians who can provide expert declarations or amicus briefs for advising courts to order their release.
  • Developed rigorous protocols for remote telehealth evaluation to improve access to services for clients who were more difficult to reach as a result of the pandemic.
  • Produced guidelines that clinicians can use for writing expert declarations in clinical evaluations.
  • Advocated for more humane policies based on medicine, such as protecting hospitals and health facilities from enforcement actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and released the report, “You Will Never See Your Child Again: the Persistent Psychological Effects of Family Separation,” documenting the impact of family separation policies on children.

The 57 cases approved by the courts is less than the anticipated outcome of helping 80 people receive asylum status, mainly because of challenges that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. As caseloads in and around New York City rose alarmingly and strained the health care system, many of PHR’s volunteers became involved in efforts to treat COVID-19 patients. Consequently, these clinicians had limited ability to support PHR’s work with forensic evaluations of asylum seekers. Additionally, the pandemic caused widespread cancellations and delays in asylum hearings because of court closures or work slowdowns during the crisis. Even without a pandemic, the asylum process—from application to hearing to a ruling—can take months or even years. Under the current delays in hearings and asylum interviews, the backlog is likely to grow and cases are likely to take even longer to adjudicate.

In 2020, NYHealth hosted a webinar with PHR on how health care providers can protect their patients in the face of uncertain immigration policies. 

Co-Funding and Additional Funds Leveraged: None