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“Being Detained Feels Like the Abuse I Tried to Escape”: A Korean Survivor Speaks Out From Immigration Detention

Yihwa Kim’s eight-month ordeal with US immigration.

(Photo: Gerolamo Auricchio / EyeEm / Getty Images)

Yihwa Kim is a Korean woman who fled her home country, South Korea, because of the extreme and prolonged domestic and sexual violence she suffered at the hands of her father and his various connections. She has been detained since April 2017 for seeking asylum in the United States. In November, her right to a bond hearing was denied by a judge who was a former prosecutor for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). During her hearing, this judge openly said that he sympathized with the prosecuting attorney for DHS and understood his position. With no end in sight to her detention — which has resulted in further trauma, medical neglect and the deterioration of her health — on December 1, Kim chose to withdraw her application for asylum in the US.

Within weeks, she will be forcibly returned to South Korea. At her December 1 hearing, she said: “Being forced to return to Korea is an act of suicide for me. But being imprisoned for another potential two or three years, like some others here … and to get no help for my medical conditions while I am detained … I don’t think dying in here is right, either.”

What follows is a translation of Kim’s firsthand account of her ordeal in the US detention system.


I still don’t know exactly why I was selected out for an extensive search and interview at the San Francisco airport when I arrived in April 2017. The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers that apprehended me treated me disrespectfully, asking intrusive but unrelated questions about the purpose of my visit. Then, they sent me to a very small interrogation room without a window. Because I am claustrophobic, I begged them not to put me in that room. But no one paid attention to my pleas. They questioned me for hours, went through every item in my bags, and inspected them over and over before detaining me for the night. That night, I slept on a chair. The next day, the interrogation continued for several hours.

No interpreter was provided for me, let alone a lawyer. In that situation, most of what I agreed to do next was based on what the officers led me to do. When I was told that I would be sent back to Korea, I told them that I did not want to go back because I came to the US to escape my abusive father. So, they told me to apply for asylum. I didn’t know what it would entail, but I followed their instruction. The result was that I was sent to a detention center. I later found out that I could have been given humanitarian parole instead of detention, but since the Trump administration [took over], most of those in similar situations as me have been detained.

The first detention center that I was sent to was in Richmond, California. When I tried to ask for help from the guards, they threatened me with solitary confinement. For a while, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, at least not until I met a visiting lawyer who introduced me to a couple of Korean Americans. That is how I also learned about the Asian Women’s Shelter, [whose members] visited and helped me. But after about three months, I was sent to Mesa Verde Detention Center, a private immigration detention center in Bakersfield, California. On the day I was transferred, I was forced to get up at 4:30 am and moved around all day. The van we were transported in had no windows, which triggered my claustrophobia. Although I could get some air when the door was opened to receive more detainees, the inside of the van became suffocating and extremely hot under the July sun. We detainees were not given any water, food or bathroom breaks. I felt sick and nauseous, and had a hard time breathing. In the last three or four hours of the trip, all of us women were screaming and crying for help. One woman from El Salvador had severe panic attacks, and another woman from China was vomiting for hours. And no one listened to us or helped us. When we finally arrived at the new detention center, I was unconscious.

Here in Mesa Verde, I think that there are about 200 women. I am the only Korean, although there are about 16 more Asians. The officers and guards do not even know the difference between North and South Korea, or between Koreans and Chinese people. I found that the gap between American and Korean cultures was deep. I feared that even a Korean interpreter wouldn’t be able to find the exact English words to describe my life in Korea … And it’s not just words; any behavior or body language can be misunderstood.

I have been suffering from hepatitis, as well as other medical conditions that cause me much pain and discomfort. I don’t get any proper medical treatment inside the center. Most of the pills they provide for other symptoms — such as cold, fever and headache — could worsen my liver condition, so I cannot take them. The food rations are also intolerable: Not only do we get a very small amount, but the vegetables we are given also exude a bad stench and are inedible.

Detention officers often yell at detainees, discriminate against them based on their race and ethnicity, taunt them and sexually harass them. When I have tried to ask for better conditions, they have targeted me, calling me a North Korean slave, comparing me to an insect. Medical staff are just the same as the guards. Once, a detention center doctor (although I did not approve a check-up from him) touched my body, especially my chest. Another time, I had my left hand wrapped with a bandage due to an injury. An officer made me unwrap it, asked me to hold my two hands together, wrapped around them with the bandage like he was handcuffing me, and laughed at me. It was humiliating. One told me that I should act more submissively due to the fact that I was a Korean woman — a remark that not only stereotypes Korean women, but was also an attempt to subjugate me. Social workers make weekly visits to detainees to check if any of the officers abuse their power. They are sometimes kind to us, making conversation with us about our lives inside the detention center. But they also demoralize and put me down. They constantly tell me that I am not important, and that no one would care where I was.

I have been detained for eight months. From how I have been treated, I feel that the United States is a country that not only practices racial discrimination, but also operates a kind of “race elimination” policy. I never committed any crime against this country and was a normal Korean citizen before this. I am from a respectable family, and my lineage goes back to those who were involved in the founding of the South Korean government. I came seeking safety and refuge. But here, my rights have been violated and thrown away like a piece of trash. I feel that there would be no difference between being in an American detention center and being in a prisoner-of-war camp.

The Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse has launched a fundraiser to provide emergency funds for Yihwa Kim. This will help to ensure Yihwa’s safety and independence from her family in South Korea upon being forcibly removed from the US. Donate to her support fund here.

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