How well should someone be able to remember every detail of a traumatic event? The U.S. government argues people should have a near perfect memory to obtain asylum—even if they experienced the trauma years in the past.

Due to unprecedented backlogs in immigration court and the Asylum office, U.S. officials ask asylum seekers to describe details about the harms they suffered in their home countries years after they occurred. They must provide details about traumatic incidents such as beatings, arrests, detention, and death threats.

But asylum seekers are also asked questions about non-central facts surrounding these incidents. For example, how many people were in the room when they were tortured? How did they get to the location where they were arrested? How many minutes did the beating last? Which room in their house were they standing in when they received a life- threatening phone call?

Asylum seekers’ ability to recall minor aspects of harmful events is critical to the success of their cases. Our immigration system assumes that inconsistencies in an asylum seeker’s memory—even if they involve minor aspects of an event that occurred years before—may be evidence of a purposeful lie.  These inconsistencies may lead an Asylum Officer or immigration judge to deny an asylum seeker’s case.

In an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a group of experts explain why asylum law’s outdated assumptions about memory are so dangerous. The authors discuss research in psychology, neuroscience, and other related fields that shows memory is vulnerable to interference during encoding, storage, and retrieval, the three stages of the memory process.

Stressful conditions can cause these problems to occur. When someone is being tortured or threatened, they will be less likely to accurately encode and store non-central details of that event than if they were in a non-stressful situation. This means it may be hard for an asylum seeker to accurately answer questions about non-central details relating to harmful incidents.

Research also shows that trauma—which can be caused by events like beatings and torture— may cause individuals to recall events with less detail. This finding is even greater among children and adolescents. These asylum seekers are also more likely to tell stories with less emotion. This increases the likelihood that the asylum system will view their stories skeptically.

Complicating matters further, culture can also impact memory. People who come from cultures where group goals are prioritized provide shorter, less self-focused accounts than people from cultures focused on individual achievement such as the United States. Unfortunately, our asylum system calls on people to provide detailed, personal accounts of events. That approach is at odds with the cultures from which many asylum seekers come.

The experts recommend a scientifically informed approach to determining whether asylum seekers are telling the truth—one that recognizes the effects of stress, trauma, and culture on memory. Major changes need to be made to our current system, which assumes that memory is like a videotape that can simply be played back in a person’s mind. This false assumption is particularly problematic when asylum seekers are being asked to recall memories that happened many years ago due to the asylum system’s backlogs.

As the Biden administration and Congress plan for immigration reform, there is a need to not only address the backlogs, but to update asylum law’s assumptions about memory.