Communication Currents

Communication Currents

The Role of Nonverbal Behavior in Asylum Interviews and Hearings

April 22, 2021
Intercultural Communication, Nonverbal Communication

Asylum seekers in the United States must demonstrate that they faced persecution in their country of origin as part of the process to obtain asylum. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Sarah C. Bishop examines the extent to which immigration personnel use nonverbal behavior and other cues to determine whether an asylum claim is credible. Interviews with asylum seekers reveal their first-hand reflections about how their nonverbal cues were perceived by members of the U.S. immigration system and how the nonverbal behaviors of immigration officials impact asylum interviews and hearings. 

Asylum in the United States and Nonverbal Communication 

Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has a right to seek asylum. In the United States, asylum applicants deliver both written and oral testimonies about the persecution they faced in their countries of origin. These testimonies can be fraught for many reasons, including trauma and its impact on memory. 

Nonverbal communication research suggests “that nonverbal communication may reinforce, emphasize, or contradict verbal communication.” When nonverbal and verbal communication differ, people are more likely to rely on nonverbal communication for interpretation of the speaker’s message. Bishop argues that considering the impact of nonverbal communication on the asylum process is particularly important because such communication differs according to cultural contexts. For example, avoiding eye contact may connote lying in one culture, but not in another. 

The Study 

From 2018 through 2020, Bishop conducted 39 oral history interviews with asylum seekers, immigration judges, asylum officers, doctors, and attorneys. These interviews included open-ended questions, and responses were autobiographical. In addition, Bishop observed nine asylum hearings in New York and took notes about verbal and nonverbal behaviors, including eye contact, posture, silence, and vocal tone. 

Nonverbal Communication in Asylum Interviews and Hearings 

A number of asylum seekers reported that they felt discouraged by the nonverbal behaviors of the asylum officers who conduct initial interviews with applicants to determine if they have a credible fear of persecution. For example, one person said, “I mean, [the asylum officer] didn’t look at me. She would, like, scold me when I wanted to speak – she wouldn’t let me talk. Basically, she intimidated me … She was on her computer, and she mostly looked at the lawyer, she didn’t look at me much. Only when she didn’t like my answers, she would tell the lawyer and then look at me.” Similarly, another asylum seeker said, “I think she [the asylum officer] was annoyed when she was listening … she didn’t treat me poorly but yes, I could feel that vibe.” In contrast, others reported that they felt comforted by the asylum officers’ nonverbal behaviors, as was the case for one asylum seeker who became emotional during an interview: “I feel they are very well trained about handling our emotions… the officers are very nice… well, my officer. I also heard other officers might not be nice.” 

Asylum applicants’ nonverbal behaviors also come under scrutiny during interviews and hearings. Bishop argues that this is particularly the case because judges have increasingly high caseloads and are pressured by the Department of Justice to render decisions quickly on account of the current asylum backlog. According to Bishop, “To elicit the amount of testimony needed to make a decision in a restricted amount of time, officers and judges may feel pressure to intuit an individual’s credibility as quickly as possible, and as a result may depend more on nonverbal communication than they would otherwise.” One former immigration judge revealed that nonverbal behaviors and other cues can play an influential role in hearings: “I think that more often than not, demeanor observations should not affect an outcome of a case. Unfortunately, I think for some judges, they’re very important.” 

Eye Contact and Eye Movement 

According to Bishop, eye contact and controlled eye movement are particularly important during the asylum process because “both asylum seekers and judges link eye contact and movement with credibility and confidence, formulating interpretations with the goal of understanding more than the person is saying.” One asylum seeker indicated that they focused on maintaining eye contact with the asylum officer during their interview, even when they were unsure of an answer, because they felt that it was important. A representative from an immigrant advocate organization confirmed that they work with asylum seekers on eye contact, particularly when those applicants come from countries where maintaining eye contact is considered disrespectful. The same organization also works with lawyers to explain why lack of eye contact may not connote lack of credibility. 

Eye movement, such as darting eyes, may also be noted by judges or officers when determining credibility. The weight some judges placed on eye movement was evident in an interview with an immigration judge who described recognizing nonverbal behaviors that indicated trauma during an applicant’s interview: “I could tell from the way that her eyes moved that she had been traumatized, because after 9/11, I would have this thing where, if the sky was blue a certain way or something, it’s like this movie starts playing in your head of events again, and your eyes are following that, and you can’t stop it, and I recognized that.” 


Bishop argues that nonverbal communication and other cues are sometimes used as indicators of applicants’ credibility during asylum hearings. “Because asylum personnel were not physically present to witness the persecution applicants faced, they must depend on the way those experiences are verbally and nonverbally communicated as they work to determine who qualifies as a refugee,” she writes. Bishop suggests this dependence becomes problematic when applicants are evaluated “not only according to their narrative but rather by how that narrative aligns with the officer or judge’s expectations about how forced migrants behave.”

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Sarah C. Bishop (2021): “What does a torture survivor look like?” Nonverbal communication in US asylum interviews and hearings, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2021.1881146 

About the author (s)

Sarah C. Bishop

Baruch College

Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies

Sarah C. Bishop