In just a month, more than 650 people seeking asylum have been bused from Texas to Chicago. Volunteers and nonprofits are meeting people as they arrive and helping to provide housing, healthcare and food.
But these immigrants are in a precarious position because they can’t legally work in the country until six months after they submit their asylum application. Meanwhile, that application process requires money for legal fees, and many of the non-profits that help immigrants with this process are already at capacity.
Reset hears about local efforts to support migrants’ needs in the short- and long-term needs.
What happens when buses arrive…
LAURA MENDOZA, The Resurrection Project: We’re working with the city of Chicago, in collaboration with the Office of Emergency Management, and so there are paramedics on site when the buses do arrive. So the first thing we ask is if anyone has any emergency, any medical need that needs to be addressed immediately. What we’re seeing is definitely a lot of dehydration, swollen legs, extremely swollen legs, scratches from the journey they’ve had and injuries on their legs.
The city is working with the Salvation Army and also working on setting up alternative shelters. We know the shelter system is at capacity; we’re not going to have enough beds, especially with the frequency that we’re receiving buses and the amount of people we’re receiving. We’re sort of building the plane as we’re flying it… Some churches have taken some individuals. The demand is very high, and there are some logistical issues that can make it difficult, things like [not] having showers at the churches can be a reason they can’t really host people. Separating people by gender, men, women, families, makes it difficult.
As for how long people can stay at shelters…
MENDOZA: It’s a really good question. We’re not sure yet. Our hope is that they’ll be able to transition quickly, but that’s not really happening. There is the issue of being able to work— and if immigration is taking a year in some of these cases, people aren’t going to have steady work.
What steps do people have to go through to apply for asylum?
NICOLE HALLETT, U of C’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic: These people will be going through immigration court hearings and there isn’t enough capacity. The immigration court system right now, I think, has more than 1 million cases that are pending. It often takes years for people’s cases to be heard. This doesn’t apply just to these 650 people; this applies to anybody who’s in the immigration system in the United States. So these individuals will get in line with everyone else that has these hearings and it could take years for them to get an answer on their application.
On why they have to wait six months after applying for asylum to apply for work authorization…
HALLETT: It’s just the way the law has been written. It was assumed initially that most people’s applications would be resolved within six months… with such a short period of time, the thought was, I think, that they didn’t need to work. That’s obviously not the way it works now. It takes many years, but that requirement is still in the law. And I should say, it’s not six months since they arrive in the United States— it’s six months after they actually file their asylum application, which they’re required to do within the first year after they enter the United States. So conceivably, it could be up to a year and a half (depending on when they file their asylum application) before they can even file an application for work authorization and it sometimes takes months for that application to be adjudicated.
MENDOZA: If you’re not working, you’re not going to have money to pay a private attorney, because that costs a lot of money. So a lot of these families are going to rely on non-profits that have immigration legal clinics to do this work, and a lot of these organizations don’t have capacity, don’t have the funding to take on these cases that are going to take up to a year and a half.
JOHANNES FAVI, Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants: Going through detention is horrific. Not having the right to work and being permitted to live in the United States is horrific. The government shouldn’t let people in if they cannot give them authorization to work. It keeps them in a prison forcing them to commit crime to go back to the system. It’s a set up. So we need to advocate and have the government allow people to work when they permit them to enter the United States.
On what more is needed
ED PRATT, Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants: What we’ve asked [elected officials] to do is write the law that when you apply for asylum you are then qualified to work. That would help a great deal. But as was mentioned, you can be here a year before requesting asylum, and so if people don’t know these laws [then] it’s very, very confusing. And so they really need legal representation earlier — as early as they can get it. So when people are now getting off the buses at our hotel, we had an attorney come and share with them the different legal statuses that they might have and different avenues depending on how they came in. But most people just don’t know that there are these laws. And they don’t know there are different ways to be an immigrant here.
It’s going to require—and it currently is—a collaborative response by the community. No one organization is going to be able to meet all of these families’ needs. So we collaborate with others for legal assistance, or food… we have many medical doctors or dentists who will take a certain number of people in their care. We really rely on the kindness of strangers.
Deterrence doesn’t work
HALLETT: That’s been tried for decades and it hasn’t worked. It’s not like the United States has had their arms open this entire time and it’s just now a problem. There have been people coming forever—basically since the country was founded—and they’ll continue to come. And that’s particularly the case where there are places that are unsafe and violent and people are willing to do anything to protect their children, which is something I think we can all understand. So the solution isn’t going to be deterrence; it’s a failed solution, it’s been tried in many different ways, and what happens is the system just gets more cruel, more people die, more people get detained. And yet people still come. So we need to come up with another solution that doesn’t rely on convincing people that are afraid for their lives that they shouldn’t try to make the journey.
This excerpt has been edited for clarity and length, and this segment was produced with assistance from Char Daston.
GUEST: Laura Mendoza, immigration organizer The Resurrection Project
Johannes Favi, director of ICDI’s Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance program
Ed Pratt, Executive Director, Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants
Nicole Hallett, director, Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, University of Chicago Law School