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Seeking Safety: Asylum-Seekers and Asylees in Phoenix

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“I am afraid I will be killed if I go back to my country.”

Maria* left Honduras after gang members killed her aunt – her third family member to die at the hands of a gang. As a transgender woman, she was often threatened or beaten for who she was. She could find no help from the police in her country, as they would ignore her at best or actively harass her at worst.

Maria* is one of the many asylum-seekers coming to the US to find basic safety for themselves and their families. The IRC in Phoenix has seen a 300% increase in asylum-seekers and 200% increase in asylees seeking services since 2016. In fiscal year 2018 alone, the IRC has served 49 asylees and 31 asylum seekers, primarily from Latin America and Africa.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

What is the process for seeking asylum?

Seeking asylum is a legal right for families and individuals fleeing from violence and persecution. However the asylum-seeking process can be difficult and lengthy, leaving them in prolonged vulnerabilities and uncertainties.

For many asylum-seekers, the process begins with a months-long journey to the US. People fleeing their homes often seek safety elsewhere within their countries, to no avail. Families embark on the journey to the US because they are absolutely desperate, for such trips are fraught with danger— including shocking levels of rape and sexual violence along the route between Central America and the United States.

Once in the US, or at the US border, asylum-seekers can apply for asylum. Those who arrive at the border are currently placed in an immigration detention facility while their case is considered.

After asylum-seekers are released from detention, asylum-seekers still face hardship. They are not eligible for work until at least 180 days after their request for asylum, nor are they eligible for public assistance. These two financial barriers keep asylum-seekers from easily accessing needed medical services. Asylum cases can take years to be decided.

Why has the US been separating immigrant families?

In early April, the US government formally introduced a “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute all individuals apprehended between official US ports of entry, including asylum seekers, in direct violation of US international treaty obligations. When families were apprehended crossing the border outside an official port of entry, parents were sent to federal prison and their children were placed in government custody at separate detention facilities. This practice resulted in a de facto family separation policy. More than 2,000 children were separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border between April 19 through May 31 alone.

Does the new executive order end family separation on the U.S. border?

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The executive order signed on June 20 is not a solution for families seeking much-needed asylum and does nothing to reunite the thousands of children who have already been separated from their parents at the border. 

“The administration is replacing one form of cruelty with another,” said International Rescue Committee Vice President Hans Van de Weerd. "Central American children, and their families, have suffered enough.”

The order proposes detaining children and their families for the length of their proceedings—which can often take many months or over a year—despite legal obligations to release children promptly under US law. 

Furthermore, the executive order will continue to criminalize asylum seekers, in a break with international law. It will also separate family members where there isn't a "legal parent-child” relationship—with a lack of clarity of how this will be established.

What is the IRC in Phoenix doing to support asylum-seekers and asylees?

The IRC works with asylum-seekers to aid them on the path from harm to home. Like Maria*, many asylum-seekers have faced severe violence, including torture or crime, in their home country or on their route to the US. An estimated 40%-60% of asylum-seekers have been tortured prior to their arrival in the US. Eligible asylum-seekers can be served through IRC in Phoenix’s Survivors of Torture program or the Victims of Crime Advocacy program. Through our Survivors of Torture program, asylum-seekers who were tortured in their home country receive comprehensive case management, including physical and behavioral medical care, housing, employment, and education. Separately, the Victims of Crime Advocacy program, asylum-seekers receive assistance in navigating the court and legal system as well as assistance in accessing community resources.

If asylum-seekers are granted asylum, they become asylees and can begin working and using public benefits. They also become eligible for IRC services provided to refugees, including comprehensive case management on housing, employment, education, and health, as well as financial education and empowerment programs.

In response to U.S. federal courts giving the Trump Administration a deadline of July 26th to reunify nearly 3,000 children who have been separated from their parents at the U.S. border, the International Rescue Committee is mobilizing a rapid response to offer emergency assistance as well as case management to families who have been released from immigration custody. Read more about this effort here: https://www.rescue.org/press-release/irc-launches-family-reunification-a...

How can you help?

Asylum-seekers are especially vulnerable, having suffered trauma in their home countries and potentially through family separation and the US immigration detention process. Unable to access work or benefits, they are particularly in need of support. Unfortunately, resources are limited to serve asylum-seekers, which is why we need your help:

Support asylum-seekers by donating urgently needed items which will help them during this difficult transition.  

Volunteer in our office to help us continue providing robust services to refugees, asylees, and asylum-seekers in Phoenix.

Demand that your Representatives protect vulnerable families from separation. Take action now.

*Client name changed for privacy reasons.