Imagine you are a Central American mother who has made a desperate journey, hoping the United States will offer your family a refuge from the violence at home. You are detained by the border patrol and spend days in a cold, crowded cell with no sense of whether it's morning, noon or night. Suddenly you are released. What happens next?
After crossing the border, Central American families seeking asylum in the U.S. present themselves to the border patrol, then are eventually released with little to no guidance regarding the asylum process. Many of them are brought to a day center in Phoenix, Arizona, run by the International Rescue Committee and its local partners. IRC staff members in Phoenix greet asylum seekers, providing them with food, shelter and reliable information.
Most of these new arrivals are dehydrated, confused and uncertain of what lies ahead. We do our best to address their concerns and answer their most pressing questions. Below are some of the questions they most frequently ask.
1. Where am I?
After families are released by immigration officials from detention facilities, they are often unaware of their location. We provide maps to show them Arizona and the distance between Phoenix and their final destinations.
“We engage with families the moment they get off the bus,” says Aaron Rippenkroeger, executive director of the IRC's Phoenix office. “We explain where they are and the services we provide at the center. We take down their information and get an understanding of their situation, and then try to connect with relatives in the U.S. as quickly as possible.”
2. Can I tell my family I am alive?
Families desperately want their loved ones back home to know they are safe. They’ve not only escaped gang violence and persecution in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador but endured a long and dangerous journey. The IRC provides phones and phone chargers for asylum seekers to use to call relatives in other countries via WhatsApp.
“They’ve been through some of the worst scenarios you can imagine, either violence, persecution, extortion,” says Rippenkroeger. “They’ve been through so much, and now they’re here with their small children trying to find a safe place to be.”
3. How do I contact my family in the U.S.?
The IRC helps asylum seekers connect with relatives living in the U.S. via phone banks manned by Spanish-speaking volunteers. Phone banks are used to help keep the contact process easy and organized. While families wait, we provide them with water and hot meals. Children are able to play, color and read books with their parents.
4. How do I travel in the U.S.?
Once the IRC makes contact with relatives in the U.S., we help facilitate and coordinate the travel plans. Transportation can be complicated because the asylum seekers' U.S. contacts must purchase the bus or plane tickets for them. IRC staff and volunteers then escort families through bus stations and airports and explain how to change buses or catch a connecting flight.
They’ve been through some of the worst scenarios you can imagine, either violence, persecution, extortion...and now they’re here with their small children trying to find a safe place to be.
Many families have a long journey ahead of them, traveling up to four days, and their travel itineraries can involve multiple states. The IRC makes sure families have enough supplies—food and water, hygiene items, and toys and books to keep children entertained.
5. Where can I get medicine for my child?
The IRC provides medical assistance to families and specialized care for pregnant women. Local medical professionals visit the day center daily to treat colds, prescribe medication and offer consultations. For urgent cases, we take families to a local emergency room.
6. Where can I sleep?
Families often need more than 24 hours to make travel arrangements. If so, the IRC takes them to an overnight shelter, usually in a local church or school, where we provide them with cots, warm blankets and snacks. Families typically spend one to two nights at shelters.
7. What are my next steps seeking asylum?
People have the legal right to request asylum. Local immigration experts visit the day center to explain asylum proceedings and clarify court dates, future interview appointments and additional paperwork, as well to answer questions and provide essential information about legal rights.
How to help asylum seekers
Every day, thousands of people are fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. The IRC is responding with emergency assistance for families seeking asylum in the U.S. Since last summer, the IRC in Arizona has provided a wide range of support directly and through partners, reaching approximately 10,000 parents and children seeking asylum.
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