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Remarks

IRC's Asylum & Families Coordinator Beth Strano US Senate Committee Testimony on Homeland Security

Chairwoman Sinema, Ranking Member Lankford and distinguished Senators: 

I am grateful for the opportunity to share from the perspective of the International Rescue Committee, which has a unique vantage point as an NGO working across the full arc of crisis for thousands of asylum seekers from conflict and disaster regions to recovery and protection. In my role specifically, I oversee the operations of the Welcome Center in Arizona, which is a 24-hour shelter serving newly arrived asylum seekers and their children.

The Center provides emergency humanitarian assistance alongside local community partners and works closely with similar shelters in Tucson, Casa Alitas and The Inn, to provide a regional response across the state. Beyond Arizona, the Welcome Center is a member of the Border Asylum Shelter Coalition (BASC), composed of partners offering critical services to families from San Diego to Brownsville. This network of shelters has developed best practices over the years to safely receive asylum seekers, deliver humanitarian assistance, and assist with onward movement to their sponsors.  

Thus far in 2021, the Welcome Center has served more than 6,000 people from 43 different countries. Families and individuals generally stay onsite for 24-72 hours while they connect to their U.S. based family members and sponsors. We work in close collaboration with our county health department to ensure that everyone who stays at the shelter receives COVID testing, information on public health safety, and is given space to quarantine if needed. 

We recognize that the federal government is currently facing a triple challenge of unwinding inhumane policies from former administrations, responding to current humanitarian crises in Central America and Haiti, and humanely managing an increase in arrivals of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border - all during a pandemic.

The United States is one of the most resourced countries in the world, with the capacity to provide protection and implement policies that offer refuge for the most vulnerable. The concept of offering safety to immigrants is deeply embedded in our culture as a representation of our best natures. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” still inspires us to become the America that Emma Lazarus believed in, that Cesar Chavez saw as “broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

To meet these shared goals, we recommend that the U.S. government scale up capacity and engagement with community-based shelters and partners with demonstrated success at meeting the comprehensive needs of asylum seekers. We recommend prioritizing this engagement in three primary areas.

First, safe and humane processing of asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border must include direct transportation to the nearest border shelter in the U.S. In Arizona this year, community partners have had to react quickly to releases of asylum seekers in small communities such as Ajo and Gila Bend, neither of which have public transit centers. It should not be expected that under-resourced communities will be able to provide transportation for up to 100 released asylum seekers with less than a few hours’ notice, during a pandemic. It is necessary to equip border shelters to assist in providing transit coordination.

Second, we recommend that Congress partner with members of the Border Asylum Shelter Coalition to develop an outcomes-driven model of humanitarian reception. The legal orientations at the Welcome Center inform families to help them participate fully in the asylum process, leading to better outcomes and addressing obstacles. Approximately 20% of the people we serve have needed assistance to address mistakes in their immigration paperwork. Without referrals to legal and social service providers, more vulnerable individuals could fall victim to exploitation or trafficking. We are confident that the community-based model of reception by border shelters can lead to better longer-term outcomes for asylum seekers--sustainable and formal funding for operating costs for shelters would increase their capacity to serve as resilient community resources with a lasting positive impact for our clients.

Third, case management services in destination locations should be scaled up and federally funded. Case management is a proven mechanism for supporting asylum seekers to fulfill their immigration process obligations and reach self-sufficiency in their communities. Currently, there is no case management program or standards that ensure asylum seekers receive meaningful referrals from the point of reception at the border to their destination. Without further delay, the government should implement a nationally coordinated effort that supports asylum seekers in finding safety and stability, while empowering them to fully participate in the legal process. This in turn supports the government’s goals of ensuring attendance at immigration court hearings.

The right to claim asylum is protected by international law, and is driven by the need to seek safety from persecution and violence. Policies which have made it more difficult to seek or obtain asylum have not resulted in a more safe or orderly process at the border. In reality, making the road harder for those who are already fleeing violence does not change their need to seek safety, but it does reflect on our willingness to provide it. Humanitarian needs for asylum seekers have consistently been met for years at the border and beyond by a network of community-based shelters, NGOs, legal partners, and grassroots groups. These networks represent deep expertise and resources which benefit our communities throughout the ebbs and flows of policy change and international crises, and they are invaluable assets to guiding the creation of a more humane asylum process.

I close with the words of Langston Hughes, and his vision of the American dream as intended to be accessible to all, and especially those who have fled violence and persecution in search of hope and safety. 

“Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.”

Thank you Senators, I look forward to addressing your questions. 

- Beth Strano, Asylum Seekers & Families Coordinator, International Rescue Committee

U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.