But, newcomers to the Land of Opportunity are a diverse lot spanning multiple regions and, unfortunately, many can point to brutal violence as the impetus for migrating. While the debate about refugees relocating because of Islamic extremism and their impact on national security rages on, a swell of Central American migrants facing horrendous violence in their home countries have also caught the attention of organizations seeking to ensure adequate legal services.
It has been an uphill battle says Lindsay M. Harris, a legal fellow at the American Immigration Council, especially for those seeking asylum, who have a slightly different experience than those seeking refugee status. Harris works with both refugees and asylees and has engaged in a two-year study analyzing the integration of asylees.
“It is often difficult for asylees to gain access to the services and rights they are entitled to,” she says. “The system is a little more geared towards resettled refugees, who receive case management and assistance upon arrival. Usually their case is assigned to a specific resettlement agency, who partners with the U.S. Department of State to arrange temporary housing and transportation from the airport.”
She explains that a refugee is someone who, under international and domestic law, has “been found to have suffered or have a well-founded fear of suffering persecution” on one of five designated and protected grounds; race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. For refugees, the decision is made overseas along with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, she says, and so they are designated as refugees before they arrive. Background and security checks are conducted overseas and they receive limited benefits like financial and job placement assistance, and medical insurance.
Individuals granted asylum will get benefits after they receive their designation from a Judge or asylum office. Refugees and asylees can adjust to permanent residence status after a year in the U.S, Harris says. For refugees, the application is free, but asylees must pay.
Both have the right to work and can seek an employment authorization card. Both can travel internationally if they apply for the proper documentation and both can seek petitions to bring their spouse and children younger than 21 years old. But that lengthy process, she says, may take years.
“Asylees are usually on their own to navigate the system and don’t have the same provision of case management, housing, or orientation to life in the United States,” says Harris. “A committee of the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association has been working with the State refugee coordinators and the eight asylum offices nationwide to try to set up asylee benefits orientation sessions that asylees attend after they have been granted status and these are now operating in at least four of the eight offices nationwide.”
The American Immigration Council has partnered with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and American Immigration Lawyers Association to form a pro bono legal services project, The CARA Project, to address issues facing displaced families. They were recently joined by volunteers from the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration, according to information from the ABA.
The ABA volunteers got on board with the project after attending a meeting in Texas. The trip included visits to family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas as well as consultations with legal service providers to survey the treatment of immigrant children in custody by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The CARA Project participants advocate an end to family detention and spearheads efforts to challenge “unlawful asylum, detention, and deportation policies,” according to information from the ABA. The ABA members helped those detained to learn their legal rights, prepare for interviews with asylum officers, and offered guidance about how to find legal help once released from detention and provided an asylum application.
“We interview[ed] women and their children from El Salvador and Honduras about why they came to the U.S.,” says Wendy Wayne, director of the Immigration Impact Unit at the Massachusetts public defender's office in an ABA release. “It becomes overwhelmingly clear that these mothers came to the U.S. with their children as the ultimate act of motherly sacrifice – for many of them, it seemed the only option to save their children from being enslaved in gangs and subjected to physical and sexual violence, or death.”
Harris says her work with refugees and asylum seekers is “extremely rewarding,” despite the challenges. “Refugees are some of the most resilient, brave, intelligent, passionate, and compassionate individuals in the world.” She says many have a great deal to contribute to the communities they join, especially if given a chance and an education.
“It can be immensely frustrating to work alongside these brave survivors because often their potential and the positive energy and contributions they bring to U.S. society are not recognized," she says. "In the current political climate, people fail to see that refugees are those fleeing the very same evils of which we ourselves are afraid.”