The door at the detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., where asylum seekers emerge when released. After that, they are on their own.
For years, the Sojourners have visited immigration detention centers in the New York City area to befriend asylum seekers from around the world who have no local friends or family for support. Now the Sojourners are expanding their mission to help these asylum seekers, once freed from detention, to find housing. In New York, that's a tremendous challenge.
The background: In 1996, Congress enacted sweeping legislation that made it harder for people fleeing persecution in their home countries to get asylum in the United States. It mandated that asylum seekers be apprehended upon entry to the U.S. and detained until a final decision was reached on their asylum claim.
However, in January 2010, the Department of Homeland Security said some asylum seekers could be paroled early from detention if their identity had been established, they were no security threat to the United States, they had a credible fear of persecution if they returned to their home country, and _ this is where the Sojourners come in _ they had a place to stay.
"We seek out people with nobody else to visit them. So if they can get parole, who do they turn to? It's us."
- Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, Sojourners chairperson
The need, in numbers: Since that 2010 decision, Sojourners has helped about 30 asylum seekers find free housing in the New York City area as of summer 2011. At the moment, about 13 people are being helped with housing.
"We're a little bare-bones. We're just making it. By the grace of God, we have had a place for each asylum seeker in our circle when needed. But we've been unable to help several asylum seekers still in detention to find housing and thus get parole. With more housing options, more of these good people could be free."
- Sojourners chairperson
Why it's important to find housing so asylum seekers can leave detention: It's far more difficult to pursue an asylum case while in detention. Asylum seekers have to line up to use the pay phones, and they can't leave voicemail messages or take incoming calls. There's no internet. There's also no privacy, since they're sharing a dorm with about 30 to 40 other people.
"We're looking for housing that won't re-imprison someone or go contrary to their dignity. We're not talking about criminals. We're talking about heroes. They've come through a process where they're afforded no privacy and are treated like criminals. We want something welcoming."
- Sojourners chairperson
The kinds of people the Sojourners have helped with housing: A former head of a non-governmental organization, a doctor, journalists, interpreters, people who stood up to unjust regimes _ in short, people who tried to make conditions better in their home country.
"We need your support. Because you know, living in the U.S. as an asylum seeker is very difficult. Very, very, very difficult. You are facing a lot of challenges in the U.S. You know, when one applies for asylum, one has to wait at least 150 days before being allowed to apply for work authorization. During that period of time, you cannot work legally, cannot do anything. It's a kind of persecution. It's very hard. During this period, we need your support."
- Asylum seeker being helped by Sojourners
The length of time housing is needed: About 18 months. That's time to get an asylum seeker's case established with a New York-based judge and to pursue work authorization, get a work permit and a Social Security number and of course get a job.
The housing solutions used so far: The Sojourners use Seafarers (www.sihnyc.org) in midtown Manhattan as their housing of first resort. As they leave detention one or two at a time, asylum seekers get a free room there for three to six weeks. A social worker is on site. There's internet access. People can volunteer at a nearby soup kitchen Monday through Friday and get free breakfast and lunch.
The big question is, where do people go after six weeks?
Christ House in the south Bronx (www.christhousebronx.com) has eight beds, all for men. The time limit is usually six months, but more is possible. Other options have been the apartment at The Riverside Church, where the Sojourners are based, and private individuals offering rooms in their homes.
"I heard about Sojourners through my local Amnesty International group. I told them I had a spare bedroom and could take somebody. A Sojourners leader came and interviewed me and looked at the room. She said (the asylum seeker) would be a good 'fit.' He's easy to live with. ... There is a real desperate need for housing. I'm sure a lot of people have extra rooms, but it takes an effort to make them realize it's possible."
- Retired teacher who hosts an asylum seeker in his Manhattan apartment
Why city homeless shelters aren't good for asylum seekers: Violence, overcrowding, the need to be out of the shelter at 6 a.m. Also, a person has no real say in which shelter they're placed. One asylum seeker who had been a victim in her home country was placed into a city shelter for the mentally ill. She left it quickly and refused to go back.
The future need for housing: The number of asylum seekers turning to Sojourners for housing help is expected to grow, slowly.
The chances that the people the Sojourners help will actually get asylum: While the ultimate decision rests with the immigration judge, the Sojourners work with people whose cases have been taken up by pro bono lawyers. By and large, such lawyers take on people with solid asylum claims.
What changes when a person gets asylum: Asylees gets refugee benefits, including a small cash stipend and housing allowance and immediate work authorization. New asylees can be expected to start contributing something to the rent, maybe $50 at first, then more, because now they can work and make money.
Little by little, they can start building their new lives.
Can you help? If you or your organization is interested in providing free housing, please contact Sojourners at email@example.com. Thank you!