Visitors Bring Moral Support to Detainees

The Sojourners Detention Visitor Program recruits, trains, transports, and mentors volunteers to bring hope and encouragement to asylum seekers and other non-criminal non-citizens held in area detention centers, jails and prisons and to provide practical support and orientation post-release.  We also seek to help these asylum seekers, once freed from detention, to find housing in New York.

Next new visitor orientation/training: 1 p.m. July 17, Room 20T, The Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive (Claremont Avenue @120th Street), New York City.

Upcoming Visitations to Elizabeth Detention Center:
July 9 & 23
Aug 13 & 27

Car pools are available from Riverside and from near Port Authority, with space available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Contact Frances Connell - frances.connell (at) gmail.com - for more information.


FEATURED ARTICLE: THE POST-RELEASE HOUSING 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.

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."

- Sojourner Carol F-M
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 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.
"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 welcomed an asylum seeker to 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 sojourners@theriversidechurchny.org. Thank you!