Budgeting for Asylum-Seekers Challenges States and Cities

By: - May 17, 2019 12:00 am

A mother migrating from Honduras holds her 1-year-old child last year while surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol agents after illegally crossing the border near McAllen, Texas. Record numbers of asylum-seekers are crossing the border and spreading out around the country while waiting for court hearings. David J. Phillip/The Associated Press

Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from Central America are spreading out around the United States, straining the resources of local and state governments working to move and shelter them.

San Diego County has spent more than $1 million since October to house and screen asylum-seekers, and a single school district in Maryland saw hundreds of new immigrant students last year, requiring more than $4 million in state and local funds to educate them and leaving the district scrambling to find bilingual staff.

From 2017 to April of this year, more than 55,000 asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras arrived in the United States. Almost two-thirds now are in California, Florida, Texas, New York, Virginia and Maryland as they await asylum hearings. But every state has some, including at least three each in Alaska, Montana and North Dakota, according to a Stateline analysis of federal immigration court data.

The escalating arrivals have frustrated the Trump administration, which had promised a more secure border but is now seeing more crossings than at any time during the Obama administration.

The administration has tried various tactics without success, from separating families, to limiting the number of asylum-seekers allowed to enter the United States each day, to forcing some to remain in Mexico while waiting for their cases to be resolved. But crossings have continued to rise as, experts say, word spreads that this path to escape violence in Central America may eventually close down completely.

San Diego County, which last year joined a Trump administration lawsuit against California’s sweeping sanctuary state law, this year cooperated with the state and sued the administration over a new policy that left the county holding the bag for helping asylum-seekers.

Many cities and states began stepping up in October, when federal immigration authorities stopped housing many asylum-seekers. The “Safe Release” program, as it was called, had temporarily sheltered and fed those seeking asylum, then offered transportation to bus stations or airports to continue their journeys. When that ended, local governments and charities had to fill the void.

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said the county has spent $1.6 million to provide shelter space, security guards and nurses to screen asylum-seekers for illness. In addition, the state of California set aside $5 million to fund nonprofits running a shelter at the border for asylum-seekers to stay temporarily while arranging transportation to sponsors.

Despite San Diego County’s opposition to state sanctuary laws, Jacob said, “We have a problem with the mishandling of the asylum-seekers legally coming into our county.”

San Diego receives about 60 people a day, and most are young women and children, said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service of San Diego, one of the local charities running the shelter with the help of state funds. They typically stay for a day or two in San Diego and then travel to destinations mostly east of the Mississippi River, Hopkins said.

The group also is appealing to donors, seeking $500,000 over the next six months to help fund travel for those whose plans fall through. In some cases the relative who offered help could no longer do it, Hopkins said. Another typical case, he said, was a young mother with two small children who had a bus ticket to Vermont — a four-day ride.

“We didn’t think that would be safe to make that arduous journey with small children, so we raised money to buy a plane ticket,” Hopkins said. “These mothers get here with literally nothing more than the clothes on their back. They’ve already traveled a long way and spent whatever money they had to do it.”

In immigrant communities far from the border, schools have had to gear up for more students and scramble to add classes in the middle of the year when state funding has already been allocated, said Theresa Alban, superintendent of the Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland.

Over the past two school years, almost 60% of the growth in Frederick County elementary school students has come from new immigrants, many of them Central Americans, Alban said. But a bigger challenge for teachers are the dozens of older middle school and high school students who have never been to school before and have little chance of graduating with current academic requirements.

The best teachers can hope for is to offer such students some reading and writing skills in Spanish, some basic verbal English skills and some job skills so they can work after graduation, Alban said. The Maryland State Department of Education will start a pilot program next year to offer such immigrant students a special diploma. A similar plan already is in place for recent arrivals in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.

“We have to have something to offer them,” Alban said, “so they don’t throw up their hands when they see this mountain of academic work we’re putting ahead of them and say, ‘I need to leave and work to support my family.’”

Many of those seeking asylum are going to the same places in Maryland, Virginia, Texas, Florida, New York and California where the government has resettled the most unaccompanied children, a group that continues to grow, according to statistics from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Since October, about 30,500 children have been resettled with host families, almost as many as the 35,000 in all of fiscal 2018. A similar list of destinations for families reunited after separation at the border also includes New York and New Jersey, according to a study by Catholic and Lutheran refugee advocates.

The International Rescue Committee, a refugee assistance agency based in New York City, said asylum-seekers who crossed the border into Arizona this year went to South Florida — over 2,000 miles away — more than any other place. Spokesman Sean Piazza said those served by the committee also frequently went to Los Angeles, Houston and Long Island.

“They’re not just going anywhere,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, a director at the Legal Aid Justice Center, a clinic for low-income immigrants in Virginia. “They’re going to a place where they know there’s an uncle or a cousin with a couch to crash on.”

But since asylum-seekers don’t qualify for benefits or public housing, and can’t get work permission for months, many need shelter until they find friends and relatives to accommodate them.

Shelters in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this month became so overwhelmed — with one facility saying food had run low — that Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office helped coordinate bus transfers to Denver, the Associated Press reported.

Not all those crossing the southwest border and seeking asylum are from Central America. An influx of asylum-seekers from Africa is straining resources in Portland, Maine, partly because the city and state are among the few that offer shelter and financial assistance while asylum-seekers wait for court hearings, the Portland Press Herald reported.

The rise in asylum cases seems to stem from a spreading sense of an impending crackdown that will shut off access to the United States. Most of the recent increase in border crossings, which reached a 12-year high of 109,000 in April, came from Central Americans asking for asylum from gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“The word on the street in Central America seems to be that the border is closing, that the time to go is now,” said Bill Swersey, a spokesman for HIAS, a Maryland-based resettlement organization that has sent attorneys to the border to help asylum-seekers.

“The people who are coming now are not trying to avoid border patrol agents,” said former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin, speaking at an April discussion of border policy at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “They are trying to find them, so they can ask for asylum.”

President Donald Trump proposed rules in April that would make it tougher on asylum-seekers, including fees to apply for asylum and denial of work permits while the asylum case is pending.

Under current law, asylum-seekers can get work permits once 150 days have passed without a court decision. Trump’s memorandum called on the U.S. attorney general’s office and the Department of Homeland Security to draw up the new rules within 90 days.

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.