Violence, a border crossing, and then a haven in Vermont

Violence, a border crossing, and then a haven in Vermont

Community Asylum Seekers Project takes on daunting task of helping families on the run seek safety in U.S.

ROCKINGHAM — What would you do if you had to leave your home because violent gangs threatened you and your family - or worse? What if you had the “wrong” religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation, and were in danger?

What would you bring, knowing you could carry only so much? If you have children, would you take them with you? They could slow you down. They might get hurt or lost. But leaving them behind is worse. What if you were a child and you had to leave alone?

What if you knew you could never see your mother, your brother, your best friend again?

What would you do if you arrived at another country's border, seeking sanctuary from violence and persecution? And, although you presented yourself as an asylum seeker in accordance with international law, you were treated like a criminal and put in “detention.”

What would you do?

If you were one of the lucky ones, you'd have the telephone number of a family member who agreed to host you.

If you were really lucky, they'd be home, and they would answer the phone.

'Please help me'

Steve Crofter, founder of the Community Asylum Seekers Project, began working with people in these situations three years ago, when, upon his retirement, he volunteered with Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas.

The charity set up a center near the bus station where asylum-seekers - mostly from Central America - are dispatched to family members around the U.S.

Crofter and his colleagues greeted them, offering them a friendly welcome, food, water, a telephone call, a shower, clothing. They helped them find the right bus and gave them a note to display during bus transfers along their journey: “Please help me. I don't speak English. Please show me which bus I need to take.”

On the CASP Website, Crofter describes his experiences as a volunteer.

“These were people reported as statistics, [...] Just collateral damage from the U.S. war on drugs that's spilled over into Central America, even while the demand for drugs in our country makes narcotics so lucrative that those in the way of drug running are terrorized or killed. [...] I met a mother who gave her beloved 12-year-old daughter birth control pills before their journey, assuming that she would be raped before they arrived.”

“At that point, I didn't know the difference between those seeking asylum and refugees. I learned what people were fleeing from,” Crofter told The Commons.

Refugees are invited to resettle here by the U.S. State Department after their refugee status is determined by the United Nations. Asylum-seekers arrive as individuals, and are not coming to the U.S. for work or economic gain.

Asylum-seekers are legally present in this country while they seek asylum.

But, Crofter noted, although these individuals arrive at the U.S. border seeking asylum in accordance with international law, and they committed no crime, they are still imprisoned.

“They call it 'immigration detention,' but it's a euphemism for prison, and many are for-profit,” he said.

A place to go

Crofter asked his colleagues what happened to those without families to receive them. “I realized that having no place to go was often what kept people from being released” from immigration detention, from possibly being sent back to violence and persecution, he said.

Crofter had an idea: “Maybe we could just have people come here.”

He returned home to Rockingham, where he shares a home and runs Singing River Farm with his life-partner, Laurel Green. He got together with neighbors. He reached out to the consulates of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. He got in touch with immigration attorneys. He formed a board of directors and secured nonprofit status from the state.

It took Crofter and other CASP board members some time to work out a model to help asylum-seekers. They worked with other organizations, including the Refugee Immigration Ministry in Malden, Massachusetts, which provided CASP members with training, guidance, materials, and encouragement. CASP secured a case-manager to assist its clients.

Once CASP was up and running, they got the word out by working with 50 groups who directly interact with asylum-seekers. “They tell us who needs a home,” Crofter said.

First, CASP finds willing hosts, including someone to provide a home, meals, transportation, and other financial and social support. “That's the challenge,” said Crofter.

It isn't usually one person offering all of those things to an asylum-seeker, and there's not one exact model, Crofter explained. Sometimes the host is an “empty-nester with a spare room,” or a group of neighbors or church members who work together to provide the asylum-seeker's needs.

CASP “is flexible about our responsibility to bring in volunteers, so the host isn't doing everything. Some hosts need different resources, such as reimbursement for food and other items,” Crofter said.

“We're not swimming in money, but our fundraising has allowed us to do this,” he said. “We've had a lot of community interest: drivers, those seeking goods for the families, carpenters and painters, people donating money to renovate living spaces.”

One of those spaces is on Crofter and Green's farm. As Green explained, there was a handyman's apartment in the barn, but it needed work. Over time, volunteers fixed it up, creating a comfortable living space, making it ready for a new arrival.

From Texas to tranquility

In October, Yesenia and her two children - ages six and 10 - arrived at Singing River Farm from Karnes, Texas, where they had been in detention after fleeing gang violence in Mexico. At Crofter and Green's request, The Commons is withholding Yesenia and her children's surnames for safety reasons.

Yesenia's children are enrolled in elementary school, and Yesenia is taking English classes through Vermont Adult Learning. Because Yesenia is still learning, Green acted as an interpreter for her interview with The Commons.

“People are very friendly here,” Yesenia said. “It's very tranquil, beautiful. Life is very different. The pace of life is very fast. You get up in the morning and you're already late! Everybody has a calendar here.”

“I never planned to come to the U.S.A., but because of violence, I had to come,” Yesenia said.

Yesenia described her experience arriving at the border.

“The whole process was pretty ugly. We were treated as animals - worse than animals. There are good people in the [immigration] system, and there are times when I had a lot of luck, but others didn't. Some workers were kind, but others were upset that people come to the U.S.,” she said.

Like other asylum-seekers, when Yesenia and her children arrived and were taken to the detention facility, she was given a “credible fear” interview. The immigration interviewer determines whether the individual can make their claim in court. Someone with somewhere to go - family members, an organization like CASP - has a better chance at receiving asylum.

Immigration officials asked Yesenia “tons of questions,” over many hours, she said. They took all of her belongings, fingerprinted her and her children, and took “mug shots,” and, she said, “they searched us everywhere.”

A small, dirty room

During the intake process, which took three days and three nights, Yesenia and her children were detained in one small, dirty, cold room, which she shared with another woman and her two infant children. The other woman was given no diapers for her babies.

“They fed us only ramen noodles, even for the infants. It was a really small amount of food, and the little children were really hungry,” Yesenia said. Green added, ”Most of the time, the women don't eat and give the children their food.”

“They gave us no information about what would happen to us, nobody would answer our questions,” Yesenia said.

On the third day, Yesenia and her family were moved to what she called “the dog kennel” for another day and night, then they were taken by van to an airport, where they were told to put on gray uniforms.

They boarded an airplane to San Antonio, where they were bused to “family prison.” During the transport, and upon their arrival, nobody ever explained where they were going or why.

Yesenia said she arrived in the U.S. with the phone number of a family member, but when she tried to call, no one answered the phone. During her time in family prison, a member of the legal team there told her about CASP. Yesenia was interested, and the attorney emailed Crofter.

“We sent Yesenia a video [via email] with where they'd live, the space here, and with us saying 'hello,'” Green said. They had a phone conversation through an interpreter, and Yesenia, Green, and Crofter agreed to think about whether they wanted to move forward with Yesenia and her children coming to live in Rockingham through CASP.

The CASP Board has to approve all clients.

But, according to Green, “After that 20-minute phone call [...] we decided, yes.”

The CASP Board agreed.

Soon after, Yesenia and her children embarked on a bus ride north, into an unfamiliar country, to live with people they'd never met.

Feliz cumpleaños

Green and Crofter picked up Yesenia and her children on Oct. 18, 2017. It had been approximately one month since Yesenia and her children arrived in the U.S.

“Their bus was late, and we were early,” said Green. That day was Green's birthday, and “they sang 'Happy Birthday' to me in Spanish,” she said. “So, we've been celebrating on the 18th of every month since then.”

Yesenia is working on a formal asylum application with her attorney, and she submitted a handwritten, 50-page statement about her experiences in Mexico. This will go into her application. 180 days after she submits her application in February, Yesenia is eligible to apply for a work permit.

Until then, she is reliant on her hosts. CASP's guidelines state that clients must obey the law, and that includes not working until they are legally permitted. “It's critical that we're completely above-board,” said Crofter, who noted the CASP Board met with the regional community relations officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Technically, she's under a deportation order,” Crofter said, “but because she's seeking asylum, Yesenia and her children get a 'stay' on that order. Homeland Security gave her a form that says she has a legal right to be in the U.S.A.”

Yesenia's lawyers don't have an exact date for her final asylum hearing, but their best guess is 2021. Meanwhile, she misses her other two children, who are adults. She is worried her father will get sick. But, to protect herself and her two young children from violence, Yesenia cannot return to Mexico. It would also jeopardize her case.

“I am scared I won't get asylum,” she said.

When she was imprisoned in the detention center, “sometimes I thought there were no people who could help me. Sometimes I thought I'd be deported,” Yesenia said. “But there's CASP. Like angels in heaven.”

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