Who Are Asylum Seekers?

Until WWII, the United States referred to everyone migrating to its shores as immigrants. After the War, there was tremendous soul searching by nations who recognized that numerous people had tried to flee Europe, but had been unable to secure Visas. In several tragic instances, refugees fleeing to other countries were refused admittance and forcibly repatriated.  Many of these same refugees later perished in the Holocaust.

In 1951, the US joined other nations in ratifying the Refugee Convention, which defined the term ‘refugee’ and outlined the rights of the displaced as well as the legal obligation of member States to protect them. Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as someone who:

“…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

The US, along with other nations, agreed to not forcibly repatriate individuals who are being persecuted. Additionally, they initiated an avenue for permanent protection called refugee resettlement.

Each year the US sets a ceiling on the number of refugees it will resettle, and specifies which groups it will consider. Refugees have their claims processed overseas. After they have passed screening, medical, and security exams, the US government connects them to a resettlement agency that receives them and provides 90-days of case management. Resettling refugees are allowed to work immediately, can access federal benefits (like food stamps), and have a path to citizenship.

While the resettlement program is vital, it only makes a small dent in the number of refugees needing protection. Last year, there were over 25 million refugees in the world, and just over 100,000 were resettled worldwide (.0048 percent).

Because of the small number accepted for resettlement, and because countless populations are left out of consideration, many people facing persecution must find another avenue of protection. This is why Congress passed laws – and the US is party to international laws – that recognize an individual’s right to asylum (or permanent protection) if they are:

1) present in the US, and

2) can prove that they meet the definition of a refugee.

In other words, instead of going through the refugee approval process overseas, asylum seekers must first get to the US and then request protection. After requesting protection, a long, legal process ensues in which individuals must prove they meet the definition of a refugee.

Asylum seekers are a diverse group from a large number of countries. They can be political activists, journalists, government officials, LGBTIQ individuals, or minorities threatened by ethnic cleansing. What is common among them is the fear of persecution, imprisonment, torture, or death if they return home.

Unfortunately, the world is experiencing a surging number of displaced people, including asylum seekers. Asylum applications in the US have risen every year for the last six years, with the number of cases rising by 27 percent in 2017 alone (United Nations). Because Refugees Northwest is the only dedicated program for asylum seekers in Washington State, we are experiencing a dramatic increase in requests for services. While we try to never turn anyone away, our current waitlist for services is four to six months, and are not able to take 10 to 15% of cases because of timeline restrictions. The longer an asylum seeker waits to get into services, the more vulnerable they are to exploitation, homelessness, food insecurity, and more.

In 2017, more than 1.7 million people worldwide applied for asylum, with 142,961 applications filed in the US (United Nations; US Department of Justice). It is difficult to know exactly how many asylum seekers are in Washington State, but we can make some solid estimates. We know that Tacoma hosts one of the nation’s largest immigration detention centers, and that Seattle and Tacoma also host the State’s only two immigration courts. These two courts complete about 4% of all asylum cases nationally. Using these numbers, we estimate that there are over 5,700 new asylum applicants entering Washington State annually.

According to USCIS, the backlog of asylum cases has grown by 1,750% in the last five years. This means that in addition to new seekers entering Washington, there is a growing number of seekers waiting for their hearing, and a large number of individuals granted asylum who stay in the area.

Challenges and Vulnerabilities in Asylum Seeking Individuals

  • Asylum seekers often wait years for a hearing to decide their fate. During this time, they are incredibly vulnerable due to a number of factors.
  • Asylum seekers must prove their persecution claim through a legal process. If a person has legal representation, they are five times more likely to receive protection (American Immigration Council). However, there is no right to legal representation in immigration court, even for children. For detained asylum seekers, or those with few financial resources, the task of finding a lawyer is incredibly challenging.
  • According to a literature review in the American Journal of Public Health, torture prevalence among asylum seekers is consistently over 30%. The prevalence of war exposure, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence is even greater. The consequence is that the rate of physical and mental health disorders in asylum seekers is high. Unfortunately, asylum seekers are not eligible for any federal benefits, which prevents them from obtaining needed care to help them heal, cope, and adjust.
  • Asylum seekers must wait five months after filing for asylum before they can petition the US government for the right to work. The permission to work often takes two to six months. On average, asylum seekers wait 18 months after entry into the US before working. This makes asylum seekers susceptible to trafficking and other forms of exploitation, as well as homelessness and food insecurity.
  • If an asylum seekers is detained and subsequently granted asylum, they are released from the Northwest Detention Center onto the docks of Tacoma with little direction and support. Those granted asylum are eligible for a wide range of benefits including medical insurance, the right to work, and to receive other public benefits. Unfortunately, with no systems navigation, they are often unaware of their eligibility and miss connection to much needed assistance.

Asylum seekers are in legal proceedings that will decide if they can obtain safety in the US or be deported. They are also trying to establish a new life in a new country, while concurrently trying to meet basic needs, adjust to a new culture, and build community. The complicated interaction between physical, psychological, legal, social, and basic needs demands multidisciplinary solutions. For this reason, Refugees Northwest provides a continuum of care that includes intensive case management, basic needs support, mental health counseling and support, legal evaluation and representation, medical care, and psychological and medical evaluations. Asylum seekers may self-refer into care; be referred by resettlement agencies, medical centers, community based organizations; or be referred by other clients. Refugees Northwest works inside the Northwest Detention Center and receive clients released from detention. We have a weekly orientation service that is open to the public, and have three walk-in days for case management support. In addition, we have a resource and referral desk that is open every weekday and helps clients with basic needs on a first come, first serve basis. Refugees Northwest has a strong cross-referral system between partners including Harborview Medical Center for medical care and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project for legal screening and representation. We have also developed additional external partners for housing support and rental assistance. Our goal is to ensure that survivors have care and support from the moment they enter the United States until they are safe and stable.

Refugees Northwest is the only program of its kind in Washington State, meaning that when we cannot serve a client, they often have nowhere else to turn. In the first year of the program (2015), Refugees Northwest expected to serve 60 clients. We served over 200. In just a little over three years, our caseload has more than tripled, with 4.5 FTE now serving close to 1,000 clients annually. The core services of our Asylum Assistance program include:

  • Intensive case management – Refugees Northwest dedicates case managers to help asylum seekers find a lawyer, get connected to mental health and medical care, obtain any benefits for which they may be eligible (seekers are only eligible for state-funded food stamps after they file while those granted asylum are eligible for all federal benefits), find housing, and obtain employment.

  • Basic Needs Support – Refugees Northwest sponsors in-kind and other giving campaigns throughout the year to ensure that asylum seekers can support their basic needs. We have an emergency feeding program, as well as distribute clothing and hygiene items. We provide over 6,500 bus tickets annually, as well as pay for Orca transportation vouchers. Refugees Northwest also raises dedicated dollars to help pay for outstanding medical bills, medical hardware, and medication. Last year, we gave over $170,000 worth of basic needs support directly to clients.

  • Mental Health and Medical Evaluation Network – While trying to establish an asylum claim, applicants must “prove” past harm to make the case for future persecution. Critical to their assertion is any physical or psychological evidence corroborating their claim. For example, an asylum seeker’s petition for asylum may note that she/he was tortured by an interrogator who extinguished cigarettes on their skin. However, the judge only has the applicant’s word that this happened unless an independent medical doctor examines the applicant and can substantiate scarring.
  • Mental health evaluation is also valuable. Trained clinicians assess client’s stories and emotional reactions, and determine whether the applicant’s claim appears credible. When a mental health or medical evaluation supports an applicant’s claim, it more than doubles their chance of asylum. Unfortunately, this type of evaluation is expensive and often out of reach for seekers who are have little or no financial resources and/or detained.
  • Refugees Northwest created the only pro-bono evaluation network in Washington State. Over the last three years, we have trained over 150 active volunteer doctors and mental health clinicians in Washington State on this specific type of evaluation. Last year, our volunteers completed over 240 FREE evaluations for asylum seekers.