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For the thousands of asylum seekers who have fled persecution and violence in Central America, detention can be an extremely retraumatizing setting. Many are subject to violence at the hands of guards and other detainees while they wait in detention indefinitely for their asylum hearings.
But the asylum speaker can avoid detention altogether if they can secure a sponsor in the United States. A sponsor is someone who agrees to become legally responsible for the asylum seeker for the duration of their legal proceedings, which can be as little as six months or as long as indefinitely.
Hundreds of Oakland community members, including local congregations and activists, gathered in the auditorium of the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland last month to raise money and awareness and fill the demand for sponsorship.
Self-identified as the Migrant Welcome Committee of the Bay Area, the coalition is led by Rev. Deborah Lee of the organization Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and has three primary strategies of response: sponsorship here in the Bay Area, accompaniment at the border and political action to change the current system of seeking asylum.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we want to grow and expand efforts that have already begun,” Lee said at the event. “Our outcomes for tonight are a deepened understanding and framing of the migrant exodus, and we want to raise money for two key groups in Tijuana who are supporting those who are seeking asylum: Al Otro Lado and Enclave Caracol.”
In addition to fundraising, the committee aims to bring 50 trans asylum seekers to the Bay Area as well as 50 other people currently sitting in detention who will not be able to leave unless they have a housing host.
Lee led a small group that included Veronica Aguilar, a woman who travelled by caravan to the United States, and Aguilar’s housing sponsors Ann and Kent, who shared their experience. Also there, was a member of an Alameda congregation that has been housing two migrant families from Guatemala and a trans specialist from on organization that provides legal services to migrant communities.
For Aguilar, a recent immigrant who traveled from El Salvador to the United States on a previous caravan, the idea of sponsorship was the only way to get her in the country. She knew that the reality that she was facing in her home country was the motivation she needed to seek asylum in the United States.
“Let me tell you, I was very happy in my home with my family, but the gangs in my community have generated fear … I decided to leave my country with $100 in my pocket. I didn’t know what to do or where to go,” said Aguilar’s interpreter as she translates Aguilar statement on her departure from her country.
Sponsorship also gives the individual the ability to fight for their asylum in the United States without having to be in a detention center, meaning they won’t have to risk the possible violence and abuse that frequently take place in these detention center.
“Sponsorship is crucial because it allows someone who is on bond or parole eligible to leave detention and fight their asylum proceedings outside of detention,” said Alana Vermeulen, a specialist at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who led a sponsorship orientation at the committee meeting. “I can’t overemphasize, after working in detention settings, how important this is.”
Vermeulen says that sponsors are tasked with building a community of support around the individual. Having to provide any accompaniment they might need, from ICE check-ins to their immigration court proceedings, doctor visits, and meetings with their lawyers, it is advised to have a team of people that can share the responsibility.
“This is not an insignificant commitment,” Vermeulen said. “Also, living in the Bay Area, it is a significant financial commitment as well because usually asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work until they receive a work permit which usually takes three to four months.”
Pueblos Sin Fronteras, an organization that fights for immigrant’s rights, helped Aguilar and another young woman find sponsorship and emotional support through Kent and Ann Moriarty.
“All of the people that are coming, face this wall of meanness … it’s important to us that these people know that this world and country is not all mean people. We want to offer a welcome,” said Ann, explaining her reasoning for choosing to help through sponsorship.
Kent worked closely with Freedom For Immigrant in the past, and that’s what ultimately got the couple a connection to Pueblos Sin Fronteras’ dire need to find a sponsor for Aguilar.
Buena Vista Church United Methodist Church in Alameda joined the coalition in 2015 and for the last two years have been housing a Guatemalan family in the church parsonage. The family’s asylum hearing is scheduled this upcoming spring.
“In the faith community, this idea around sanctuary, it’s just a part of who we’re called to be,” said Gala King, who sits on Buena Vista’s administrative council and spoke on behalf of. “It has looked different over time, so at this moment we advise people to contribute through housing and accompaniment.”
With the need for sponsors being so great within the immigrant community, it is worth noting that these sponsorships help immigrants settle in a new environment that they are not familiar with.
“We were the only people they knew; we were the go-to people for everything. They eventually start to plug themselves in the community,” said Kent, as he addresses a group of potential sponsors.
Through sponsorships, support, and help from people like Kent and Ann, immigrants get to see a brighter future in building a new life the United States.