U.S. domestic and international law guarantees the right to seek asylum. Yet, the U.S. often detains asylum seekers under appalling — and at times illegal — conditions. Rather than confining asylum seekers, the U.S. should rely on communities to assist them during the tumultuous period between petitioning for asylum and awaiting a decision. 

Community sponsorship programs for asylum seekers function almost identically to programs for refugees. Refugee sponsorship programs are employed in the U.S. and across the world to welcome those seeking humanitarian protection. These programs set up refugees with immediate community resources to provide the social networks necessary for integration. 

Asylum seeker community sponsorship programs are not as well known or plentiful as those for refugees. Still, they are easily implemented — like World Relief Chicagoland’s Good Neighbor Teams, which has been active since 2019. There, program organizers collaborate with local volunteers to help migrants settle in and become accustomed to their new homes. Volunteers provide housing, cover basic expenses, and help asylum seekers acclimate to life in the U.S. during the six months they wait to receive employment authorization. Additional support can include English tutoring, help enrolling in school, finding jobs, and understanding public transportation. 

These community sponsorship programs also help ensure asylum seekers attend their hearings, facilitate an understanding of legal and court communications, and receive assistance getting to court. This support makes new neighbors feel welcomed and encouraged to engage with their new communities.

Since the early 2000s, there has been an increasing focus on the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum and how the U.S. government treats them. In 2021, asylum seekers are projected to reach record highs, despite the threat of detention while they await processing. Continued efforts to deter migrant arrivals rather than expanding processing capacity have increased the demand for immigrant detention centers — modeled on the American carceral system — that provide cruel conditions of confinement at a high cost to taxpayers. 

Detaining migrants quells fears — albeit unwarranted — that asylum seekers may abscond into the U.S. and become undocumented, although over 80 percent of migrant families released from detention attend their court hearings. The Family Case Management Program (FCMP), introduced under the Obama administration, was an alternative to detention until the Trump administration cut it short. Under FCMP, participating migrant families were assigned case managers who guided them through the immigration process and provided resources to settle in a new community, functioning similarly to NGO-run asylum seeker community sponsorship programs. 

FCMP achieved remarkable success rates — 99 percent for compliance and 100 percent for court appearances — making a strong case to reinstate the program. 

Instead, the government continues to grant private prison companies multimillion-dollar contracts to detain migrants. In 2016, the government spent an average of $133 and $319 a day to detain a single person and a family unit, respectively; in contrast, FCMP’s daily rate was $36 per person. Furthermore, asylum seekers are often detained for months on end with no idea of when they will be released. Since the U.S. is unprepared to receive asylum seekers, especially at the current and predicted rate of arrivals, case processing is slow. This shortcoming not only costs the country hefty sums of money, but also it can endanger the lives of asylum seekers. 

Detention incorrectly signals to asylum seekers they were wrong to have journeyed to the U.S. Instead, the government should direct immigrant detention expenses towards community sponsorship programs like those now used to settle refugees, who arrive in the U.S. with asylum status. Reallocating the detention budget towards an overall national initiative for sponsorship programs can allow for such initiatives to be extended to asylum seekers.

Community and private sponsorship program successfully serve asylum seekers and facilitate their community integration, but many are concentrated in certain states and major cities. Pilot asylum-seeker sponsorship programs, like Good Neighbor Teams, should be scaled up for nationwide operation. Freedom for Immigrants provides a potential model as a national network of advocates for immigrant sponsorship and a recruiter of volunteers. A national sponsorship initiative could be part of a larger non-prison approach to the asylum seeker processing system. 

We should also explore pairing federal support with private backing to strengthen these programs. Additional financing may make it easier to sustain programs, adjust for costs of living that vary across the country, and accept as many asylum seekers as possible. For example, the Community Sponsorship Catalyst Fund, supported by philanthropists, offers financial grants to organizations maintaining community refugee sponsorship programs. World Relief Chicagoland recently received a grant dedicated to the maintenance of its Good Neighbors Teams program for the next two years, and is seeking additional funds to maintain the program beyond. 

Just as these community sponsorship programs allow asylum seekers to learn about their communities, communities can learn about asylum seekers, the asylum process, and immigration. By volunteering with refugee sponsorship programs, local communities become interested in the presence of these welcomed refugees and their immigration process. These community service opportunities become educational in that they learn more about the complicated immigration process and the precarious legal and security statuses of noncitizens. 

Asylum seekers come to this country in hopes of obtaining and sustaining a peaceful life. It is glaringly apparent that the government alone is unable to meet their needs. By turning towards civil society to develop a joint strategy, we can better avoid panic over a “border crisis” when the real issue stems from the government’s lack of preparedness. This country must receive these asylum seekers with unfaltering respect and assure them that they can call the U.S. their new home. Asylum-seeker community sponsorship programs instead of detention are a great way to start.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash