Families’ long journey to U.S. asylum far from over, help is needed

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

Two local groups are hoping to tap into Claremont’s giving spirit this holiday season so three asylum-seeking families, including nine children, and one single man, might avoid becoming unhoused while awaiting their day in court.

Since July, the asylum seekers — from Azerbaijan by way of Russia, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela — have been housed in dorms at Claremont School of Theology. That gratis arrangement runs out December 21.

Religious organization The Interfaith Council and nonprofit Claremont Canopy have now taken up their cause. The groups must raise $50,000 by December 21 or the families will be at risk of becoming unhoused.

“That is not what we want,” said Claremont Canopy founder and Executive Director Christy Anderson. “They’ve had a journey coming to this country that’s unimaginable to most of us.”

The passage of one of the asylum seekers, Zoriada, is indeed unfathomable: she walked more than 2,000 miles from Venezuela to Texas with her three children in tow.

“With my three children, Geremy, Valentina and Dorian, I crossed six countries, Venezuela, Colombia through the Darien jungle to Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico,” wrote Zoriada in a group text. “It took me one month and 11 days to reach my destination and meet my husband in the U.S. I arrived in Texas, [then] Los Angeles and the best, Claremont. Happy story. There are many videos where I am crossing this journey but always trusting in God who never leaves me alone.”

Video clips of Zoriada and her children’s journey are on YouTube at https://youtu.be/A6BQUIsy5I0 and https://youtu.be/9VBKyYcVaH4.

Since arriving over the summer, all of the school-aged children of the asylum seekers are now enmeshed in Claremont schools, at Sycamore and Mountain View elementary, El Roble Intermediate, and Claremont High.

Asylum seeking families from across the globe gather for a prayer circle in the backyard of Rick and Laura Burgis’s Claremont home on October 30. COURIER photo/Andrew Alonzo

Each of the 16 people seeking asylum did so legally, by making their cases at the U.S./Mexico borders in Texas and California. Each now awaits a 2023 date in a U.S. immigration court.

Up to now, the they have been relying on the largesse of CST for their housing, and food donations from local churches, food banks, and individual people.

The Interfaith Council and Claremont Canopy are looking for referrals to a housing agency or person who may have expertise in finding housing for the asylum seekers. Email claremontcanopy@gmail.com if you may be able to help.

They also seek financial support to help with deposits, rent, and legal expenses. The goal is to raise $50,000 in front of the famlies’ asylum hearings in early- to mid-2023. The window is short: the bulk of the money has to be raised by December 21. As of last week the fund, administered through Claremont United Church of Christ, had raised about $6,000.

To make a tax-deductible donation, go to claremontucc.breezechms.com/give/online and choose “refugee assistance fundraiser.” Folks can also donate via check to Refugee Assistance Fund, c/o Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 W. Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711.

Claremont resident Laura Burgis welcomed three families and a single man, all of whom are seeking asylum in the U.S., and their supporters to her Claremont home on October 30. COURIER photo/Andrew Alonzo

An unfortunate wrinkle for folks seeking asylum in the U.S. is obtaining a work permit which involves extensive paperwork and a waiting period of at least 180 days, known in immigration statutes as the “180 day asylum EAD clock.” So, each of the adults housed at CST is unable to work legally, and under-the-table work has been sparse and not nearly lucrative enough to cover the families’ housing and food expenses.

So, they wait.

“They’re sort of stuck in this limbo phase, where they’re just trying to survive until they have their day in court,” Anderson said.

Years ago, when she first began working with asylum seeking and refugee families, a retired Peace Corps worker at Pilgrim Place told Anderson her role was to seek justice for those she helps.

“Charity comes,” Anderson said. “We live in a wonderful community, and when we bring up social justice issues or humanitarian problems that are happening in our community I’ve seen it time and time again: people come out to help and donate.”

Asylum seekers differ from refugees. When a refugee applicant is approved by a U.S. immigration court, they have immediate permanent residency and a path to citizenship, Anderson said. Once an immigration court grants an asylum seekers’ request, they are then moved into the refugee system, she added.

Pomona City Council member John Nolte shares a meal with Colombian asylum-seeking father Jhon Garcia and his family. COURIER photo/Andrew Alonzo

Asylum seekers do have access to a varying degree of benefits, from none to some, depending on which state they reside in while awaiting their immigration court date. California offers full scope Medi-Cal health insurance benefits to all children under the age of 19, regardless of their immigration status.

The City of Claremont is also looking into any county or state resources that may be available to help the families, Anderson said.

The families deserve justice, Anderson said.

“They don’t deserve homelessness. They don’t deserve to get this far and then be homeless. So that’s what we’re trying to do, to make sure they’re safe, they’re thriving, and that they get a fair day in court. The families are now part of our community. They’re going to our schools. They want to give back. They’re amazing and wonderful.”

For questions or more information, email claremontcanopy@gmail.com.

To make a tax-deductible donation, go to https://claremontucc.breezechms.com/give/online and choose “refugee assistance fundraiser.” Folks can also donate via check made out to “Refugee Assistance Fund,” and mailed to Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 W. Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711.

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