Volunteers from the Western New York Coalition of Farmworker Serving Agencies pack bags of toiletries at Ibero-American Action League’s Community Resource Center. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)
ROCHESTER — Several adults and children milled around the Ibero-American Action League’s Community Resource Center this past Sept. 15, speaking in Spanish as they picked out clothes and other necessities that had been set out on tables.
Weeks earlier, they and a large number of others from distant lands had arrived in town, marking their latest stop on often-harrowing journeys that spanned much of the globe. Life-threatening conditions in their home countries had prompted them to search for safer and more prosperous lives.
Now, as asylum seekers, these people hope to establish new roots in the United States. A coalition of nonprofit agencies, including Ibero, is helping to get the new arrivals settled.
“This truly has been a team effort,” said Irene Sanchez, executive director of the Western New York Coalition of Farmworker Serving Agencies, which is leading the local resettlement process.
Asylum seekers in Rochester hail from many countries
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asylum seekers are people who have left their homelands due to persecution and serious human-rights violations. They seek legal protection in other countries — often the United States — by making claims for asylum.
Statistics provided by local government officials show that 239 asylum seekers arrived in Rochester between Aug. 7 and Sept. 5, 2023, in four bus contingents from New York City, although some of them have since returned. Many of those who remained, including a large number of children, have been housed at the downtown Holiday Inn on State Street.
Sanchez said local asylum seekers hail from countries “all over the world,” particularly Venezuela and Ecuador. She didn’t rule out the possibility of more ending up in Rochester in the near future.
“We’re not sure if that’s going to happen or when. Right now, we are notified with very little time frame when the families arrive. We just want to position ourselves to be ready to help,” she said.
Surge of asylum seekers in U.S. presents challenges
The Rochester asylum seekers are among tens of thousands of refugees who crossed into the United States along the Mexican border after May 11, 2023. On that date, border restrictions related to Title 42 — a federal policy enacted in March 2020 that sharply limited access to asylum — were discontinued. Those entering the U.S. may now do so legally, provided they apply at the border for screening of their asylum claims and are willing to reside in detention facilities until their cases are decided.
Due to a flood of migrants from Mexico into Texas — both legally and illegally — Gov. Greg Abbott ordered scores of asylum seekers to be relocated to major U.S. cities. But New York City Mayor Eric Adams stated over the summer that his city had reached its limit for accepting asylum seekers, and asked upstate communities to help absorb part of the influx.
According to Daisy Ruiz-Marin, Ibero’s migrant services director, Monroe is one of only five New York state counties outside New York City that have accepted asylum seekers and the only one within the 12-county Diocese of Rochester. Meanwhile, most New York counties have publicly issued states of emergency and executive orders banning the placement of asylum seekers, stating that they don’t have the resources to accommodate them.
Many agencies are assisting asylum seekers
Monroe County Executive Adam Bello is backing a coordinated effort among numerous nonprofit agencies to bring asylum seekers to Rochester and provide for their many needs. Among the agencies’ priorities are for asylum seekers to receive adequate physical- and mental-health services; enroll their children in city schools; learn the English language and digital skills; be aware of such safety measures as calling 911; and know their legal rights, particularly when they begin employment, Sanchez and Ruiz-Marin said.
Shelter and food for the asylum seekers currently are being funded by New York City’s government. Sanchez and Ruiz-Marin said members of the public also can assist as volunteers and by donating money, clothes and other needed items. For instance, most of the asylum seekers are from warm-weather climates and have no winter clothing, Ruiz-Marin noted.
Catholic Charities Family and Community Services likewise is positioned to assist asylum seekers. Getachew “GG” Beshir, who serves as refugee, immigration and employment director for the agency, noted that Catholic Charities will help with case management and other long-term needs once the asylum seekers are cleared to remain in the U.S. and authorized to work.
Compassion sought to help ease struggles
Yet Beshir said it may be several months before the asylum seekers learn whether they will be able to live and work locally. Meanwhile, state and local officials are calling on the federal government to speed up application processes as part of a smoother overall resettlement effort and to increase federal funding to protect their own budgets.
Dennis Poust, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, said that increased federal support for resettlement of asylum seekers is long overdue. While he acknowledged the importance of securing borders and enforcing immigration rules, he said asylum seekers who enter this country in a legal manner deserve support — especially in light of their considerable trials.
“It is desperation driven by economics, violence and oppression that is causing people to risk everything to come here seeking asylum,” Poust said.
Beshir added that many asylum seekers feared being killed in their native lands, and thus were willing to travel through several countries — often by foot — while encountering such challenges as harsh weather, difficult terrain and smugglers. He contrasted their hardships to those of an average person who would chafe at walking just from one town to the next.
If we take a moment and put ourselves in their shoes — it’s just unimaginable,” he said.
Poust and Beshir both cited Catholics’ obligation to welcome the stranger. Beshir said it’s important for local residents to understand that asylum seekers are here legally; are eager to work so they can become self-sufficient and not have to move again; and are willing to take various types of jobs that are currently going unfilled.
Sanchez and Ruiz-Marin added that although it will take time for the asylum seekers to feel part of the community, they appreciate the hospitality they’ve received thus far.
They see the smiling faces (from our agencies), which they’re not used to,” Ruiz-Marin said.