As CT experiences a rise in asylum and refugee immigration, challenges navigating the system remain
Maggie is originally from Peru. She left her home country one and a half years ago fleeing high crime rates. Like many others, she embarked on a journey in search of better opportunities and a safer environment. She asked to use only her nickname because of her immigration status. Her immigration story began with a flight from Lima to Mexico, followed by crossing the Rio Grande.
“We went through a forest, we were just walking with the coyote who was guiding us until we reached the river,” Maggie said. “My sister and her baby were there too, and we all crossed. The immigration police saw the baby and stopped us, to help the baby. The officer asked us our names and gave us water. He told us that from there everything was gonna be okay.”
Her journey did not end there. She entered a legal system for immigration that is overwhelmed, including in Connecticut, which is seeing a rise in asylum and refugee immigration this year, according to immigration aid groups.
Maggie and her family were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and went through a rigorous process. She was given a green uniform and saw immigrants from all over the world trying to enter the U.S.
“There were people from all countries, people from China. There were many Venezuelans, too many! Also people from Honduras, Peru, Ecuador.”
A couple days later, she and her family were released on a plane to Connecticut, where members of her family reside.
Ann O'Brien, the director of sponsorship at Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS), shared that their asylum program is helping immigrants from various countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, Cuba, and Ukraine, who already have a sponsor in the U.S.
“Some of those folks that we've been working with in those categories are part of a program that the U.S. set up for Cubans and Haitians and Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, plus our Ukrainian program,” O’Brien said. “We've worked with over 1,000 folks now since those programs launched early last year.”
Emanuela Palmares, the vice president of the New American Dream Foundation in Danbury, a nonprofit that assists the immigrant community, said all immigrants — whether they are undocumented or seeking asylum or refugee status — face challenges to achieve their dreams.
Palmares said the closure of the 245(i) program in 2001 to new immigrants, which had allowed immigrants to obtain work permits and a path to documentation, is one of the reasons why the U.S. has so many undocumented immigrants right now.
“There's really no pathway for someone who's already in the country and then having the opportunity to apply for benefits,” Palmares said.
According to O’Brien, the federal government has implemented a program to assist certain groups who are vulnerable due to instability in their home countries. Through this fund, IRIS aims to provide support and aid to those who may face challenges in navigating the immigration process.
“If we have community groups that have said we want to help somebody as a vulnerable family no matter what their status, that is the best scenario,” O’Brien said. “The reality is we can't help everybody and so we try to prioritize.”
Palmares said there is tension between some of these newer political asylum seekers and older generations of immigrants who have to wait years for their court date — with more than 2 million cases pending nationally, according to the Government Accountability Office.
She said some people enter the U.S. without legal status because of how complicated and prolonged the visa application process is, which itself can sometimes take years.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection indicates that in fiscal year 2023 they had over 3 million interactions with immigrants trying to cross the border.
Meanwhile, a year and a half later, Maggie still awaits her first court appearance.
“The immigration office sent me a letter and told me my court date has been delayed for another year,” Maggie said. She said she’s working to obtain a lawyer and applying for asylum status.
Palmares said she hears from immigrants facing additional obstacles who often can’t qualify for social service programs in Connecticut. Even for those that may qualify for certain social services the barriers to housing, computer and internet access make uploading application documents difficult.
However, Palmares said in some ways immigration laws have improved for the immigrant community with the help of advocates throughout the last decade.
“Undocumented students have access to DACA and people are freely talking about the factors that are undocumented, and you look at some of the services we have available today through an expansion of HUSKY coverage to undocumented immigrant children,” Palmares said. “I feel we have gone so far and it's a wonderful lot of progress.”
Despite the protracted legal process Maggie remains determined.
"I'm going to work hard and do everything possible to one day bring my children here so that they have the opportunities I couldn't have," Maggie said. "Despite the challenges, I am grateful for everything I'm accomplishing in the U.S."