Help Protect Asylum Seekers

by International Rescue Committee
Help Protect Asylum Seekers
Help Protect Asylum Seekers
Help Protect Asylum Seekers
Help Protect Asylum Seekers
Help Protect Asylum Seekers
Help Protect Asylum Seekers
Providing hygiene kits to thousands in Mexico
Providing hygiene kits to thousands in Mexico

Over the course of the last year, unprecedented levels of violence and insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have forced a record number of families to seek safety, and for some, undertake a dangerous journey through Mexicoto seek asylum in the United States.

Thanks to generous support from you and other donors, the IRC has been answering the call to respond across the arc of crisis—by providing essential supplies, food, health, and protection services—to asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S. southern border.

To date, we have provided warm meals, clothing, transitional shelter,and travel coordination to more than 8,000 asylum seekers released from U.S. government detention. We are also working alongside partners to respond to asylum seekers’ urgent needs.

In Mexico, we have worked with local partners to launch a COVID-19 public health awareness campaign and set up a “triage hotel” where asylum seekers can be tested for COVID-19 and can quarantine before moving into shelters.

Most recently, we launched InfoDigna, part of our Signpost project. Launched with partners like Mercy Corps, Google, Microsoft, Twilio, Cisco, Tripadvisor and Box, the digital platform includes an interactive map that connects asylum seekers and migrants in Mexico to shelters, health care providers and other services.

Based on the most acute humanitarian needs and service gaps identified, the IRC has also been working in concert with local partners to launch and expand programming to prevent and respond to targeted violence against women and girls. The IRC and our operational partners are:

  • Strengthening protection services. We are supporting services currently provided by local partners, such as performing safety audit exercises and remediation to prevent further incidences of violence against women and children.
  • Creating safe spaces for women and girls. We are supporting the creation and maintenance of female-only safe spaces, in order to provide the most protective environment for vulnerable beneficiaries to access psychosocial assistance, and offer healthcare referrals for survivors of violence.
  • Increasing access to critical information. We are supporting programming that ensures women and girls are aware of risks and have the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves and their safety.
A mother awaits asylum at the U.S. Mexico border
A mother awaits asylum at the U.S. Mexico border
Creating safe spaces for women and girls
Creating safe spaces for women and girls


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A family forced to flee Mexico seeks asylum in US
A family forced to flee Mexico seeks asylum in US

The International Rescue Committee has been supporting asylum seekers to gain protection and thrive in their new homes for nearly a decade. Over the last four years, the Trump administration’s devastating policies have dismantled humanitarian protection in the U.S. Asylum grants have plummeted, detention has expanded, and the COVID-19 pandemic is pretext to systematically expel asylum seekers at the border.

This “new normal” reflects a double tragedy. Global protection needs were already massively unmet, but those needs are likely to grow exponentially as a result of the global health and economic crises. Damage done to asylum and protection systems will take years to repair, even if there is political will. Moreover, dangerous precedents have been set and moderate governments may continue policies that violate rights, deny protection to those in need, and perpetuate racial injustice.

Last year, the IRC provided case management, humanitarian reception, and legal assistance to asylum seekers, unaccompanied children and other vulnerable people seeking protection in the U.S. The IRC has served thousands of individuals, children and families seeking asylum and protection before, during and since the current sustained crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The IRC’s services include immediate assistance and comprehensive case management, legal representation to adults and unaccompanied children facing removal proceedings, and home studies to unaccompanied children. The IRC also provides limited legal assistance to vulnerable individuals affected by the Remain in Mexico policy and short-term humanitarian assistance at it’s 24/7 Welcome Center in Phoenix. Across the U.S., the IRC also serves resettled refugees, asylees, survivors of torture, and victims of human trafficking.

The IRC has been working on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border since 2018. In Mexico, the IRC is responding in 17 shelters along the border, providing hygiene kits and psychosocial support, as well as a specific shelter for refugees that facilitates a 14-day quarantine before being moved to larger government shelters. The shelter, which can hold 108 people, also ensures that women can stay safe while in quarantine, instead of on the streets where femicides are on the rise. In the shelter, women can receive virtual case management. This “Triage Hotel” provides psychosocial support, COVID-19 testing, triage and helps limit COVID-19 from entering shelters on the border, which can be poorly ventilated and include communal eating and sleeping. As part of the assistance provided in Mexico, the IRC is working with local partners to launch a COVID-19 public health awareness campaign along with psychosocial support in shelters at the Mexico-U.S. border in Ciudad Juárez.

The project will directly benefit 17 shelters hosting approximately 3,000 people and reach an additional 10,000 in surrounding host communities. The initiative will include sessions on the transmission of COVID-19, protective and preventive measures, including identification of at-risk groups, signs and symptoms of COVID-19, where to access help and support, reinforcement of public health best practices and the distribution of hygiene kits.

In El Salvador, the IRC provides emergency assistance to help those who are most at risk to find shelter and safety, as well as cash assistance to help people rebuild their lives. The IRC launched CuéntaNos, an interactive service that provides trustworthy, up-to-date information for people affected by crisis.

The IRC has recently launched a new instance of its Global ‘Signpost’ program for asylum seekers in Mexico, called InfoDigna. A collaboration between the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps and developed with the support of technology companies Google, Cisco, Trip Advisor, Twilio, Box, Facebook and Zendesk, Signpost consists of four components: bespoke information products hosted online on various platforms, connectivity via Wi-Fi hotspots to enable access to digital information, two-way communication facilitated by moderators via community-building social media channels, and regularly updated maps to locate health and other services. Since 2015, Signpost has served approximately two million individuals in seven languages through a website, Facebook, Whatsapp, blog, and an app across eight countries.

IRC’s presence on the U.S. side of the border provides a unique opportunity to link up services as well. We work with Central American families from harm to home -- from the crisis in El Salvador or Honduras, when families are stuck on the Mexican side of the border in Ciudad Juarez, when they are released on the U.S side of the border in Arizona, Texas, and California, and throughout their court proceedings in the U.S. In the U.S., the IRC will continue to help meet asylum seekers’ basic needs, facilitate family reunifications, connect people to critical legal services and help them access psychosocial support.

In 2021, the IRC will need to rapidly scale up asylum, protection and immigration programs in the U.S. to respond to growing needs and maximize opportunities to promote system change that truly upholds rights. Through partnerships with local communities, migrant and refugee-led organizations and the incoming administration, the IRC will continue to deliver evidence-based programs that help vulnerable individuals survive, recover and regain control of their futures.

Asylum seekers at an IRC shelter in Juarez, Mexico
Asylum seekers at an IRC shelter in Juarez, Mexico


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A shelter for asylum-seekers in Juarez, Mexico
A shelter for asylum-seekers in Juarez, Mexico

Why are people requesting asylum at the U.S. border?
No one takes the decision to migrate lightly. Asylum seekers who travel to the U.S. border risk a perilous journey because staying home would put them in even greater danger.

Many have fled harrowing situations in Central America, Cuba, Brazil, and Venezuela, where they and their families were no longer able to safely go about their daily lives. Over 4.5 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015 due to growing insecurity, instability and violence. People living in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—are enduring violence akin to a war zone.

One mother who had been stuck on the Mexican border for nine months explained that she fled because of an assault and a death threat.

“Many years I was threatened,” she said, as she described fleeing with her eight- and fourteen-year-old daughters. ‘And my children, all of them.”

Why are asylum seekers being sent back to Mexico?
Two policy changes under the Trump Administration have left an increasing number of people stuck in border towns on the U.S.-Mexico border.

First, through a process called “metering,” the administration placed an arbitrary daily limit on the number of asylum seekers allowed to present themselves to U.S. authorities at official ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. This policy has forced some to wait months and even over a year in border towns in Mexico to submit their request.

The second, a policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico,” was recently briefly blocked by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before a three-judge panel allowed it to temporarily go back into effect. Under the policy, asylum seekers are sent right back to Mexico even after they are able to make their claim to U.S. border officials.They then have to wait there until their case can be heard by an immigration judge in the U.S. To date, over 60,000 people have been sent back because of the “Remain in Mexico” policy—and many remain in harm's way.

On top of putting asylum seekers in dangerous situations, this change makes it much more difficult for those seeking safety to have a fair review of their claims. One study found that only 0.1% of asylum seekers affected by Remain in Mexico were eventually granted asylum.

Why is it not safe for asylum seekers in northern Mexico?
When asylum seekers are sent to border towns in Mexico, they become vulnerable to the same gang violence and gender-based violence that forced many of them to make the dangerous journey to the border in the first place.

Mexico has long been plagued by violence from drug cartels and gangs, and that danger has only increased in recent years. With nearly 35,600 homicides, 2019 was the deadliest ever recorded in the country.

Local communities in northern Mexico have worked valiantly to welcome asylum seekers and keep them safe, but services are stretched thin. Shelters are often at full capacity and in desperate need of funding and assistance to help all those in need of support.

“In Ciuadad Juárez, there are 20,000 people waiting,” André explained on the Oprah’s Book Club episode. “Shelter capacity is very limited so other people are living in makeshift camps, rented rooms, and hotels.

The lack of services is putting already vulnerable women and children at particular risk. Children are reported to be at risk of sexual abuse, gang recruitment and violence, and women are vulnerable targets of criminal gangs engaging in human trafficking. An IRC survey across four shelters on the northern border found an unusually high number of families citing safety and protection from violence and gangs as priority concerns.

Why are women particularly vulnerable?
Policies that turn away or block asylum seekers are particularly dangerous for women.

Many women and girls are seeking safety precisely because of gender-based violence. In 2016 alone, some 65,000 women from the Northern Triangle attempted to seek asylum in the U.S. because of gender-based violence.

Women turned away at the border are again vulnerable to violence in Mexico, as the country itself has experienced high rates of gender-based violence. One study found that approximately 66% of women over 15 in Mexico had experienced some form of violence at least once and 44% had been abused by a partner. Over the last five years, there was a reported 137% increase in femicide (the murder of women because they are women). Currently, a woman is murdered every 2.5 hours in Mexico.

"The limited health, protection and legal services are putting already vulnerable women and children at particular risk," said André. "Many of the people we work with started their journey in an unsafe place, embarked on an unsafe journey, and are still unsafe in Ciudad Juárez."

What is the International Rescue Committee doing to help?
The IRC is supporting local nonprofit organizations and partners in northern Mexico to aid migrants and asylum seekers stuck in border towns.

We are focusing most of our programs on the needs of women and girls who have experienced violence. We’re working with local partners to increase their access to medical care, psychosocial counseling and other assistance, bringing services directly to shelters where women are staying. This reduces risks for women and girls and ensures they receive the help they need while they are on the move. The IRC also works to increase access to information and legal services for migrants and asylum seekers.

Despite these efforts, more resources are badly needed to support asylum seekers. Shelters, large and small, have opened their doors, yet many are overwhelmed and past full capacity. Asylum seekers who cannot find room in a shelter must stay in rented rooms, hotels, or even makeshift camps, where they are especially vulnerable

“This is a crisis that is really under-funded,” André told Winfrey. “A lot of organizations like the IRC are struggling to gather funding and attention to this crisis.”

Salvadoran mother received cash aid from IRC
Salvadoran mother received cash aid from IRC
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Cibel & baby Diana who is named after IRC nurse
Cibel & baby Diana who is named after IRC nurse

Families arriving at the United States border today have undertaken dangerous journeys to escape persecution and violence. They have the right to request safe haven in the U.S., and should not be criminalized, turned back to harm, or separated from their children as a result. But under President Trump, it has become drastically more difficult both to seek and to receive asylum.

The Trump Administration has put in place, or proposed, a dizzying number of policy changes that threaten the asylum system as it has existed for decades. They have taken steps to restrict who can be granted asylum, to drastically limit whether asylum seekers can stay in the U.S. while their claim is reviewed, and to remove minimum standards for the treatment of children.

Though the courts have stepped in to stop many of these new policies—at least temporarily—seeking and receiving safety in the U.S. has become next to impossible.

Cibel, 34, remembers the seven days she and her husband walked with their 2-month-old baby to reach Colombia. The Venezuelan economy had collapsed, food was scarce, and Cibel had lost her business selling cleaning supplies.

“People were eating from the garbage,” she recalls. She could not find milk or diapers for her newborn. “We suffered through rain, sun, everything.”

After a week living on the streets of Cúcuta, a city just across the border, the family found an apartment. Cibel started selling seeds and other snacks to bus passengers, putting in 12-hour days to make ends meet.

That was 18 months ago. Today Cibel and her son, Matías, are doing well, although her quest for a better life has taken a toll on the family. Cibel had made the painful decision to leave her elder son, 15-year-old Antony, with his grandmother so that he might continue his schooling. And when Cibel became pregnant again, her husband abandoned her.

Going back to Venezuela was out of the question—the situation there was getting worse every day—but starting over in Colombia was proving difficult.

“On the best days, I earned 30,000 Colombian pesos,” equal to about $9.50, Cibel recalls. “And the worst days, 5,000 pesos.” Often she failed to earn enough to adequately feed Matías.

Then a friend suggested that Cibel contact the International Rescue Committee.

The IRC provided Cibel with a cash card that enabled her to pay rent and feed herself and Matías. An IRC counselor helped her cope with the trauma she had experienced, and the organization provided her with prenatal care. Cibel was so grateful, she named her new daughter Diana after the IRC nurse who would visit her at home.

Cibel gave birth in a well-equipped hospital in Cúcuta, a far cry from the Venezuelan hospital where no beds—or doctors—were available. Diana, now a happy and healthy 9 month old, has milk and diapers. “I take her to the doctor and they check her, and that doesn’t exist anymore in Venezuela.”

Once-fussy Matías is thriving. The IRC helped to enroll him in a nearby preschool where he receives three meals a day. “School has changed him completely,” Cibel says. “He is more calm and he behaves well. He already has many friends.”

Cibel is still selling snacks and juice on buses, bringing Diana with her when her aunt, who lives with them, is unavailable to babysit. She earns a modest sum that helps cover her children’s basic needs. More importantly, she can pick Matías up from school around 3pm and take him to play in the neighborhood park.

Cibel also managed to bring Antony to Cúcuta. “Thanks to the IRC, I am able to be with my three children,” she says. “Now the family is all together.”

In the meantime, Cibel continues to search for a regular job that will bring long-sought stability to her family, and Antony is trying to enroll in a new school. “I want them to be successful in life, and hopefully they can achieve that here in Colombia.”

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Families escaping gang violence and persecution in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have undertaken a dangerous journey to seek asylum in the United States. Central Americans have the right to request asylum in the U.S. without being criminalized, turned back, or separated from their children.

Recent reports that the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) are to be expanded to the Tucson, Arizona sector—where the IRC has been working for over 20 years—will result in virtually the entire U.S.-Mexico border subject to this harmful policy. MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” is a Trump administration policy requiring many asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims for protection in the United States are pending.

Since its implementation in January 2019, an estimated 55,000 asylum seekers primarily from Central America, have been refused entry to the United States and instead forced to wait in shelters and tent camps in Mexico, often in harsh, overcrowded and dangerous conditions. Asylum seekers waiting in Mexico have been subject to kidnappings, violence and sexual assault. The IRC has expressed strong opposition to Remain in Mexico and has continued to call on the administration to immediately rescind this harmful policy.

Until now, individuals seeking asylum in the Tucson sector—over 200 miles of the Arizona borderlands, of which Nogales is the most significant port of entry—have been spared from Remain in Mexico. This area of the borderland remained one of the only regions of the entire border untouched by the administration’s policy, holding out a modicum of hope for people in search of protection.

The administration’s latest policy move ignores Arizona’s long history of welcoming and supporting asylum seekers at the community level. The IRC, along with many other organizations and grassroots efforts remain ready and willing to welcome families. The IRC in Tucson and Phoenix provides long-term case management for asylum seeking families who remain in the city. In Phoenix, the IRC, in coalition with several community partners, opened the Phoenix Welcome Center in July, which has served nearly 900 parents and children—an increasing percentage of whom have crossed via the Tucson sector. At the Welcome Center, asylum seekers are given new clothes, a hot meal, access to medical care, travel coordination for their intended destinations, and a crucial legal orientation.

Under the Tucson sector MPP extension, instead of allowing asylum seekers to be welcomed in an area with a sophisticated network of support ready to assist, the administration is re-routing vulnerable people to a borderland where they will be forced back to harm with minimal humanitarian assistance. People seeking protection will now be bussed over 300 miles east, with one official rationale being that there is an immigration court in El Paso, Texas while there is none in Nogales, Arizona. (In reality, both the Tucson and Phoenix immigration courts are within a radius that is less than half the distance of the drive from Nogales to El Paso). 

As the Trump administration continues to curtail protections for those seeking refuge and safety, the IRC calls on Congress to provide concrete solutions to reverse these harmful policy decisions. We urge Members of Congress to co-sponsor all pro-refugee legislation that would restore America’s legacy of welcome, including the Refugee Protection Act, which would expand and strengthen asylum protections for those in need of safety at our border.

Below is a story of IRC programs and a staff member works tirelessly to support asylum seeking families:

At the welcome center in Phoenix, Arizona, run by the International Rescue Committee, shelter specialist Alex usually doesn’t take breaks. But for a brief moment, she sat to share her story, at first slouching over with her arms wrapped around her stomach, her forehead resting on the table.

“No, no. it’s fine,” she says when asked if she felt ill. “The pain comes and goes.”

In July, Alex experienced abdominal pains at a family gathering. Thinking nothing of it, she called it a night and went home to rest. Then the uncontrollable shaking and vomiting began. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors confirmed a serious flare up of a chronic condition caused by abdominal adhesions. Alex needed surgery immediately.

“There was a chance I wouldn’t make it out alive,” she recalls. “At one point, I remember reflecting on my life and asking myself: ‘Is this really all you did? Is this the mark you’re leaving behind?’”

Alex’s fear was not death, but the possibility of no longer helping the families seeking asylum. As a shelter specialist, Alex explains the services the IRC provides to them, gets them in touch with family sponsors, and helps them prepare for immigration court dates.

“If I can’t keep serving these people, then I don’t know what I can offer to anyone.”

Fortunately, Alex survived the surgery, but she continues to struggle with life-threatening medical issues she’s had since birth. Alex suffers from the effects of twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a prenatal illness where identical twins share a placenta, causing one to lose blood to the other.

The condition is most often fatal for one or both babies, but Alex and her sister, Sam survived. Alex, however, has faced countless health scares like the one that threatened her life last summer.

In addition, when Alex turned 9, she tested positive for leukemia. Now 21, she lives with constant pain, weakness and fatigue. She worries it’s only a matter of time before her health turns for the worse. But Alex refuses to give up her work.

“I get strength from what [the families] have gone through,” she says. “Regardless of being sick…it's really hard for me to stay in bed. It seems like their struggle is way bigger than mine.”

She pauses, then continues. “You know, if I go to the doctor and get a lot of medication, maybe I can fix my issues, but theirs won't be fixed. It's a really long process for them. So why should I sit when they're on their own two feet? I got to be on my two feet too.”

“These are fathers, mothers, children…”

It’s 10 am at the IRC welcome center, formerly an elementary school, where the IRC provides food, water, clothing and overnight shelter, along with basic medical assistance and legal counseling, to people who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border seeking safety.

Alex greets two families who have arrived at the center. “Families, I’m going to give you an explanation of everything that is going to happen here,” she tells them in Spanish. “First, you’re in Phoenix, Arizona. You’re not being detained. We’re not part of immigration. We’re the International Rescue Committee.”

She then talks with Marta and Julio*, a couple from southern Mexico who fled from dangerous gangs with their three young children. They sit at a desk in front of a large Bienvenidos ("welcome") sign surrounded by colorful art made by children at the center.

Alex takes down Marta and Julio’s basic information so she can help them contact their sponsor family in the U.S. She explains the additional services the family will receive while at the center and makes sure Marta and Julio record the dates for their asylum hearing. Slowly, the family begins to relax.

Before Alex joined the IRC, she was working as a detailer at an auto body shop in Arizona.

As a Mexican-American, she was distressed by news reports about the hardships suffered by asylum seekers, and about immigration officials failing to provide help.

“I couldn’t grasp what was happening to these families who were just looking for protection and safety,” she says. “These are fathers, mothers and children…you can’t put a monetary value on that.”

Today, Alex is making a difference. She has reached Marta and Julio’s sponsor and is able to tell the family that they have bus tickets that will take them to their temporary home. Alex sighs with relief. Families want nothing more than to be reunited with their loved ones.

I get strength from what [the families] have gone through. Regardless of being sick…it's really hard for me to stay in bed. It seems like their struggle is way bigger than mine.

Next, Alex accompanies the family to a medical check-up and then brings them to the “ropa room,” which she describes as a free-spirited and magical place. Ropa is Spanish for clothing, and the room is filled with clothes, shoes, coats, undergarments, toiletries and baby supplies. Alex explains to Marta that she can pick out anything for herself and her family—for free. Marta breaks into tears.

“No, don’t worry,” Alex tells her, speaking Spanish. “We’re here to help. These services are from the heart, truly. Go get some clothes and get cute!”

“It's overwhelming at times,” Alex says later. “Families arriving in America are anxious but also a sense of freedom. We want to remind them that they have strength and worth.”

“What they give is larger than what I provide”

Whenever she can, Alex tries to set aside time to talk and connect with families. “For many of these families, especially the moms, they haven’t talked to anyone about what they are truly feeling. It’s therapeutic for them. All the emotions, frustrations, sadness, anger and fear come out.”

Alex initiates a conversation with Alejandra, who left Mexico to seek asylum in the U.S., where she hopes to find safety for herself and her 5-year-old daughter, Ana.

“This was the only choice I had to protect my daughter,” says Alejandra. It is hard for her to tell her story without crying. But at the IRC center, Alejandra has found comfort. “For the first time, I see Ana happy again. Her spirits are high, and she feels like she’s in a better place.”

“Most of the time, my job is the only reason I get up in the morning,” says Alex, reflecting on Alejandra’s gratitude. “I think I live to work, not work for a living. I get strength from what [these families] have gone through. What they give is a lot larger than what we are able to provide.”

Alex must live with the uncertainty of her health, and the worry that cancer may return. But between her colleagues and family, she has a solid support system. 

“I’m not meant to last forever,” she says, “but hopefully our impact on these people does.”

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International Rescue Committee

Location: New York, NY - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @RESCUEorg
Project Leader:
Alix Samuel
New York , NY United States

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