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Supporting Asylum Seekers Holistically

July 15, 2021

People who flee their home country seeking security and protection in the United States face a long and unpredictable asylum process, even when they’re able to access free legal services like those offered by The Advocates for Human Rights. Many countries support asylum seekers according to the human rights standards declared by the United Nations; the United States does not. Asylum seekers in the U.S. do not receive temporary housing, a living allowance, or health care. They must wait months before applying for a work permit, have no access to federally funded programs such as SNAP or Medicaid, lack local community connections, and often have little ability to connect with family left behind in dangerous situations. They are among the most vulnerable members of our community.

When the asylum review process became longer and longer, sometimes lasting years rather than months, The Advocates decided to include Social Work Interns in our work to support our clients during this difficult process. Partnering with local universities including Augsburg, St. Catherine’s University, the University of St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota, as well as Denver University’s Online program, The Advocates has hosted over 10 social work interns since the program started in 2013. The Advocates relies on volunteer Social Work professionals to provide joint supervision for the social work students. Emily Villanueva, Almena Dees, and Rachel Amerman, our current Social Work Interns, help clients who need housing, health care, clothes, food, and other essentials by referring them to trusted community resources. For example, Emily recalled a family that couldn’t pay their energy bills but was deemed ineligible to receive energy assistance due to their immigration status. Determined to help, she utilized local social services networks, reviewed energy regulations, and soon was able to find that the family did qualify for energy assistance and assisted the family with the application process.

No one can do this work alone. There is a dynamic collaboration between lawyers, social service networks, and Social Work Interns. As clients meet with lawyers to build their legal case, the interns also build trusting relationships with clients and seek to connect them with communities of support to uplift and empower them. If someone enjoys playing the piano or sports, the interns work with local networks to connect clients with such opportunities. Rachel commented that “it takes a lot of research to find who can provide the rights resources.” Thankfully, “the network of service providers for immigrants and refugees within Minneapolis and Saint Paul is a very tight-knit, strong community of people who are all working hard towards the same goal.” Supporting clients does not mean taking away their agency. While asylum seekers often depend on other people’s kindness and compassion to help them navigate an unfamiliar system, it is crucial to build trust and relationships that allow space for the clients to be in control of their own lives. “One size does not fit all. When you have a client, you need to sit with the client and really listen to what they need,” explained Almena.

The systemic racism and bias that became highly visible after George Floyd’s murder deeply affect the experiences of our clients. Recognizing that the murder by police and civil unrest would be particularly unsettling to our clients given their own personal histories of political persecution and violence, Social Work Interns and staff redoubled their outreach efforts. One of our clients said, “I am a young man who has come of age in times of great challenges mixed with great hope. As an asylum seeker in the USA, I thought I had never faced the wrath of racism and segregation because of my color … I realized that racism in America is much more than just physically being subjected to racial slurs.” This structural racism is deeply intertwined with white nationalism and the immigration laws to which The Advocates’ clients are subject. Social Work Interns must consider these overlapping crises in their work, as clients “take the trauma they experienced in their home country with them. When they arrive in the U.S., they’re shut out of community services, then face the backlash and hate of an anti-immigrant narrative in our society. The most important part of my work is to show each client that someone is listening, that someone cares for their well-being” said Rachel.

Due to racism and lack of protections in our asylum system the current reality for many of our clients is that it takes a social work intern to act as an intermediary to access and meet their basic needs. Together with attorneys and service networks, The Advocates works to support and provide legal representation for clients seeking protection. By including social work interns in our work, we are addressing the crucial need of providing holistic wellbeing and support so that clients regain independence. With compassion, deep listening, and the drive to make a difference in people’s lives, Social Work Interns like Emily, Almena, and Rachel are changing the world for good at The Advocates, one client at a time.