Washington needs a pragmatic approach for helping asylum seekers | Guest column

By Hayley Richbart, asylum case manager, Jewish Family Services in Kent

At the close of last year, the Supreme Court issued a temporary order, which keeps in place Title 42, the controversial pandemic-era rule that has expelled millions of asylum seekers without due process.

And yet, those of us in the immigrant services community know this development won’t substantially change anything. No American law can counteract the political instability, extreme poverty, persecution, gang violence and natural disasters that drive desperate people to our border and compel them to cross at great risk. We’ve got to be realistic, and that requires a pragmatic, well-funded approach to facilitating the asylum process.

A big part of the solution is “case management” — where asylum seekers are paired with social service workers who can help them access food, clothing, housing, education, lawyers and employment. Led by nonprofits, case management is a highly economical and effective response to migrant arrivals, helping newcomers gain self-sufficiency, be less dependent on public services (and taxpayer dollars) and keep their court dates. Yet case management remains grossly underfunded. We need federal buy-in to expand this vital support network.

There are proven successes. Between January 2016 and June 2017, the federally-funded Family Case Management Program offered free legal and support services to asylum seekers and resulted in a more than 99 percent compliance rate with check ins with ICE and court appearances. It cost only $38 per person per day, a dramatic cost savings over detention, which costs an average of $134 per person per day. Former President Trump ended the program early in his term.

As a case manager with Jewish Family Services in Kent, Washington, I’ve seen the long-term benefits firsthand. One of my early-career clients was a young woman named Aisha (I’ve given her a pseudonym to protect her privacy) who fled violent religious persecution in her native Ethiopia. When I first met her, she was traumatized and living in a shelter. She had no idea how to move her asylum case forward and terrified about what her future held.

We helped connect Aisha with a trauma specialist and an attorney who helped her with the complicated paperwork related to her asylum case. We also taught her about the process of ICE check-ins and court proceedings so she could navigate these important appointments successfully on her own. ­­­When she eventually received work authorization — which typically takes a year or more—we helped her gain steady employment at a local factory and move out of the shelter system. Aisha joined a local church and returned to school to study nursing. Today she is thriving. Eight months after submitting her application the government granted her asylum.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political fence you fall on; we can all agree that we’d rather have Aisha — and other asylees like her — be emotionally and financially healthy than traumatized and on the streets or in an expensive detention facility. Bottom line: case management is by far the more ethical, economical approach to handling asylum seekers. It upholds America’s humanitarian ideals and ensures that those who deserve asylum can get it. Since JFS launched its case management program a year ago, we’ve served a steady influx of individuals and families seeking help. Our nation’s policies are not stemming the flow of asylum seekers; we’ve had a consistent waitlist since October 2022.

Two years ago, Congress allocated $20 million to the Department of Homeland Security to launch a case management pilot program. It would be operated by nonprofits that have experience doing this type of work. Since then, the program has been incredibly slow to launch. With or without Title 42, people are coming. With the right help, we can do what’s best for them and for Washington. What are we waiting for?

Hayley Richbart is an asylum case manager at Jewish Family Services in Kent, Washington.