By Katy Savage
As the nation’s southern border starts to open after a year-long shutdown, a group in Rutland is preparing to welcome asylum seekers.
Bridge to Rutland (B2R), a group of people from several local parishes, has raised about $8,000 to bring asylum seekers to the city. Close to 70 volunteers have offered services, such as teaching English, helping with transportation, housing, clothing and grocery shopping, among other needs. A doctor, a mental health counselor and social worker have also offered to work pro bono for those in need.
“We see this as a calling to see the stranger in our midst and recognize that we’re all one,” said Ellen Green, executive director of Bridge to Rutland.
A record number of asylum seekers — most of them escaping violence in Central America — have been waiting in detention centers in Mexico for the past year due to a United States expulsion policy that was put in place under former President Donald Trump in March 2020 amid Covid-19 pandemic health concerns.
There are an estimated 25,000 migrants waiting in Mexico. The Mexican government received asylum petitions from more than 9,000 people in March —the most ever in a month — and there could be as many as 90,000 requests by the end of the year, the New York Times reported.
On President Joe Biden’s 100th day in office on April 30, thousands of asylum seekers marched in Mexico, calling on Biden to lift the expulsion policy. Protestors also marched throughout the United States, including Main Street Park in Rutland.
There has been some progress. The most vulnerable migrants started entering the United States through Texas recently. Other entry ports in Texas and one in Nogales, Arizona, will start letting migrants enter as soon as next week.
It’s unclear how many families will come to Rutland. Bridge to Rutland is working with the faith-based organization Kino Border Initiative, located in Arizona and Mexico, to identify families to come to Vermont.
This isn’t the first time Rutland volunteers have organized to bring immigrants to the city. In 2016, a move by then Mayor Chris Louras to bring 100 Syrian refugees to Rutland widely divided the city.
A 200-person volunteer group called Rutland Welcomes mobilized to help the Syrians find housing, clothing, transportation, and jobs, while Rutland First, a group of residents, firmly opposed the arrival of refugees.
The issue was put to rest a year later, when the Trump administration placed a cap on how many refugees from Muslim countries could come to the United States. Just three of the projected 25 families made it to Rutland in 2017.
Green and others are hoping Rutland will be more supportive of Bridge to Rutland’s mission.
The Rutland Board of Aldermen unanimously adopted a declaration of inclusion on May 5, joining a growing number of Vermont towns that have pledged to condemn racism and promote equity.
“It shows what a difference five years can make,” said Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D/P Rutland, who hosted one of the Syrian families in her home for a short period of time. “I think that shows we’ve come a long way. The resistance feels less now.”
Green said the pledge showed signs of encouragement for Bridge to Rutland’s initiative.
“It feels like this is a good time for us,” she said.
All the money raised will go toward supporting individuals through what can be a long process. Once asylum seekers arrive in the United States, they are processed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and have to prove to ICE that they have credible reasons for seeking asylum. It can take 6-9 months for asylum seekers to be interviewed by ICE, leaving them in limbo when they get here. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work and often come with no belongings.
Bridge to Rutland estimates it costs about $2,530 for asylum seekers to cover legal fees and paperwork plus an additional $810 a month in living expenses.
Bridge to Rutland is still looking for people who can offer pro bono legal work and volunteers to host people in their homes. You can call Green at 802-779-4217 for more information.
“We just want to keep them safe,” Green said.