Asylum seekers like me can make it work in New York — with this essential help | Opinion

I can tell you with certainty that when people come to the United States seeking asylum, they are deeply saddened to leave their homes. This truth is often lost when we talk about migration and the border. For people like me, who have no other choice, the real question is: How do we move forward in our new lives?

It was July 2015 when I had the misfortune to witness an attempted murder in my native Peru. From that moment, my life changed. My husband and I had worked in the police force for many years, and we’d just welcomed our first child, my son. But not even our colleagues in law enforcement could shield us against the death threats I began to receive. To protect our family, we had no choice but to leave.

An influx of asylum seekers wait to declare asylum on the banks of the Rio Grande after crossing the water.
An influx of asylum seekers wait to declare asylum on the banks of the Rio Grande after crossing the water.

Once the decision was made, it all happened quickly. We made arrangements to stay with my sister-in-law in Westchester, packed a few suitcases and kissed my mother and father goodbye. I worried it might be the last time we ever saw them. Then we boarded a plane to Mexico on our way to the United States. It was late August 2021.

When we arrived in the United States, we applied for asylum. But it didn’t allow us to work without finding a lawyer and paying a fee. That posed a serious problem. Attorney costs were exorbitant. With food and rent and transportation, our savings dwindled quickly. I called dozens of nonprofit organizations day after day to try to find pro bono help, but my calls were either sent to voicemail or I was told the organization was at capacity. I fell into a deep depression. I felt lost in our new life and missed my family and life back in Peru desperately.

Finally, after six months we were connected to Neighbors Link, a nonprofit that provides English language classes, workforce development and support for immigrant families, and we started receiving free immigration legal services from a Neighbors Link lawyer. We were also introduced to Open Door Family Medical Center, which set me up with a mental health counselor. Having someone to talk to made me feel less alone and gave me hope for the first time in months. It helped me focus on our legal case, my job search, and supporting my children as they adjusted to their new life.

I only wish that Neighbors Link and Open Door could help more people. Their work is critical, especially as rising gang violence and climate-driven natural disasters drive more migrants to America. With a little help at the beginning, asylum seekers and refugees can thrive. U.S. researchers have found that a small amount of initial financial assistance allows many refugees to eventually have higher median incomes than the American average. Refugees and asylees go on to buy homes, launch businesses and create jobs. We’re eager to contribute to the economy if given a chance. But these organizations are often at capacity and need more support.

While nonprofits are doing heroic work, the government could also be doing more -- as they have in the past. The federally-funded Family Case Management Program, which offered free legal and support services to asylum seekers, cost only $38 per person per day. Immigrants in the program had a 99 percent compliance rate for ICE check-ins and court appearances. Unfortunately, Trump ended the program early in his term. In New York State, the proposed Access to Representation Act could also assist many immigrant families by ensuring a right to counsel for those facing deportation in New York.

It’s because of the tireless work that organizations like Neighbors Link and Open Door are doing that my family is thriving. In September 2022, we won asylum, and today my husband and I are both working. I found a temp job at a legal firm, and my husband makes sandwiches at a local bagel shop. My 8-year-old attends a local elementary school, and my daughter is in daycare. Because of the assistance we received, I feel compelled to share our story. I want my American neighbors to see the human stories behind the news reports and to understand that a little assistance can make all the difference.

Although I still miss my parents and our life in Peru, America has become my home. I only hope that the families arriving in New York today will find the same support.

Dina Yesenia Huayllani is an asylee from Peru and lives in Westchester with her family.  

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: New York Asylum Seekers need these tools