By Lautaro Grinspan, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Record-setting numbers of apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border are filtering down to an influx of asylum seekers in Georgia.
Klinsman Torres says his journey to Atlanta resembled a “horror movie.”
The Venezuelan migrant set off for the U.S. in mid-July. His trek through South and Central America included a four-day slog across the Darien Gap, a dense, lawless jungle near the Colombia-Panama border where hundreds of migrants are believed to have lost their lives to dangerous conditions and armed violence.
“It takes a huge toll on you to be exposed to so much danger,” Torres said. The31-year-old made his way to Atlanta via the southern border late last month. His arrival is part of an influx of migrants seeking asylum that is overwhelming local assistance agencies— and a sign that an unprecedented level of unauthorized migration to the U.S. is making itself felt in communities far from the border.
It’s not clear how many migrants have come to Georgia in recent months, because no one agency tracks all arrivals. But charities here say the surge in numbers and lack of coordination to ensure the newcomers have somewhere to go has stretched them to their limits.
During the first 10 months of fiscal year 2022, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported more than 1.8 million apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border, a record high. Under a Trump-era public health rule enacted during the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of migrants continue to be quickly turned away without a chance to apply for asylum, a right protected by U.S. law. But the authorities are allowing others to temporarily stay in the country, including those whose home countries would be reluctant to take them back. That includes Torres’ homeland: Venezuela.
In July, Venezuelans accounted for roughly 17,600 border crossers, up from about 6,000 in July 2021. Only 51 of the Venezuelans who arrived in July were expelled under the public health rule. After being processed and vetted at the border, migrants are free to scatter across the country, with some doing so courtesy of bus trips paid for by the Texas government.
Torres currently finds himself in a Roswell hotel, where a local nonprofit has temporarily housed him. He says he came to the country now because he perceived it to be an auspicious time to cross the border.
“I decided to come here to take advantage of the situation, where you can come in. It’s not easy, but [the border] could become more closed in the future,” he said. “I believe before it was more complicated, when it comes to being undocumented in this country.”
After spending two days in detention in Texas, Torres was released from government custody to lawfully await a hearing in immigration court. Like other migrants in his situation, he is required to periodically check in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He chose to travel to Atlanta because he had heard that jobs here were plentiful.
Local nonprofit leaders say they are hearing stories like Torres’ on a recurring basis, an indication that migrants’ arrival in Atlanta isn’t akin to the politically orchestrated busing campaigns transporting thousands of border crossers from Texas to cities such as New York City or Washington, D.C. — though some earlier in the summer were reportedly dropped off in rural northwest Georgia, leaving their seats empty while the buses completed their journey north.
“There are people that are speculating, ‘Is this [Texas] Governor [Greg] Abbott?’ But I’m hearing more that it’s just that the Venezuelan asylum seekers that are coming right now do not have anywhere to live and they’re hearing that there are jobs to be had and rent is relatively cheaper in Atlanta. That’s what I’m hearing,” said Anton Flores-Maisonet, who runs a Decatur-based hospitality house for migrants called Casa Alterna. “People are coming every day.”
In recent years, the Venezuelan asylum seekers Flores-Maisonet hosted had spent time in Georgia immigrant detention, and were only in need of short-term housing assistance, since they had plans to reunite with family living elsewhere in the country. But those arriving now directly from the border seem to have no one to receive them.
Casa Alterna is currently housing seven individuals. Limited capacity doesn’t allow for more folks to be taken in.
“We have probably turned away over a dozen requests for accommodation in just the past two weeks,” Flores-Maisonet said.
With no government support for asylum seekers, it is falling on immigrant advocates like Flores-Maisonet to ensure that newcomers’ basic needs are met, a task that is becoming more and more difficult to see through. Those who ask for asylum typically have to wait around, sometimes up to a year after their arrival, to receive work authorization that enables them to legally support themselves.
“Atlanta is on the cusp of a crisis,” Flores-Maisonet said. “Scores of vulnerable, unhoused people from a faraway land are arriving at our doorstep.”
‘There’s no plan’
Early in the morning on Aug. 26, staff at the Latin American Association (LAA) came across three Venezuelan asylum seekers sleeping outside their Brookhaven headquarters. The group had arrived the night before, and headed to the LAA because they had heard migrants like them could find assistance there.
“I never imagined that once I got here, I would have to sleep on the street again. It’s something we had to do more than once during our journey,” Jineth Ramírez, a mother of three, told Telemundo.
Cynthia Román-Hernández, a managing director at the LAA, says the nonprofit has come in contact with up to 130 Venezuelan asylum seekers in recent months. It’s a population she describes as extremely vulnerable, without the means to secure shelter or even food. She recalls encountering an asylum seeker three weeks ago who had no shoes.
“They arrive here with nothing,” she said.
The LAA has mobilized to help meet newcomers’ basic needs, including paying for temporary hotel stays. But the scale of the influx is putting significant strain on the organization’s resources.
“It’s turning into a rather critical situation.”
Flores-Maisonet, from Casa Alterna, says nearly all of the migrants arriving to Atlanta are coming through San Antonio, Texas, a city that is receiving as many as 800 migrants per day. Local San Antonio nonprofits are using funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to buy bus tickets to migrants’ chosen final destinations, including Atlanta. One such organization is Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio. Its leader, J. Antonio Fernandez, told the AJC that while Catholic Charities tries to verify that there are available shelter beds in destination cities before paying for migrants’ transportation, staffers are unable to perform that assessment for every single individual.
Immigrant advocates in Atlanta say better coordination is needed between local governments and local nonprofits to provide a suitable humanitarian response to the influx of destitute asylum seekers.
“The problem really isn’t that there are immigrants coming here. Especially for us, we don’t see that as a problem. The real problem is that there’s a lack of resources, and that there’s no plan, no interagency coordination,” Román-Hernández said.
The Atlanta Mayor’s office and the newly created Office of International and Immigrant Affairs did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
For asylum-seeking migrants, settling down in Georgia could go against their best interest. As Román-Hernández explained, pro-bono immigration lawyers in the area are few and far between – the LAA’s own legal services team is fully booked for the next two months. And there’s also the fact that Atlanta’s immigration court judges tend to turn down the overwhelming majority of asylum cases they handle.
Analyzing six years’ worth of data, from 2016 to 2021, Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), found that over 90% of the 2,588 cases reviewed in Atlanta ended in rejection.
“It’s no secret that the Atlanta immigration court has traditionally been among the lowest granting immigration courts in the nation,” said Carolina Antonini, a local immigration attorney. “The numbers don’t lie.”
Advocates such as Román-Hernández and Flores-Maisonet are telling migrants about those factors, to let them know that it might be more advantageous for them to move on to other, more immigrant-friendly jurisdictions, where the years-long wait for a decision on their case is more likely to end in permission to permanently stay in the country.
“Here it’s more of an uphill climb,” said Román-Hernández. “That’s the reality of Georgia.”
How asylum works
- Asylum is a protected immigration status for migrants who are able to prove a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries based on their race, religion, nationality, politics, or membership in a particular social group.
- For migrants entering the U.S. illegally, their odds of being granted asylum vary depending on the location of the immigration court that will ultimately handle their case. Immigration judges are more likely to grant asylum in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago; and they are more likely to deny asylum claims in cities such as Houston and Atlanta. Migrants generally must file their asylum applications within one year of entering the country.
- Because of a mounting backlog in the immigration court system, many of the recent newcomers in the U.S. hoping for asylum will have to wait seven years on average before a decision on their case is made. During that time, many asylum-seekers will lay down roots in their chosen U.S. community, filling job openings and paying taxes.
Lautaro Grinspan is part of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s immigration team, covering metro Atlanta immigrant communities. He is a Report for America corps member.