Republican governors’ recent political antics of busing migrants to New York City, Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard, and even outside Vice President Harris’s home has been a transparent attempt to engage Democrats in a game of pointing fingers. They hoped to force a debate on who is to blame for this manufactured crisis. While these stunts are backfiring — with communities like Martha’s Vineyard and New York City welcoming the infusion of immigrants into their cities — they have revealed the urgent need for national systems to provide basic services to those coming to our country for a better life.
The United States has a long history of welcoming new immigrants and providing them integration services into our communities, like our current refugee resettlement program. But these services are now few and far between for those who come to our borders legally seeking protection and long-term permission to stay. There is no federal support for most asylum seekers, many of whom are required to wait as many as five years for a chance to have their case heard in immigration court. This leaves many of the most vulnerable new immigrants to their own devices, forcing them to figure out our complicated humanitarian protection system on their own.
Not surprisingly, many people are unable to navigate this complex system that involves multiple government agencies and requires knowledge of what forms to file with what agency. It’s a system so complicated, immigration attorneys usually specialize in sub-categories of immigration law, unable to have expertise in all areas. This complexity can lead to someone ending — and end up losing — an otherwise winnable case.
The federal government should create an integration and support system for recent arrivals while they wait for their cases to wind through immigration courts. This system could be based not only on historical examples, such as the Cuban Refugee Program of the 1960s, but on current networks of nonprofit organizations, legal service providers, religious entities, and others that have been welcoming migrants along the US border for years.
Thankfully, the government does not have to start from scratch. National organizations have been proposing a framework of service provision and case management to the federal government for years. The goal is to provide wraparound social services to migrants, respecting individual needs while also removing the pressure on individual cities and states to provide these resources.
Evidence, as well as common sense, tells us that stable access to housing, navigation of public schools, language classes, mental health services, transportation, and employment not only benefit people who have migrated, but are critical to ensuring that those individuals are able to navigate and cooperate with our legal system.
Organizations with track records of providing these exact services already exist. Currently, many are at the forefront of serving refugees resettling here from war-torn countries such as Ukraine and Afghanistan. But they can’t expand without Congressional authorization and appropriation of funds.
Last year, the American Immigration Council and the Women’s Refugee Commission surveyed over 300 community support providers around the country. We found that most organizations already provide some services included in case management and could expand them if they were only provided additional federal support.
The development of a permanent structure to provide case management — mental health services, trafficking screening, legal orientation programs, cultural orientation programs, connection to social services, and departure planning and reintegration services — for individuals arriving in our country is within reach. Congress has already authorized a pilot program intended to provide a proof of concept that these programs can and do work in both supporting immigrants in surviving and thriving in our communities while also complying with the requirements of our legal immigration system. People who have fled indescribable conditions — from torture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to persecution of political dissidents in Nicaragua — and have come to seek safety in our country should be welcomed and supported. The federal government has a proposal before it. It is only lacking the political will.
The results of our survey of community support providers around the country underscored that a strong footprint and willingness of community-based service capacity exists. With this national network and consistent, appropriate funding from the federal government, community-based organizations are prepared to take on the needs of migrants that have become political pawns for cynical politicians. Community-based organizations supported by the federal government are the sustainable solution so many seek.
The people of Martha’s Vineyard stepped in and welcomed the people who were flown there without preparation or prior knowledge of their arrival. However, a national system with federal funding should have been in place so they did not have to rely on volunteers and the kindness of strangers.
Rebekah Wolf is policy counsel with the American Immigration Council.