What is a sponsor?

Since we signed on in early November to “sponsor” an asylum-seeker who is being detained at the border, we have been learning what that means. On the one hand, you’d think such a relationship should have been clearly defined for us at the outset. On the other hand, it is not at all simple, so no one could have predicted that it would turn out the way it is currently unfolding.

We were told that the sponsor relationship is not a legal one. However, we were required to submit a notarized affidavit “for the purposes of assuring the United States government that the Respondent will not become a public charge to the United States”; stating that we were “willing and able to receive, maintain, and support the Respondent and provide him with housing, food, and money as long as necessary”; and that if he was released from custody he would live with us and we would see to it that he gets to all his hearings or other appointments.

Several weeks later we were asked to supply essentially the same information in a letter. That seemed pretty binding, and we did not take on this relationship lightly. Still, when we contacted our congresswoman’s office recently to see if they could help pry him loose from detention, where he seems to be stuck (more about that later), we were told that, indeed, we have no legal relationship with “the Respondent” and that all they could do was find out where our documents were in the process.

What was not so clear when we took this on was that the purpose of sponsorship was not to help “Ben” qualify for asylum but to get him released on parole, that is, to get him out of the clutches of ICE and onto friendlier territory, where he could go through the asylum process as a more or less free man, even qualified for a work permit. We recently learned that asylum cases pursued from border detention centers have about a 3 percent success rate, whereas the success rate from other regions, such as the Midwest, is something like 30 percent–still iffy but an order of magnitude better. So the emphasis and hope rests on getting him paroled out.

The catch is that, while asylum is a legal process shepherded by an immigration judge, parole is totally at the discretion of ICE. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can apparently hold people in detention ad infinitum if they so choose and if the “Respondent” refuses to agree to deportation. And it so happens that the detention center where our guy and two of his fellow countrymen are being held has stopped granting any paroles at all. This happened in late December, according to an attorney with whom we’ve been discussing his case.

This means that, although ICE could change its icy mind and start springing people loose again (one of their friends was just released from another center for no discernible reason), Ben and friends must decide soon whether to pursue their asylum case on the spot, poor chances and all. The judge on the TV screen before whom they appeared on January 7 gave them a January 23 deadline to make this decision.

So what is the sponsor’s role at this point? We are not obliged to do anything because we have no responsibility of any kind for him unless and until he is paroled to us. Lawyers have supposedly become involved in their cases, at the request of the service organization through which we’ve been working. However, the volunteer legal organizations that work at the border are overwhelmed. It’s become pretty clear that meaningful legal help isn’t going to come through them and our guys will fall through the cracks with the 97 percent. They won’t get asylum and so they may be held indefinitely (or get sent back).

I say “our guys” because we have put our heads together with the would-be sponsors of Ben’s two friends who are in the same boat. Six heads are turning out to be far better than two, because, as I wrote in my last post, our fellow sponsors are younger, more energetic, and whip smart. (They do the research, I get everybody together to talk, and texts fly back and forth between gatherings.)

We are all invested emotionally in our guys by now because they have been calling us almost every day for more than two months. And so sponsorship is moving us beyond legal or even moral commitment into new territory altogether. In line with African custom, they all call us Mom and Dad, even though the other couples are much younger. That is starting to feel normal. It is clear that the six of us have begun to treat our guys as if they were, indeed, members of our own families.

This means we are right with them on the emotional rollercoaster, caught in the callous, arbitrary, and out-of-control immigration “system.” (But we get angrier than they do because it is our government that is treating them this way.) It means that we feel powerless but, at the same time, are snatching at any possible avenue for hope. Right now that seems to mean hiring our own lawyers rather than depending on the overburdened volunteer network.

In the last few days we have arranged for several attorneys to interview our guys in the center. The guys have been buoyed by these conversations. They like the lawyers and they are immensely grateful to have access to people whom they can trust (our fellow sponsors have done good research in finding them). Ben has said he’s willing to submit to a thorough asylum process with good guidance, even if it means more months in detention, because the attorney told him she thought he had an excellent case despite that 97 percent failure figure.

Their enthusiasm and gratitude make us feel better. Just like parents, when our kids are happy, we are happy.

We will soon have to decide whether and whom to hire to pursue which legal strategies. This is definitely not in the job description of sponsorship! And there is no question that we will do it.

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