BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – For Kate Paarlberg-Kvam staying isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic has not meant stepping back from global issues. Instead, the new executive director of the Bellows Falls-based Community Asylum Seekers Project has doubled down on her commitment to advocacy and support for people seeking asylum in the United States.
Paarlberg-Kvam, who took over at CASP three weeks ago, said the organization is working to grow its capacity to advocate for asylum seekers who are in detention facilities across the country, especially as concerns grow about the spread of COVID-19.
“It is definitely, absolutely a life or death situation right now,” said Paarlberg-Kvam, a former academic who holds a Ph.D. in Latin American studies. Last week, a federal judge ordered migrant children released from detention facilities by mid-July, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. But Paarlberg-Kvam said that order does not do enough to help a vulnerable population. “We don’t hear enough about COVID in prisons, but we hear even less about COVID in detention,” she said. “What we do hear, they’re horror stories. People being clustered in close proximities. We hear stories about people being transferred unsafely…. People who try to organize for their rights being punished with solitary confinement.”
The Community Asylum Seekers Project, which began as a volunteer effort in 2016, works to support asylum seekers and help them transition into local Vermont communities. Over the last four years, the organization has helped 17 asylum seekers find housing, transportation, and jobs in Vermont; providing legal aid and support as their cases make their way through the court system.
An asylum claim can take years to process in the United States, and most often, asylum seekers are kept in privately run detention facilities during that time. But, as Paarlberg-Kvam explained, “Many times they can be released into the care of a friend or family member” instead. CASP fills that role, and is currently working with six individuals who are seeking asylum. According to CASP board member Dempster Leech, it costs the organization about $15,000 to host one asylum seeker for a year.
Paarlberg-Kvam described the current caseload of six clients as “a bit of a lull,” but that doesn’t mean work has slowed. Like many nonprofits, CASP has had to step back and rethink its operations amid the global pandemic. While volunteers previously stepped up to provide housing and transportation to asylum seekers, Paarlberg-Kvam said the organization is now looking into housing options that don’t involve a host family, which may be safer, but also more expensive.
At the same time, she said, the organization is also considering how to articulate its role within the broader social justice movement sweeping the country. There are plans in the works for new volunteer trainings, which will focus on antiracism and addressing structural racism in Vermont. “Part of settling people into communities is making sure there is someone to drive them to help them find housing and someone to drive them to the grocery store,” said Paarlberg-Kvam, “but another part of settling people into communities is changing those communities.” To learn more about the Community Asylum Seekers Project, or to support the organization’s current Start Some Good campaign, please visit www.caspvt.org.