Government & Politics

State and local volunteers scramble to deal with increased crossings at the northern border

Libby Hillhouse, president of the Northeast Kingdom Asylum Seekers Assistance Network, admires painted signs welcoming asylum seekers at her home on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

Since last Monday, three migrant families — more than a dozen people total — have arrived at the St. Johnsbury Welcome Center, transported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and hoping to find transportation to final destinations outside Vermont.

“We didn't know how they had arrived,” said Gillian Sewake, director of Discover St. Johnsbury, which operates from the center, speaking about the first family.

The families — two from Haiti, the other from parts unknown, according to Sewake — had arrived in St. Johnsbury early in the morning and wanted to travel on to New York City, Plattsburgh and Miami. At the welcome center, which also serves as a bus stop, staff members regularly assist people traveling elsewhere. So Sewake was unfazed.

One family spoke limited English, but with the help of Google Translate and a Spanish-speaker at the St. Johnsbury Community Hub, the welcome center’s staff helped the family find transportation toward their destination.

“That's our job at the welcome center — to assist visitors and get them to where they need to go,” Sewake said. “It wasn't terribly unusual.”

Two of the families have already traveled on from St. Johnsbury, Sewake noted, one having taken a bus to Montpelier. The third family, which arrived Thursday, was working on finding transportation toward Miami as of Thursday afternoon. Those with knowledge of the situation did not share extensive details about the travel plans of the three families.

On Thursday, Sewake said she had a “productive” conversation with the border patrol, which would allow her and a connected network of people who work with asylum seekers to be better prepared when and if more migrants arrive. 

While the U.S. southern border receives more media attention, an increasing number of migrants seeking a safe home stateside have sought to enter the country through the northern border with Canada. 

Border patrol at the agency’s Swanton sector — which encompasses Vermont’s northern border as well as New Hampshire’s and parts of New York’s — say border crossings are up tenfold. Additional border patrol agents were recently transferred to the Swanton sector to help with the influx of immigrants.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson addressed the recent instance of migrants transported to St. Johnsbury in a written statement:

“Following their illegal entry into the United States, these individuals were released on recognizance after they were processed for a Notice to Appear (NTA), which includes assignment of a future court date and provisions for mandatory reporting to Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” the spokesperson wrote. “Migrants are released on their own recognizance for several reasons, including the overall volume of migrants encountered and lack of available detention space. This process is referred to as Safe Community Release (SCR).

“The Welcome Center in St. Johnsbury was identified as an SCR location due to the community's safety and the availability of rural transport to Montpelier and other areas with additional resources,” the statement read.

State officials say they have reacted swiftly to the situation up north but remain mum on the details. 

Jenney Samuelson, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, said at a press conference on Tuesday that her agency and the Department of Public Safety had previously planned around “housing, food and other services that are necessary” for people crossing the northern border. 

In an interview, Agency of Human Services spokesperson Rachel Feldman said the agency is “hearing reports of an increased number of asylum seekers crossing into Vermont from Canada.” She underscored that her agency, the Department of Public Safety and the State Refugee Office are all collaborating to address the situation.

Feldman also noted that the Agency of Human Services does not have custody of any of the individuals who were in St. Johnsbury and have since left. Still, though, the state wants to be prepared for what might happen if migrants entering Vermont wish to stay.

“The Agency of Human Services houses the State Refugee Office. We are well-versed in and have existing supports for Vermont’s vulnerable populations, including these individuals,” Feldman said. “In addition, we can provide connections with those vital community partners to proactively plan to support people’s basic human needs.”

A Department of Public Safety spokesperson declined to comment on the situation, referring questions to Feldman.

With limited financial and physical government resources to support migrants, much of the work falls to coordinated groups of citizens. Those groups, positioned across the state, rely on volunteers and donations to support asylum seekers who often lack housing, work permits and access to social services.

The humanitarian crises driving migrants to the U.S. show no signs of letting up, and with more people seeking refuge via Vermont’s northern border, the state is no longer as removed from questions of immigration and human migration as it had been.

Passengers can reach Montpelier from the bus stop at the St. Johnsbury Welcome Center. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

‘You cannot help but like these people’

In the entryway to Libby Hillhouse’s home in Danville, painted signs in a variety of languages greet asylum seekers to the Northeast Kingdom.

Hillhouse, as president of the Northeast Kingdom Asylum Seekers Network, or NEKASAN, leads an organization currently helping about a dozen asylum seekers living in the Kingdom. They come from around the world, including Benin, Uganda, Yemen, Djibouti and Togo. 

Many of those folks, Hillhouse said, got connected with NEKASAN after applying for asylum at the southern border. But last winter, for the first time, she began hearing about migrants needing immediate assistance at the Canadian border.

Border patrol agents would call someone involved in supporting asylum seekers, explaining they had people who had recently crossed the border and needed help. Border patrol would sometimes drive the migrants to a safer location, or in at least one instance, spent their own money on a hotel for migrants, Hillhouse said. 

“Uniformly, they are really sweet people and want to do this job well, and they're concerned about the fact that they can only do so much,” she said of the border officers at the Derby Line crossing. 

Since the instances last winter, NEKASAN has found a few people close to Canada willing to receive migrants who’ve recently crossed into the U.S. 

But with the recent cases of migrants coming to St. Johnsbury, Hillhouse said she wasn’t home when a border patrol officer called. The drop-off came as a surprise to her.

In response to the first two recent family arrivals, NEKASAN connected with Sewake at the welcome center to prepare for more similar situations. The Kingdom group is also working with a local church to potentially offer emergency housing, Hillhouse said. 

She sees the recent instances of migrants passing through St. Johnsbury as a chance to better a flawed system. 

“It’s an opportunity for us to broaden the chain of connections,” she said. She imagines an unmined list of people with an extra bedroom, Vermonters waiting to volunteer, if only they knew the need. 

Uniformly, Hillhouse described asylum seekers as kind and grateful. “You cannot help but like these people,” she said. And the local community’s response has been “welcoming,” she added. 

“People want to help.”

One of those people is Timothy Page, St. Johnsbury’s police chief. This week, after the second migrant family appeared in town, he got in touch with the governor’s office, and has since been in communication with a variety of state officials and agencies.

“My idea was to get services in place so we could be prepared,” Page said in an interview Wednesday, predicting that more asylum seekers will likely arrive in St. Johnsbury. 

But St. Johnsbury — the largest town in Caledonia County, and in the Northeast Kingdom as a whole — lacks the means on its own to support many migrants.

“Our resources here were going to be strained very quickly,” Page said. “We needed state intervention.”

What exactly state intervention looks like, Page wasn’t yet sure. 

‘People will keep coming no matter what’

Seven primarily volunteer organizations across the state work to help asylum seekers in Vermont. As one of those organizations’ few paid staff members, Kate Paarlberg-Kvam often acts as an unofficial leader statewide. 

As executive director of the Brattleboro-based Community Asylum Seekers Project, Paarlberg-Kvam helps resettle and support people seeking asylum in the United States. Across the seven state organizations, Paarlberg-Kvam said about 116 asylum seekers are receiving community assistance. 

“It's a fairly new phenomenon in Vermont that civilians discovered they could do this, and the government isn't doing it,” they said. “It's people's legally guaranteed right to seek asylum. But it's very, very difficult to access that right without any support.”

According to Paarlberg-Kvam, migrants seek asylum in the U.S. for a number of reasons. Political persecution, gender-based violence, and discrimination based on race and religion all contribute, they said. Many migrants come from Central America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — where they seek to escape “gang violence, police corruption, and the intersections between those two things,” Paarlberg-Kvam said.

Through their work, Paarlberg-Kvam says government-constructed barriers get in the way of asylum seekers more quickly settling down in the U.S. For instance, asylum seekers are delayed in receiving work permits, they explained, and can’t necessarily get health care through Medicaid. 

One of the newest barriers has been the Biden administration’s potential restrictions on asylum seekers, labeled by advocacy groups as a de facto “asylum ban.” The new policies, which could take effect later this year, would significantly restrict the ability of migrants who have traveled to the U.S. border from seeking asylum. 

But barriers exist on the state level, too. 

“Asylum seekers, while their cases are being processed, are limited from access to a whole bunch of state benefits. So one of them is 3Squares. One of them is Reach Up,” Paarlberg-Kvam said. Those programs help Vermonters with food assistance, housing, job skills and other services.

Currently, the system for receiving migrants in Vermont is disorganized and ad hoc. While certain border agents may have helped migrants in the past, Paarlberg-Kvam doesn’t see that as a long-term solution.

“I think that my goal is to build up a system that is in place for people so that they are not just dependent on the largesse or malice of one particular officer,” they said. “At the local and state level, we can build up an infrastructure, whether that's volunteers or staff, government officials, whatever, to know where to send people and to have funding to support them while they're here.”

Because, Paarlberg-Kvam noted, so long as there’s persecution around the world, migrants will continue coming to the U.S.

“People will keep coming no matter what,” they said.

The first two families who arrived in St. Johnsbury received help traveling toward their destinations in New York, thanks primarily to community support. Paarlberg-Kvam believes many migrants entering the U.S. via Vermont are merely “transiting” through the state on their way elsewhere. But not all. And Paarlberg-Kvam wants the state to be ready. 

“There are probably some people who don't have a destination in mind,” they said, “and if they can receive support here, they might stay.”

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Ethan Weinstein

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