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Some Americans offer to open up their homes to Central American asylum seekers

Some Americans offer to open up their homes to Central American asylum seekers
Blair Overstreet and her husband Matt Dunn spreads a blanket over an inflated mattress in their spare bedroom in hopes of being able to offer the room to a family that is part of the Central American caravan seeking asylum in the U.S. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The blow-up mattress takes up nearly half the guestroom in Blair Overstreet's 1940s-era apartment in University Heights. The 36-year-old San Diego resident and her husband, Matt Dunn, still needed to empty out a chest of drawers. A wooden desk crammed against the wall would likely need to go.

Still, the couple said they felt prepared to accommodate a guest — possibly one of about two hundred Central Americans who formed a caravan on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border in San Ysidro, hoping to find refuge in America and drawing the ire of President Trump and other immigration hardliners. They planned to apply for political asylum on Sunday.

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The idea of opening up their two-bedroom, one bath abode to a stranger from another country just made sense to the couple — both 36 years old.

"It's a humanitarian issue," Dunn said.

It's also political. The couple and others like them are taking a stand at a time when the nation seems starkly divided on who should be allowed to reside in United States and what it means to be American.

The Central American caravan is just the latest lightning rod issue in an increasingly divisive immigration debate. Even in progressive California, where state leaders approved sanctuary laws to protect people who are in the country illegally, an anti-sanctuary movement quickly followed and appears to be gaining momentum.

"The willingness of these people to house these immigrants reflects that there is a division in the United States and in California over the appropriate course of immigration policy," said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at UC Irvine.

Many of the asylum seekers, who launched their journey weeks ago from Southern Mexico toward the U.S., are scheduled to make their claims to the U.S. Sunday at the border crossing in Tijuana.

The Central American caravan is just the latest line being drawn in the sand, said Heather Cronk, co-director of Showing Up for Racial justice, a national anti-racist organization that is coordinating volunteer sponsors for those in the caravan seeking asylum.

An estimated 75 people have expressed interest in housing at least one asylum seeker, Cronk said. Some are from major metropolitan areas in California and New York. Others are from remote and rural areas in Montana and North Dakota.

"I think this is 100% about who we want to be as a nation," she said. "Not only are we providing material support, supporting those who are need of a place to go. … We offer a counter message. We want to make very clear to the folks who are in the caravan and those across the country that Trump's voice is not the only voice in this country. Where Trump closes doors, we open them."

The potential hosts are still undergoing a vetting process and it's unclear who exactly they will be paired with in the caravan or if it will ever even happen. It may turn out to be more of a symbolic gesture.

Erika Pinheiro, an immigration attorney who is helping coordinate efforts to help those in the caravan, said many in the immigrant group will seek asylum but will unlikely be allowed to parole out immediately into the U.S. after asking for help at the port of entry.

"Women with small children and those with medical conditions, we'd hope immigration officials would use discretion and parole them out of custody but given the attention made about the caravan, it does seem like that will be extremely unlikely," Pinheiro said.

Many of the asylum seekers will likely be placed in detention after a what is called a credible fear interview with an asylum officer who determines whether the applicant has a legitimate fear of persecution or torture and is eligible to stay in the country and have a full asylum hearing or be sent home.

The majority of claims are found to be credible but increasingly applicants are placed in detention, denied parole or given high bond amounts while they await a full court hearing. Some people with medical conditions or women with small children may eventually parole out of detention. Single adults traveling by themselves will likely be in detention without a chance at parole throughout court proceedings, Pinheiro said.

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Some of the asylum seekers who are released will want to stay with family members who live in the U.S.

Still, Pinheiro said, it's important to have people open up their homes. Some asylum seekers will have no place to stay, she said, and many released from detention aren't part of the caravan but still need refuge.

Blair Overstreet and her husband Matt Dunn stand in their spare bedroom that they hope to be able to offer to a family that is part of the Central American caravan seeking asylum in the U.S.
Blair Overstreet and her husband Matt Dunn stand in their spare bedroom that they hope to be able to offer to a family that is part of the Central American caravan seeking asylum in the U.S. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Overstreet, a high school history teacher, and Dunn, an artist and computer programmer, said they are happy to provide a safe space for someone needing it, but they know it may take a while and could possibly not happen.

"I'm not tied to the results. It's more that the people in the caravan know that people have volunteered to give them beds," Overstreet said. "Whether or not they get to that bed, the hope is that even if they are in detention center, there is a hope that they will understand that not all Americans want them to be there in detention. They want them in their own homes… with us, starting their lives here."

Though the caravan is relatively small compared with prior waves of immigration — some as recent as the tens of thousands of Haitians who petitioned for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry two years ago — this caravan has been amplified by the Trump administration's stern response, DeSipio said.

"President Trump has sort of raised this group beyond probably the level they really merit in the broader scheme of things. It's become symbolically important," DeSipio said. "The caravan was on 'Fox and Friends' and that got the president's attention and that made it, in his mind, representative of a larger phenomenon. By talking about this particular group he was able to take on a bigger phenomenon. People are now traveling in groups for their safety, but that somehow makes it seem more ominous."

Migrants have the right to request asylum in the U.S. under immigration and international law, but Trump has angrily denounced the caravan, promising to stop its members from entering the country. Department of Homeland Security officials and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions have used the caravan as a way to reaffirm their allegations that the asylum process is vulnerable to fraudulence.

"Individuals of the 'caravan' seeking asylum or other similar claims should seek protections in the first safe country they enter, including Mexico," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Wednesday as the caravan approached Tijuana.

At about the same time, Alex Desautels made the decision to open up her home.

Desautels, who lives in Oakland with her two children and husband, said she saw it as an "opportunity to finally do something" for people who are at risk.

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"I've been feeling like I've just been standing witness to people all over the world being displaced," she said. "I think this is a time when we can all experiment with taking bold risks but also stepping in and taking responsibility for our country's part in a situation across the globe. We've been engaged in creating this situation. We have to part of the solution. It's our problem not their problem."

Desautels, the mother of a 5-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl, said she has a detached house with two beds that she could easily offer to a family of four.

"This is our time to actually show up and really share — not just talk about sharing but really share," she said. "We can share. There is plenty to go around."

Desautels said she's held off explaining the situation to her children until she gets final word that she'll be hosting. Her children will likely understand, she said.

Not too long ago, her daughter asked her about a sign she saw someone holding at a rally that was on television.

"Those are people who don't want to see new people coming to this country," her mother told her. "And we are not those people. We welcome those who are in need."

Follow Cindy Carcamo on Twitter @thecindycarcamo

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