Article

How the International Rescue Committee welcomes asylum seekers and refugees to the U.S.

By Laura Shear

Published June 18, 2020
Last updated October 25, 2020

Every day, approximately 37,000 people in countries ravaged by war or violence make the difficult decision to leave their home in search of personal safety and a better life. Known as “refugees,” these individuals and families are fleeing violence and persecution—in Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Venezuela, South Sudan, and other countries recognized internationally as being at war or in crisis.

“Asylum seekers” are not the same as refugees. They must apply for protection in the country of destination, arriving at or across a border—an often harrowing journey—in order to apply. They must be able to prove to border patrol authorities that they meet the criteria to be covered by refugee protections. At the end of that arduous process, not all asylum seekers will be recognized as refugees.

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Petitioning for asylum is a legal process under U.S. law to seek safety from the violence and persecution in one’s home country. Many of the families who journey to the U.S. from Central America seeking this protection, and a new life, have encountered severe trauma in their home countries and on their journey here. Violence and persecution in Central American countries is high. El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder outside of an active war-zone and Guatemala has the third highest rate of femicide in the world. Conditions for migrants in Mexico are also extremely dangerous. Arriving at the U.S. border they’re depicted as “illegal immigrants,” but in reality, crossing an international border for asylum is not illegal and an asylum seeker’s case must be heard, according to U.S. and international law.

These individuals and families make a brutal trip to the U.S. border seeking asylum, surviving against incredible odds.

Providing a first welcome

Founded in 1933, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities, helping refugees and displaced people survive and rebuild their lives. An IRC Welcome Center in Phoenix, Arizona, assists asylum-seeking families who have been released from ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention facilities. When they arrive in the U.S., they’re processed by Homeland Security and detained as criminals. Once released, they travel to the Welcome Center, where they’re offered compassion and support for the first time during their dangerous journey.

"It doesn't matter how you enter the country: If you're in the U.S. or you arrive at a port of entry you can seek asylum. There's no way to ask for a visa or any type of authorization in advance, you just have to show up," said the IRC's Director of Immigration Olga Byrne.

The Phoenix Welcome Center for asylum-seeking families opened its doors for the first time on July 27, 2019. Thirty asylum-seekers—parents and their children—from Mexico and Honduras were warmly greeted by staff and volunteers. Once inside, the families were offered a snack and a bottle of water, the first kindness extended to them in months, and the first step of the humanitarian assistance provided by the IRC. “When I got off the bus today, I felt freedom...I felt joy and happiness because everyone here welcomed us very kindly. When we got here they said ‘welcome’ and hugged us… We could feel the love and the concern,” said one mother.

The IRC Welcome Center quickly became a lifeline for families seeking international protection from dangers, and whose claim for refugee status has not been legally determined. In November 2019, Zendesk and IRC launched a formal partnership as part of Zendesk’s Tech for Good program. Zendesk software—donated to IRC free of cost—supports IRC efforts to provide a safety net for asylum-seekers that starts at the Welcome Center.


Streamlining the intake process with technology

Awaiting trial for asylum in the United States, families are required to follow a multi-step process. Using Zendesk, the IRC is better able to facilitate continued case management to families from the time they enter the U.S., making the process smoother and less stressful for families. “Employing Zendesk tools has strengthened the systems that allow IRC to provide services to these families throughout the milestones in their asylum process, helping to ensure no man, woman or child asylum seeker falls through the cracks,” explains Daniel Bloch, National Coordinator, Asylum Seeking Family Services.

Staff and volunteers use Zendesk software to streamline the intake process. Using Zendesk Sell, the team gathers family information, assigns tasks to grant resources, and assists families with travel on to their next destination. Most families only stay at the Welcome Center for 24-48 hours before departing on their journey. While there, the IRC and partner organizations provide food, shelter, legal orientation, medical screening, travel assistance, and donated clothing, toys, and hygiene items. Staff and volunteers drive families to the airport or bus station, walking them through the process, receiving and explaining their tickets and making sure they board for their trip.

"When I got off the bus today, I felt freedom... I felt joy and happiness because everyone here welcomed us very kindly. When we got here they said 'welcome' and hugged us... We could feel the love and the concern." - a mother seeking asylum

Using Zendesk, the IRC has been able to intake 724 families and over 880 children and follow them along their journey, helping to ensure they stay on track with all commitments needed to participate in the formal asylum process. Prior to Zendesk, IRC was limited in its ability to maintain long-term case management support for the people who came through the center. Zendesk has also enabled important data collection and reporting. IRC can now easily segment and report on specific data points relevant to potential grants and donor opportunities.

The success of this nonprofit-tech partnership shows the extent to which modern technology tools can have a profound impact on how well a non profit organization serves its constituents. Yet, too often, such tools are out of reach. If they’re designed well, free access programs like Zendesk’s Tech for Good program can be the first step in narrowing the gap between the public and private sectors.

Cost and bandwidth are barriers to technology adoption

The primary barrier to IRC and similar organizations using technology tools is cost: the cost of licenses, implementation, and running the software. Justifying investment on technology when every dollar for a nonprofit is so vital and existing solutions are “good enough” is tough. Although in the long run technology will vastly improve capacity and ability to serve, it’s difficult to justify spending limited resources on long-term tech investments with so many immediate needs on a nonprofit’s plate.

Many nonprofit organizations have lean but strong technical teams who know the IT business and are aware of the technical capabilities of various vendors and their products. The challenge nonprofits face is a general lack of flexible funding that is stretched across operations and programs, which when paired with the complexity of a nonprofit’s financial structure, makes affording enterprise technology a challenge, particularly considering the subscription models of modern solutions. Even so, establishing global standards provides more stability than requiring every program to source its own solutions without the expertise or resources to deploy production-ready technology consistently and with ongoing support.

[Related read: How Zendesk’s Tech for Good partners support refugees worldwide, and how you can help]

Bandwidth also plays a role. Nonprofit organizations are doing everything they can with the money they are getting, and that means they often do not have the staff necessary to implement tools like Zendesk effectively without assistance.

Given these realities, how can the technology and private sectors partner with nonprofits to explore the myriad solutions that tech enables? For starters, companies must understand that the product alone, without implementation support, can be a burden for nonprofits.

When a tech company approaches a nonprofit with free licenses for pilots, if those licenses come with significant change management and implementation efforts, it may not be possible for them to deploy those resources even if they match the business case. But when tech companies donate their products plus time and expertise for implementation, that’s when they can make a world of difference to a nonprofit and its constituents.

When tech companies donate their products plus time and expertise for implementation, that’s when they can make a world of difference to a nonprofit and its constituents.

“Partnerships like we have developed with Zendesk, which provide implementation services and ongoing support, not only enable our organization to leverage new tools, but also gives companies looking to move into the non-profit space insight into how a company’s tools are useful in our unique context. With that type of partnership in place, we can jointly tell a great story about how technology is accomplishing great outcomes for our clients, while demonstrating the flexibility and effectiveness of technology in unexpected scenarios,” says Caitlin Murphy, Officer, Global Operational Partnerships, IRC.

Tips for nonprofits to work with tech companies

Best practices from the IRC for nonprofits who want to adopt new technology:

  • Understand your needs from a tech perspective. If you can, put together a requirements document and get whatever technical resources (developers, engineering, IT, etc.) you have internally on board.
  • Tell the technology partners what you really need and make sure you hold onto that vision. It doesn’t do either side any good to deploy a product for the sake of it if it doesn’t help you deliver on your mission; it diverts resources that should be spent on delivering on outcomes for impact, and deprives the partner of having that great story they want to tell.
  • If you’re approached by a partner offering a solution that’s not needed at that moment, keep the dialogue going by educating them about your business and how they can help. If they have technology that really does work, and that integrates well into your environment and makes financial sense, then you have the foundation for a strong partnership that’s going to serve the real-life requirements of your organization.
  • Consider how technology companies can support not just individual point solutions for a specific program, but develop partnerships at an enterprise technology level and make related services and support available to all of your colleagues and programs globally.

Helping asylum seekers start a new journey

Today, with Zendesk’s help, the IRC Welcome Center has served up to 100 asylum-seekers a day. With guidance and support from IRC case workers who can follow them each step of the way, asylum seekers stand a far better chance of connecting with their sponsors or family members, appearing on time for hearings and, ideally, earning refugee status.

Once they acclimate to their new environment, refugees often thrive and contribute to their communities, building careers, purchasing homes and gaining citizenship. Through the IRC’s programs in Phoenix, refugees have purchased 336 homes, opened 151 new businesses, converted eight corner stores to sell locally grown produce in food deserts, operated three community gardens, have certified 32 at-home childcare businesses, and purchased almost $40 million in assets, strengthening the local economy.

[Related read: How messaging apps help connect immigrant and diaspora communities]

While using customer service software to support refugees might not be the most intuitive use case, upon closer examination, it makes perfect sense. Explains Todd Lienart, Director, Social Impact at Zendesk, “Our partnership with IRC illustrates how a little customer service can go a long way for asylum seekers and migrants during a harrowing experience. Perhaps the most rewarding thing has been seeing how our technology lets IRC welcome center staff focus on what really matters during the intake process—being kind and empathetic—instead of on manual data entry.”

When technology tools are designed and implemented with true empathy for the people on the other side of the experience, they can provide new, custom solutions many nonprofits have only dreamed of.

The IRC welcomes support for its ongoing efforts in Phoenix. Make a contribution online or donate items to families via the Welcome Center’s Amazon wishlist.

Photo Credit: Andrew Oberstadt / International Rescue Committee