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Asylum seekers crossing border illegally could receive VSAC grants

By Guy Page,

A bill approved by the Vermont Senate would enable asylum seekers who entered the U.S. illegally to Vermont Student Assistance (VSAC) grants for non-degree educational programs.

Tuesday the Senate gave preliminary approval to S.191, a bill that would enable “refugees, asylees, asylum seekers, humanitarian parolees, or special immigrant visa holders” to access VSAC advancement grants.

While the other categories of S.191’s ‘New American’ grant beneficiaries presumably entered the U.S. legally, many asylum seekers entered illegally and then declared they are victims of religious or political persecution, and seek asylum under a 1980 law passed by Congress.

Under U.S. law, a person seeking asylum may do so by arriving at the border and asking to be screened by U.S. officials at a “port of entry,” or by entering the U.S. without prior inspection and then declaring their fear of persecution, an ACLU report on asylum seeking states.

The asylum seeker provision in federal law is being abused by illegal immigrants crossing the border and then claiming asylum due to religious or political persecution. Sen. Lindsay Graham, in introducing legislation to stop exploitation of this provision, said that 80% of asylum seekers pass a screening process that allows them to stay in the U.S., sometimes for years, before their case is adjudicated – at which point the approval process drops to about 10%.

“The biggest change of all is to change the asylum standard that’s being abused,” Graham said in a 2021 press conference. “Under the current law, if you show a credible fear, that’s the initial screening standard. You are allowed to be processed and have a court hearing on asylum. With a million and a half backlog, it could take you years to get that hearing.”

Graham made those statements before the massive influx of illegal immigration in the years that followed.

Senate leaders’ comments don’t address the illegal entry of asylum seekers. Rather, they focus on preparing New Americans for higher-skilled jobs.

“This bill intends to support New Americans in affording and entering into non-degree educational programs after arriving in Vermont,” a spokesperson for Senate Pro Tem Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) said Tuesday.

“There are many factors that go into making immigration successful,” said Senator Nadir Hashim (D-Windham), a legal immigrant to the U.S. and lead sponsor of the bill. “One of those factors is ensuring folks from different parts of the world feel welcome, safe and supported in Vermont’s community. I believe this bill will support New Americans in building their lives in Vermont.”

An advancement grant is intended to help Vermonters enhance job skills and improve employability. These grants can be used for non-degree educational purposes, or to help an individual start the process of getting their licensure in a specific field. Some examples of programming that would qualify for advancement grants include driver’s education, English language, CDL licensure, dental assistants, construction, culinary arts, and many other fields.

“New Americans are a valued part of Vermont communities and culture,” said Baruth. “It’s critical that we continue to do the work to dismantle barriers and expand opportunities for New Americans so they can thrive in this state. I’m thankful to Senator Hashim for his work on this important bill.”

Third and final reading of S.191 is scheduled for today in the Senate. If approved it will move on to the House.

Other legislation regarding illegal immigration includes:

H.723 states: “The Agency shall develop criteria for awards under this section, including priority eligibility for businesses owned by persons of color and indigenous peoples and businesses owned by new Americans. U.S. citizenship shall not be a requirement for eligibility under the program.” The bill is now in House Environment and Energy is unlikely to be voted out before Friday’s crossover deadline for policy-related bills.

S.52, introduced into the Senate Jan. 31 by sponsor Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison), would “expand eligibility for health care coverage to all income-eligible individuals over 18 years of age who are ineligible for Medicaid and for premium tax credits on the Vermont Health Benefit Exchange due to their immigration status by July 1, 2024.”

Illegal immigrant children have been covered under a Medicaid-like health insurance program since July, 2022. The new legislation, if it becomes law, would provide coverage regardless of age or immigration status.

H.141, sponsored by Rep. Laura Sibilia, requires the Vermont Refugee Office find a third-party organization to conduct a $25,000 assessment (including funding sources) and inventory of all immigration support groups. The legislation does not explain why the assessment/inventory is necessary. The bill is now in the House General and Housing Committee and also is unlikely to meet this Friday’s crossover deadline.


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