Update: April 5: Multnomah County leaders now say they will extend funds to keep all families filing for asylum sheltered through the end of April. 

Note: Several interviews in this story were translated from Spanish to English through a translator.

In 2023, Diana Albarran fled a dictatorship in Venezuela with her four-year-old daughter. Albarran remembers being kidnapped and “violated many times” on her journey to the States. When she arrived, she says she slept on the street with her young child during winter, but later found temporary shelter with the help of local nonprofit groups.

Now, Albarran and her daughter are among at least 20 families, with more arriving every week, that will soon face living on the street. 

Since last summer, immigrants filing for asylum have been aided by community based organizations such as the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice (IMIrJ) and the Asylum Seeker Solidarity Collective-a local grassroots organization that aims to help those fleeing their native countries. The organizations have been supporting those who couldn’t get into a state-funded welcome center in a shut down Ramada hotel near Portland International Airport.

The welcome center was established in 2022 as a way to provide temporary shelter to people who arrive in Oregon and file asylum requests. But by the end of 2023, Oregon stopped funding the center, with no clear explanation and no plan to revive it. In December, the owners of the former Ramada agreed to contract with community organizations at a reduced rate, making sheltering new asylum seekers more affordable. 

Since then, IMIrJ has paid for more hotel stays to meet increased needs. But the nonprofit group is now out of money to fund the hotel rooms where more than 20 families, including Albarran’s, are currently staying. 

The families being sheltered by the nonprofit were set to be removed at the end of March, but Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez released funds from his budget to extend their stay for five more days. After that, families were preparing to sleep outside. A day after this story published, Multnomah County announced it will fund the hotel rooms for all families currently sheltered there through the end of April, and work with partner agencies and aid groups to find long-term solutions.

Community organizations say they're continuing to put all the pressure they can on decision makers. 

For groups trying to bridge the gap in government services and support, one of the biggest challenges is finding shelter for families. Sometimes they get lucky and find a host willing to temporarily house asylees.

That’s the case for Frayana Cumaray, who fled Venezuela last year with her four children.

Crossing seven countries, they faced hunger, cold, mistreatment, and a journey through over 100 kilometers of jungle where there was nothing to guide them. 

“God is your only company,” Cumaray says. 

They saw pain, death, and even mothers who abandoned their children out of desperation. The only thing that kept Cumaray going was the vigor to improve the life of her family. 

When they reached Mexico, Cumaray says they lived in a tent for two months. Crossing the border, Cumaray had to leave her two sons behind. They are still there today. 

Entering the US did not bring much stability. Cumaray’s family was again unhoused, living in a tent in Texas with no privacy. With no legal work authorization, Cumaray’s means to improve her family’s wellbeing were severely limited. Eventually, they were transferred to Denver, and later Portland. Oregon is a sanctuary state, making it more welcoming to people migrating from other countries. 

Cumaray was lucky enough to be put in contact with ASSC. Through hard work and lots of networking, she was placed with a community host until June, but others have not been so lucky. 

According to ASSC, in addition to the families whose hotel stays were paid for by community aid groups, there are another 49 people (12 families) relying on temporary family shelters provided by Multnomah County as part of a winter motel program. ASSC was informed by the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) that these families will be exited from the shelters by the end of April. They will then be put on a waiting list for family shelter or rehousing. According to ASSC, they have never seen someone get off the waitlist in less than three months.

Kliver Rodriguez, another asylum seeker from Venezuela, is one of the people who will be removed. 

“I’ve been betrayed by the American dream,” Rodriguez said at a teach-in on March 17. 

Like many, Rodriguez appreciates the work of groups like IMIrJ and ASSC, but has struggled with the restrictions on asylum seekers. 

Unlike refugees who gain approval to enter the US before leaving their home country, asylum seekers cannot legally work upon entering the US. Filing for employment authorization can only be done 150 days after filing an asylum application. After entering the country, asylum seekers have a year to apply for asylum. Oregon pays for their attorneys, but due to a national shortage of lawyers who provide public aid, it can take months for their applications to be filed. 

Even after filing all the required paperwork, their chances of approval are slim. According to the latest data, in 2023, the federal government approved just 28 percent of requests from Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States.

Asylum seekers don’t qualify for federal aid or support to meet basic needs like housing. In turn, they can go months without the ability to sustain themselves. 

Natalie Lerner, an organizer with ASSC, has been working to manage an influx of at least three new families coming to Portland each week. 

Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States share their experiences and the
significant barriers they face in finding shelter and income, due to the legal process for asylum requests.  kevin foster

“This past week, we got nine new families,” Lerner said on March 18. “Two or three weeks ago, we got eight new families. So I think it's kind of going up at this point.”

The number of asylum applications in the US increased tenfold from 2014 to 2023, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. For ASSC, this means scrambling to find more funding, community hosts and resources. 

On March 1, Lerner spoke before the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners about her concerns, stressing that migrants face sleeping outside.

“I think we see every level of government having a role to play here,” Lerner told the Mercury. “The federal government, in addition to the work permit issue, can and should be supporting states and counties and cities.”

At the state level, Lerner points to $2 million that passed in the short session in March, but claims this money is insufficient, and won’t be available until the contracts are sorted out. Once the funding is accessible, there will likely still be a gap in assistance for asylees. 

In the 2025 legislative session, Lerner hopes a bill will pass that builds a system to welcome asylum seekers. For now, ASSC has to set their sights at the county level. 

“Between when the $2 million is released and now, we need emergency sheltering,” Lerner says. “That is what the county campaign is focused on, the gap in emergency sheltering for people before there is any state support, or even better, federal support.”

Denis Theriault, a spokesperson for Multnomah County, says county officials met with Oregon Department of Human Services leaders last week. Theriault claims leaders from the state and county are “working collaboratively on both short term and long term strategies to support asylum seekers.” 

Theriault noted County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson has met with asylees directly, and her office remains in contact with advocacy groups.

Some might worry about how costly this could be on local government, but those seeking asylum in the US say this is all the result of a broken system.

“Our number one ask, and the number one ask that we hear from community members that we are organizing is, ‘If I had work authorization when I got here, I wouldn't need any help from the government,’” Lerner says, noting most don’t understand why the US government makes it so difficult for them to work and be self-sufficient. 

Because of the inability to legally work, asylum seekers are left with two options: earn no income and be at the mercy of limited funding and community organizations that are stretched thin, or work jobs without documentation where they risk being subjected to substandard conditions, wage theft or employer intimidation. 

This dynamic is one of many that is commonly misunderstood about asylees.

“I think people maybe understand there's a dictatorship in Venezuela or the political situation is hard, but I don't think people understand the profundity of what that means on a day-to-day level,” Cumaray said. “Your own government is often part of why you're going hungry or they're scamming you or extorting you. The police do that themselves. I think people don't really understand what that experience is like for us who live there.”

Emma Martinez, an organizer and coordinating committee member with the Portland chapter of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), says the way migrants are seen in the US can be dehumanizing. 

“Migration is totally used as a way to reap profit [for] big companies,” Martinez says. “Our government sees migration as a money-making system.”

Emma Martinez addresses a small group during a teach-in on March 17
about the process and barriers of seeking asylum in the United States. kevin foster

She adds that migrants have their own dreams, aspirations and humanity. In some cases, the cause of their migration could have been influenced by US policy. 

“I think most people don't know why the situations in those countries are the way they are,” Martinez says. “[It] stems back from US foreign policy like privatizing basic services in those countries, destabilizing entire countries or even putting [in] a US backed dictatorship.”

Despite misunderstandings and systemic challenges, asylum seekers in Portland are grateful for the generosity of the community.

“Without even knowing me, you let me into your home and gave me a place to stay,” Rodriguez said at the teach-in on March 17. “You took me in and helped me. There is no malice in your home.”

In a panel at the teach-in, Cumaray called Lerner “the angel of Portland,” but Lerner rejects this title. 

“I just don't love it when people say that,” Lerner says. “I think it exceptionalizes what we are doing as something that is beyond the scope of a regular person.”

Lerner and her partner began advocating for asylum seekers after hosting people for a number of years. While she’s glad she’s helped people, in her eyes it’s more of a collaborative effort that needs to be expanded to ultimately be successful. 

As she got more involved with ASSC, Lerner started receiving calls from all over the country, including as far away as Denver and Chicago. 

According to Cumaray, she was told to contact Lerner on her way to Portland, which allowed her to be connected with resources once she got here. 

“Being here with the community I found in Portland, it’s really given me a sense of togetherness,” Cumaray said. “I do have some hope that we can achieve something.”

For Lerner, there’s a mix of achievement and frustration. 

“I do think I am doing the government's job for it, and we need the state to step in,” she says. “And it's partially that if I can be pointed to as this person doing amazing work, then the state doesn't need to do anything because ‘Natalie's got it handled.’”

With a growing number of asylum seekers coming to Portland, Lerner recognizes it’s not solely the job of Multnomah County or the state of Oregon to help them, but the federal government as well. Immediate action may be needed to help asylees facing homelessness, but ultimately, Lerner says a functional system needs to be implemented to solve the problem, long term.