BOTHELL — Last year, Maxim and Aimani Isaev were surviving in a Kirkland motel after fleeing from Chechnya, reaching out to just about every organization imaginable for help with their asylum case. Aimani, 21, was pregnant for the second time, and the couple’s 2-year-old son had gradually stopped speaking.
Without approval to work from U.S. immigration officials, the Isaevs couldn’t land health insurance or an apartment on their own during an affordable housing crisis. They believed their son might have autism, and without doctors and a diagnosis, they worried he’d fall behind in his development.
A year later, the family is still waiting on their asylum case to be processed. Yet in Bothell, the family has finally found one small refuge: a two-bedroom ground-floor apartment they obtained through nonprofit Hopelink while the family’s case moves through the U.S. immigration system.
Asylum seekers like the Isaev family have few options for earning income while waiting for their cases to process their first year here. It’s legal for them to stay in the country, but a Trump-era rule change to immigration proceedings made finding housing even more difficult: To deter people from entering the country illegally, last year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services more than doubled the amount of time asylum seekers must wait to apply for a work permit after filing their asylum applications.
Where immigrants seeking asylum once had to wait 150 days to be allowed to work from the date of their asylum application, now they must wait a full year.
All of this adds stress to an existing homelessness crisis. Nearly 12,000 people in King County were estimated to be homeless on a single January night in 2020, more than 3,700 of them adults and children in families. Nearly a third of homeless families with children surveyed in 2020 said they didn’t know where to go for help; a quarter said they applied for services but never heard back.
Hopelink, a 50-year-old organization that provides shelter, food banks and other anti-poverty programs on the Eastside, in North King County and in Snohomish County, saw record-breaking requests for financial assistance that year to help cover rent costs. Between July 2020 and June 2021, it helped shelter or house 121 families like the Isaevs. Hopelink is one of 13 nonprofits that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
At first, the Isaevs didn’t believe Hopelink had actually found them an apartment, said Maxim, 32. When they walked into their new home, Aimani started to cry.
“We prayed, we wished it to be first floor because we have small kids,” Maxim said. “And it happened. It was first floor. And we just check in and we cannot hide our emotions. We were so glad and so happy.”
Shayla Dorstad, the Isaev family’s case manager at Hopelink, said she’s now worked with several asylum-seeking families who have been stuck without income or a place to live.
“They’ve been through a lot and [Maxim] really wants to just be allowed to work so they can build their life here,” Dorstad said. “Immigration policy right now is absolutely a barrier.”
Yesenia Bosch Ramos, a Northwest Immigrant Rights Project supervising attorney, said government rules on employment for asylum seekers mean some of her clients stay in local homeless shelters or sleep doubled-up with other families.
The pandemic has also slowed asylum processing, Bosch Ramos said. Waiting can take years.
“Right now,” the attorney said, “I have cases scheduled for a final hearing in 2023.”
Today, the Isaevs’ modest apartment is furnished almost entirely with things Aimani found for free online or bartered with new friends in exchange for baked goods. The couple splurged on one item: a Christmas tree from Costco that dazzles their now-3-year-old son.
Last month, the U.S. government finally gave the Isaevs authorization to work, though employment barriers remain. In the meantime, the couple receives some government assistance that they use to pay a portion of the rent. In the Isaevs’ apartment complex, Hopelink subsidizes 15 housing units for families paying up to 30% of their income toward housing.
The stability has allowed the family to move forward with their older son’s medical care. This year, he finally received an autism diagnosis, a relief for the parents eager to get him help.
Case management from Hopelink has already helped the Isaev family with financial coaching and the couple can also participate in the organization’s English-language classes geared toward helping with employment. But there are still some things Hopelink can’t help with, Dorstad said, like big medical bills.
“With larger medical bills, we have to look out into the community for resources,” Dorstad said.
The immigration system’s restrictions around working and health insurance surprised Maxim Isaev.
“How can you survive? With two kids?” he asked. “You cannot take medical insurance. That’s wild. You cannot get an ID. Without ID, you cannot open a banking account.”
Now that the Isaev family has approval to work, they still face a long and arduous path through the asylum process. The backlog of asylum applications for people who aren’t in deportation proceedings has skyrocketed since 2012: According to USCIS, more than 400,000 applications are pending.
Processing times increased as a result of the uptick in cases the agency saw between 2014 and 2017, according to USCIS spokesperson Sharon Rummery, though the agency’s “leadership recently committed to using all available policy and operational improvements to reduce both the number of pending cases and overall processing times.”
While they wait on their asylum applications, the Isaev family dreams of what their lives in the U.S. could look like if immigration officials approve their case.
On a recent Friday evening, Aimani expertly trimmed fat from a cut of lamb while the couple’s 5-month-old son kicked his feet in a bouncy crib on the kitchen floor. Maxim spooned some homemade cake into his older son’s mouth as he wiggled on his father’s lap.
Aimani learned to bake from her mother; she now dreams of opening a flour-free bakery because the couple has discovered many Americans require or prefer gluten-free baking. Maxim, meanwhile, is anxious to launch a career in software engineering, or maybe real estate.
And most important to them, the couple dreams about the future for their kids. Now that their preschooler is getting help with symptoms associated with his autism, the Isaevs hope he’s able to join a kindergarten program in a couple of years, Aimani said.
The big problems still loom. But for now, with housing, the family has a shot at some normalcy here, alongside the usual issues faced by parents of young children in this country.
The latest: their older son’s terrorizing insistence on dancing to “Baby Shark” on repeat.
On mention of “Baby Shark,” Maxim leaned back into his chair, his face stricken. His 3-year-old son chewed on a piece of cake while the baby gurgled and continued to bounce nearby.
“I hate ‘Baby Shark,’ ” Maxim said. “All day it’s, ‘baby shark, baby shark!’ “