Unless you live in a border state you probably don't realize the impact of the sudden influx of families arriving at the southern border to seek asylum. According to a recent article in the Arizona Daily Star, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have released 125,000 family members, about 22,000 of those in Arizona, since Dec 21st. Border Patrol and ICE in border towns such as El Paso are so overwhelmed that they have bused some asylum seekers to more distant cities, such as Phoenix and Albuquerque, and left them outside Greyhound bus stations. How are people with no money who don't speak English supposed to contact their relatives and make travel arrangements from outside a bus station? The government expects that non-profit organizations will step in to help these people. Whatever your politics this is not an acceptable or sustainable situation, but for now non-profits are coping and that brings me back to the monastery.
The photo above is taken from the monastery parking lot. It’s where the distinctive ICE buses (school buses painted white with tinted windows) pull up and release the latest batch of asylum seeking families into the care of the Alitas program. The Alitas program is part of Catholic Community Services of S. Arizona. Alitas was established to provide aid to migrant women and children but has recently expanded to include fathers traveling with their children. Casa Alitas is a small house in mid-town Tucson that can sleep up to 20 people. Just after Christmas I called to volunteer my services there. “Can you come this afternoon?” the nun who answered the phone asked. We could and we did. I can still remember the faces of the guests that day — open and hopeful and grateful for any help we could give them. I cooked dinner with the help of a teenager from El Salvador. Neither of us spoke the other’s language but we cooked a meal of chicken with onions and peppers and rice. She frowned at me when I browned the whole chicken thighs I’d brought. “What’s she saying?” I asked another volunteer who spoke Spanish. “If you cut them into smaller pieces it will go further,” was the reply. I obediently cut the chicken into smaller pieces mindful that I take an abundance of food for granted.
The numbers of asylum seekers crossing the border have grown recently, perhaps because the weather has warmed or perhaps because news that the American government is making it harder for migrants to come here has spread or perhaps because the threat to close the border has been heard or perhaps simply because life has become untenable in their home countries. Whatever the cause, both Border Patrol and ICE in the border states are struggling to manage the influx. Casa Alitas was too small for the increased number of asylum seekers; the overflow of guests had to be housed in a motel which was expensive and chaotic. But then along came the monastery. Suddenly everyone could be housed in one location with a kitchen and a laundry and a dining hall and safe space outside for the children to play. There were 50 individual rooms for families to sleep in and the sanctuary could hold the overflow on cots with Red Cross blankets.
ICE quickly sent increasing numbers of asylum seekers and Alitas accepted them all. The buses carry about 50 - 80 people and on any given day we're never sure how many will arrive; some days we serve meals to 350 people! Since the monastery opened a couple of months ago 4,000 asylum seekers have passed through its doors. They have traveled here from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. They see the monastery as a safe haven after the dangers of their journey and their days in detention. But this safe place is temporary, for them and for us. After a day or two, they will make the final leg of their journey to the home of a relative or friend where they will wait for their day in court. And for us — well one day the developer will want his monastery back and the guests will have to be housed somewhere else. In the meantime we’re in urgent need of … everything. Any donation you can give will be gratefully appreciated. You can donate to the Alitas program directly or on the GoFundMe page.
I'm writing this and more posts to come to raise awareness of the situation; to paint a picture for those of you who don't live near the border, and to counter the hateful words of the current administration. I want to show you what volunteers are doing and encourage you to help in any way you can. We can debate endlessly what the political solution should be to this problem, but in the meantime good people are working to solve the immediate needs of food, shelter, and transport for asylum seekers where the government is not. I've included links to relevant news articles beneath the photo.
Update: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago. Since then even more people have passed through the monastery doors. Last weekend over 400 people lined up for breakfast. That's a lot of eggs!
- An article about the developer with photos of the monastery.
- A news report about migrants dropped off at a Phoenix bus station.
- A news report about the numbers of migrants overwhelming border agencies.
Disclaimer: The opinions in this blog are mine alone and do not represent an official Alitas account. Any mistakes are mine and mine alone.