Families Helping Families: How One Southwest Border Community Responds to Migrants Seeking Asylum

Volunteer Victoria Ortiz prepares a Chilean dish for migrant families at Casa Alitas shelter in Tucson, Ariz. Photo: Christie Renick

The Trump administration insists, without evidence, that the thousands of Central American migrants arriving at America’s southern border include scores of criminals and terrorists. But those on the ground in border states tell a different story.

Victoria Ortiz is wide-eyed as she explains how she first got involved at Casa Alitas, a shelter in a residential neighborhood in midtown Tucson where she helps mostly Central American migrant families seeking asylum. The 41-year-old mother of three tears up while describing the families and their stories, most of who are fleeing violence and poverty.

“I hear so many stories. When you hear a really sad story and you say this is the saddest story, then you hear another story that is really worse,” Ortiz said, stirring a colorful pot of stew – her grandmother’s Chilean carbonada – on the stove.

Ortiz had originally planned to drop off bottled water for the influx of people that Casa Alitas expected Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release in October – hundreds more than usual due to detention centers reaching or exceeding capacity. But once the families arrived, Ortiz found she couldn’t leave.

In the adjacent living room of the nondescript four-bedroom house that serves as a shelter, a few young kids play, pushing each other in plastic cars and dragging oversized stuffed animals from room to room. Their parents talk quietly amongst themselves, occasionally calling out “Cuidado!” (or careful) when play gets rowdy.

With the smell of Ortiz’ cooking filling the house, it feels a lot like a typical family gathering and not at all like a safe house where a new crop of strangers arrives every day.

Each guest at Casa Alitas is someone who has been released by ICE, most often wearing an ankle monitor and with orders to appear in court on some future date in another city. But many times, they don’t fully understand how the ankle monitors work or what’s expected of them during the legal process, said Diego Lopez, another volunteer. That’s where volunteers step in, calling on a list of translators to help by phone if families speak an indigenous language, like Quiché, rather than Spanish.

Ortiz herself is an immigrant, but her experience was vastly different from that of the families she meets at Casa Alitas. When Ortiz’ husband was transferred from Chile to Tucson for work, someone picked them up at the airport and had already rented a house for them, she said.

“I feel so bad with my questions,” Ortiz said after describing a moment when she’d asked one person about their favorite TV show, and they told her they didn’t have electricity at their home. “My world is so different,” she said.

Casa Alitas, run by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, relies heavily on volunteers like Ortiz. It’s part of a network of local faith communities that can shelter up to 100 or so people a day in Tucson. But lately the network has had to expand to include churches themselves and hotels to accommodate the surge of families.

Statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that in the Tucson sector the number of apprehended migrant families – those who are found between ports of entry – increased by 143 percent in fiscal year 2018. The number of inadmissible family units, which are those who present themselves at ports of entry, has climbed by 50 percent in that sector during the same time frame. Both of those numbers went up for the month of October.

According to Peg Harmon, CEO of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, families typically turn to migration because of violence and poverty in their home countries – not economic opportunity. And while in other places along the border children were being separated from their parents under Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, Harmon says, to her knowledge, that wasn’t the case locally.

“We did not see family separation here in the Tucson sector, but it doesn’t mean necessarily that folks apprehended between those ports of entry weren’t separated,” Harmon said.

What she does see is the occasional case where siblings are separated because one is a minor, or families have an 18-year-old son or daughter and don’t realize that child will be treated as an adult once they become ensnared in the U.S. immigration system.

At Casa Alitas, volunteer Diego Lopez, who is also a local high school teacher, explains the intake process to a volunteer coordinator from another church who is just starting a support program. Lopez points to a grid on a whiteboard where they track each family: name, number of children, room assignment, phone calls to family, destination.

“A lot of times people have no idea what’s going on,” Lopez said. “They think they’re going to be sent to detention, that they’re getting dropped off at the bus station.”

According to Lopez and Harmon, they are seeing more instances of single fathers traveling with children.

“I remember this one kid about 8 years old crying because his mom’s back home and he’s just devastated,” Lopez said.

He said the kids sometimes feel their parents’ guilt about being in detention and having to accept assistance.

“But all the parents are doing this for them, for their futures,” Lopez said.

Diego Lopez helps a volunteer from another church figure out what supplies she’ll need in order to begin providing assistance to migrant families. Photo: Christie Renick

Most of the time, families only stay for a night or maybe two in local shelters, taking showers, eating hot meals and making phone calls to family members – their sponsors – to coordinate bus travel. Then they are given a travel bag with supplies for two or three days and are shuttled to the local bus station.

Typically, a lack of adequate identification and other security issues prevent the families from traveling by air, Lopez said. Recent hurricanes and driver shortages have added complications to long bus rides to places like Virginia, Rhode Island and Illinois, resulting in volunteers coordinating with similar groups in other states to shepherd families along.

Lopez, who first got involved with the effort as part of his masters in social work program, brings his classes from a local Catholic high school to volunteer. Today the freshmen are processing donations in the backyard, putting away clothes, diapers and other supplies.

“The big thing for the students is first just a human face, just being present. To see it, to get to ask questions, meet the families,” Lopez said about why he brings his students to the shelter, which is just blocks from their school.

Kayla Rivera and Amaya Noriega, both 14, work quietly in the laundry room, sorting men’s and women’s deodorant sticks into bins and cleaning an old filing cabinet. This was their first time visiting Casa Alitas.

“Even though it must be sad for them, I feel like they must be happy that they have a place to be,” Noriega said.

The girls share a story about how a young boy learned to ride a bike at the shelter, without using training wheels.

“It’s nice that they get to live here, not just surviving, they get to enjoy things,” Rivera added. “For all they’ve went through, they’re very welcoming.”

Donated bikes await riders at Casa Alitas, a shelter for migrant families in Tucson, Ariz. Photo: Christie Renick

The day before, Noriega’s class had traveled south to Nogales to learn about Kino Border Initiative (KBI), and to see how things work at the border itself. KBI is a faith-based organization that operates on both sides of the border providing humanitarian aid and advocacy for those seeking to cross into the U.S. It runs a soup kitchen and gives travelers basic supplies, offering a temporary safety net to people who have been deported.

“Some people make them like the enemy when they really aren’t. When we went to KBI we saw the military putting up the barbed wire … to keep people from Guatemala and Honduras from crossing,” Noriega said.

Harmon says Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona is prepared for the next wave of asylum-seekers, if they make it to Tucson. She heard recently from a Mexican ambassador that about 2,000 people had accepted asylum in Mexico.

“We have some contingencies. Our volunteers are kind of ready,” Harmon said. “It’s people of all faiths working together to help these folks – and it’s not just people with a practice of faith. It’s people who care about these issues and want to help out and don’t accept the narrative.”

For Ortiz, volunteering at Casa Alitas with her husband and children is their way of showing their gratitude for their good fortunes. But it’s hard to leave at the end of the day.

“At night I close my eyes and I see every face, I hear every name and I can’t sleep, I just want to go back and help them,” Ortiz said.

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Christie Renick
About Christie Renick 124 Articles
Tucson-based vice president of Fostering Media Connections. Follow @christiejrenick.