IMMIGRANT WELCOMING WORK IN ARIZONA
I am now in Tucson, Arizona volunteering with various humanitarian organizations that support and welcome immigrants. Casa Alitas, www.facebook.com/Alitasprogram, was organized in 2014 to respond to the large numbers of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America. I volunteered with them in 2015-17 and some of the stories of those experiences are in my book, CHOICES: DEATH, LIFE AND MIGRATION, www.amazon.com/Patricia-Rumer/e/B001KDJ2EG.
The situation in Arizona is different than the San Diego/Tijuana border crossing. At the Samaritans meeting this week, I learned that people stay in about five shelters in Nogales, Sonora while they await their turn for an asylum "credible fear interview." One woman at the Comedor at the Mexican border said that she had number 349 and hoped that she would be interviewed in three weeks. The Samaritans are the humanitarian organization that does daily trips to the desert providing water, food and basic medical supplies for migrants.
I worked at two shelters this week. Shelters provide a safe place to stay until bus transport can be arranged to the traveler's destination. Volunteers welcome the families (almost all are a mother or father with children). They can shower, wash their clothes, pick up donated clothing, eat and talk with their families either in Central America or their new home in the United States. All of the guests/immigrants have a court date within two weeks with Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE) or immigration courts. Usually they have permission to stay in the United States for six months pending the court's decisions. Some immigrants are given ankle bracelets so that ICE can monitor their movements, a less expensive alternative than keeping them in detention centers.
Casa Alitas is supporting "pop-up" shelters at various churches in the area based on need. Trinity Presbyterian Church near the University of Arizona provides two bedrooms and living area for two families at a time. The church is a rose-colored stucco building with a courtyard below the apartment. A young man and his son from Guatemala were the guests. His story was a familiar one - economic necessity. He kept saying, "Yo voy a llegar en el nombre de Dios." Roughly translated it means, "I am going to make it to the United States with the help of God." He had no problems crossing the border with his son. He has an ankle bracelet, the electronic monitoring program, and a court date in two weeks at his destination with a friend in the Midwest. He came with his teenage son and left a wife and another son in Guatemala. He was near tears at one point when he said that he couldn't believe that he was in the United States and that he was being so warmly welcomed by strangers, myself and the other volunteers. He kept repeating, "You are angels."
His son after a shower burst into the dining area, "Papi, I didn't want to leave the shower, it was so warm." After six days of bus travel and two days in detention at the border, both of them were ready for a hot shower and clean clothes. Another volunteer washed their discarded clothes so they would be ready for the next day's journey.
They had no trouble at the border. I am not sure why they were released so quickly. In Arizona the Border Patrol and ICE use the "seize and release" approach to refugees. There is no family detention center in Arizona which is good news for those who cross the border into Arizona. The closest family detention center is in Texas.
The question remains with me: Are those of us who host the shelters, really angels? I don't feel particularly angelic. I am here because we were there, Jorge Antonio Vargas, a famous undocumented journalist put it several years ago. The United States has had many interventions in Central America which has destabilized Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as well as Nicaragua during the 1980's contra war. What we do as shelter hosts is greet the traveler with the words, WeIcome and Bienvenida.
More Stories to follow: If any of you reading this blog have questions, please post them in the comments section. I will try to find the answers. For excellent information about the U.S. role in Central America, listen to this NPR broadcast of this past week: the1a.org/shows/2019-01-10/why-are-migrants-from-central-america-coming-to-the-u-s
My life has been about crossing borders and cultures and building bridges across the boundaries that normally divide. Have you crossed any borders in your life?