The Arizona Republic
Tucson group houses migrants at motel
Families stranded with permanent shelters full
TUCSON – An aid group in southern Arizona turned to housing newly released migrant families at a motel because permanent shelters remain full, as U.S. immigration officials continued releasing from detention hundreds of families this week.
Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, one of several faithbased groups assisting recently released families, said they had placed about 150 migrants into 60 motel rooms over the past four days.
That’s on top of nearly 500 migrants they helped the week before.
“We had just finished our efforts in Tucson using the original large church and then spinning it out to the smaller sites,” operations director Teresa Cavendish said. “And we didn’t really feel that we could ramp up that level of effort again at another church site.”
Starting Oct. 7, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — which takes custody of families after they have been processed at the border — began releasing a larger than usual number of families, stating that they had no place to hold them because of a surge in their arrivals.
They released some 800 migrants that first week throughout Arizona. The influx overwhelmed permanent shelters in Tucson like Casa Alitas, operated by Catholic Community Services, as well as the Methodist-affiliated Inn Project.
In response, dozens of churches around the state opened their doors and set up emergency shelters. But with the number of releases decreasing somewhat, many of the larger churches had closed their temporary shelters over the weekend.
In Tucson, Cavendish said they decided to use a motel this week because the church that had housed migrants initially was still recovering from that effort.
Plus, Catholic Communities had already some experience. Last week, they set up migrants at a motel in Yuma, which lacks the infrastructure to accommodate large numbers of families even though it’s the busiest entry point for them in Arizona.
“So moving into a hotel was sort of a natural idea given what we had experienced in Yuma, and it’s been very successful for us, and for the folks here, which is more important,” she said.
The motel where Catholic Community Services set up migrants burst with activity Thursday evening. Volunteers served three meals a day out of a room converted into a makeshift kitchen. On the menu this night, chicken tacos.
Across the courtyard, children of all ages played and ran around a gated pool as nearly two dozen of their parents listened to a presentation from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
“This is a notice to appear,” one of the presenters explained in Spanish. She displayed a sample of the notice many of the adults received, summoning them to court weeks later, near the city where they were headed to reunite with relatives already living in the U.S.
Many of the families, hailing almost exclusively from Guatemala, were making final preparations to head out. Cesar Lopez was among them; he asked that only his partial name be used to protect his identity.
He had fled Guatemala two weeks earlier with his 4-year-old son, leaving behind a 3-year-old and their mother. It took the pair eight days to reach the U.S.Mexico border, where they crossed illegally through the Arizona desert as part of a group of 24 other migrants, he said.
“I wasn’t aware of the risks before coming here. And there are many,” Lopez added. “But for the needs and the wellbeing of my kids, that’s why I do it.”
Those scenes are increasingly becoming common along the Arizona border. Border agents have encountered groups of migrants, sometimes as large as 150. In the past year, the number of families surrendering themselves to agents has more than doubled, with no signs of slowing down.
Border Patrol agents found Lopez and his group along a desert road, as they were resting from a three-hour walk in the heat. They were close to running out of water, Lopez said. Agents took the pair into detention, which he said reminded him of a jail, but at least they were together.
After about six days, on Tuesday, ICE released them from detention, to the care of Catholic Community Services in Tucson, which placed them at the motel. For many migrants, it’s their first chance at a good meal, shower and rest in weeks. And in some cases, the motel room itself exceeds the living conditions back home.
“Here at the hotel, you’re in heaven, as we would say,” Lopez said. “There’s food, there’s drinks, our kids can play. That’s great, right? It’s a great relief because, after such a big sacrifice, you can finally rest.”
But the journey for Lopez and his son is only just beginning. The two are headed to Atlanta, where they will stay with the boy’s grandfather as their asylum case winds its way through immigration court. Through the odds are stacked against them, he’s at least glad to be here now.
According to Cavendish, it has taken a lot of effort to keep up with the numbers of families ICE has released from custody. And she credits the group’s volunteers for their ability to set up shop at the motel in such a short amount of time.
“Without our volunteers, this would have fallen down very quickly, and I cannot say enough for some of these folks,” she said.
Since news of their mass arrival surfaced, the group has seen a surge in donations. The funds allowed them to place migrants at the motels in Tucson and Yuma.
They have also seen a surge in volunteers. On Thursday, Raquel Vargas Lugo showed up to the motel with her two children, Sylvia, 16, and Mark, 21, ready to help out. It was their first time volunteering.
The three sifted through piles of donated clothes, neatly folding them and stacking them into piles inside another motel room converted into a makeshift closet.
“It’s a lot to take in. But at the end of the day, everyone has their struggles,” Mark Lugo said. “And it’s a good reminder that we take things for granted, and that ... there’s people who are fighting for better lives, and we can be here making a little bit of a difference.”
Cavendish said they have been in constant communication with ICE. And while they don’t anticipate continuing to house migrants at the motel through the weekend, the agency has signaled more families will be ready for release in the coming days.
Asked if they would consider housing migrants in motel rooms in the future, Cavendish said they would have to consider several factors. But, it is an option.
“We would have to make sure that the area is resilient, the community is resilient for that idea,” she said. “But it has been successful, so we would consider it again.”