Catholic Charities at the US border — why we were assembling chairs and bedrooms in a Tuscon, AZ youth detention center.

… What we saw at the border — a collective story from CFC as we encounter families seeking asylum at the US Southern Border — Part 2

Continued from

CFC Staff assembling boxes-for-all-uses

Services to immigrants allowed to cross the US border were provided by a Catholic Charities agency called Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, as part of their Casa Alitas shelter program, which began as a small home run by volunteers in Tuscon, AZ. However, this house could only shelter a few families at a time. The Tucson Benedictine Monastery had been vacant for almost a year before its current owner agreed to allow its doors to be temporarily opened to asylum seekers. As many as 350 individuals, children and families were seen each day, but a more permanent solution was required.

On August 1, the local Pima County government opened 3 vacant wings of a youth detention agency to be used for the purpose of helping welcome, provide services, and facilitate the transfer of individuals and families further into the US. Our first team helped the local agency set up furniture and stock food, clothing and sanitary supply areas to be ready to receive asylum seekers that had been permitted to cross the US border.

See a map of the Tucson, AZ, and its relation to the US border

Diego Javier Piña López, Lead Program Coordinator, and our host at Casa Alitas

The history of Tucson, AZ’s response: an interview with Diego Javier Piña López, gracious host at Casa Alitas, (August 19, 2019, as told to CFC staff members Carmel Nelson and Ken Pitcher)

Our team agrees this interview with Diego is a deep, true and meaningful representation as to what the courageous families who have crossed the US border have gone through to get here, as well as the amazing volunteers who have spent countless hours to help these families find safety in America.

Individuals and families are met at the “Point of Entry” at the US border, where they may claim asylum with the US Customs & Border Patrol (CBP), which is part of the US Department of Homeland Security. It takes at least 72-hours to process* an application, with at least 2 interviews where there must be a demonstration of credible fear. Historically, asylum has two basic requirements. First, an asylum applicant must establish that he or she fears persecution from their Government in their home country. Second, the applicant must prove that he or she would be persecuted on account of one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group.

*Process: Upon arrival and presentation at the border, individuals and families are placed into temporary waiting area, given something to eat, commonly a frozen burrito, packaged crackers with peanut butter, other processed foods not the best for long-empty stomachs. As time permits, they are sent to Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), which would process court documents. It generally takes about 15 days to get to court hearings, after which they might be released. (see sidebar, further below)

Early volunteers (2014) reported that migrants would be separated, with fathers sent to detention camps, in Florence or Eloy, AZ, to wait for the remainder of the asylum process. Women and children would have to wait separately, or would be dropped at a bus station without resources. This was generally observed to be a form of deterrent for others seeking asylum. As early as 2014, community members saw the effects of this practice, and began to address the issues affecting the area. Greyhound reached out to people, and volunteers started to help out at the bus station by providing food, water, explaining how to get help, helping them buy bus tickets, etc… The majority of people needing help were women and children who had no idea what was going on and had no control over what was happening to them.

Later in 2014, a local Tucson newspaper reported that ICE would be sending 300 additional people from El Paso in a week via bus transport. The community concern was that the bus stations closed at 2 am; soon there would be women and their children homeless on the street in a dangerous area of Tucson. Local community leaders reached out to Catholic Community Services (CCS) about opening a shelter, but also recognized a growing need need for storage for supplies, as well as an alternate place for dropping people off, rather than at the bus station. CCS had one house that was available, called Casa Alitas (“alitas” means wings), which has 5 bedrooms housing 16 people.

My first day

Diego came to Casa Alitas in 2016 to complete his field work for his Masters in Social Work (MSW). On his first day, he met a woman who was recovering from a cesarean section (c-section). She was allowed to enter the US at the Point of Entry, but ICE took away her medication (when one presents at Point of Entry, your medication is confiscated, and you are given “equivalent medication” in US.) For some reason they didn’t give her the US equivalent of her medication for her c-section, which had immediate health and safety consequences for her and her 5-year-old son. She deteriorated to the point that she was blacking out several times a day, and had to rely on her 5-year old son to carry all their bags and help them find shelter. Diego didn’t know what else to do but Google “c-section” to find medication, clothing, shoe laces (when in ICE custody, shoe laces are confiscated for fear of suicide) and some sort of a band to support her recovering belly.

Diego had 4 volunteer medical professionals, and 80 active volunteers. This period of time was during the change of US Presidential Administration, 1 month into a resurgence of ICE raids. While numbers of families seeking shelter started to drop, what they began to see were families having more serious issues coming up through the border, such as those escaping from the drug cartels and gangs, which changed the nature of immigration and asylum cases. Even so, over time the numbers of families seeking asylum increased again, and policies further changed to tamper that down. First, Diego saw the number of families permitted to cross the border at Points of Entry were dramatically reduced — from 30 people a day, to 9 people, so just a few families. At the same time, because of this reduction, people started trying to cross at non-Point of Entry locations, out of sheer desperation. The cartels took advantage of this, and we started seeing child separation. Crossing the border illegally with a child meant the child would go into ICE detention, which was another form of deterrence. After several months of this we began to see the term “illegal” being used to describe these families.

In Arizona: the Kino Border Initiative; view of wall and of Mexico beyond

During this period of time, there was a volcano in Guatemala erupting, cartels were becoming more aggressive, and higher and higher numbers were at the US Points of Entry, causing a dam affect, to an unsustainable point. In June 2018, Diego went to Phoenix, where he helped connect families that were separated, and met with the children in detention. He worked with psychologists, therapists, and social workers to assist with these families. In October 2018, he received a call from ICE, saying they were releasing 1100 people at one time. Casa Alitas could hold 3–5 families at a time. Staff and volunteers worked with the community to find other locations. They set up a shelter at a church for 150 people. Tucson’s local Red Cross, Methodist churches and Catholic parish churches around Tucson, the ACLU, and many other organizations helped shelter families. The Guatemalan Consulate set up an office. The community converted motels to house 80 people at a time, and had a rotation of pop up shelters with partner organizations, that would open for a week then close. Still this wasn’t enough.

Eventually, in 2019, the Tucson Benedictine Monastery donated their space for about 7 months, from February to July, for Casa Alitas to operate a shelter there. In April there was another surge of about 1000 people brought in from El Paso, which resulted in about 350 families arriving per day over the course of a couple of weeks. In addition to the new beds at the Benedictine Monastery, the county and city had to open their own shelters to house 100–150 people each. This motivated the city and county to become more invested in recognizing the seriousness of the problem, and helping us find a more permanent space. We looked at schools — many public school buildings were empty because of the trend to charter school, but they didn’t have adequate sanitary accommodations. We looked at old hospitals, but nothing really worked. At the same time, the city and county found out that their emergency response was not prepared. They did not know how to handle 250 people being dropped off but observed that Casa Alitas and their network had organized to handle 450 people. They recognized our model and built a supporting structure around this. Ultimately, on August 1, 2019, 3 vacant wings in a juvenile detention facility were identified to be repurposed for both shelter and emergency response. The staff and volunteers of Casa Alitas set it up for operations within one week, and on the first day took in 40 people.

a typical bedroom in Casa Alitas

Diego tells us about Casa Alitas’ new location

How many people have come through since you opened up?

Close to 180–200, but they’re all going to new shelters. We built this space to be as comfortable as possible. The city and county have been really good about allowing us to change the feel of this space.

Do families overnight in other shelters, and then come here during the day?

They come here for initial processing. We have a team of 160 doctors, so we can call on any of them for any case. They come here, are processed here, can sleep here for a few days — or in another shelter locations — and we’ll help them with bus tickets.

We’re working with the ACLU on immigration cases. When families come in, they are given folders containing vast amounts of forms and information: notice that the staff are volunteers, a page asking basic demographic information, and basic forms so they can be seen by medical staff. They are also told, most importantly that services are free. Staff and volunteers help identify the person’s country of origin, the countries they traveled through, languages they speak, last time they ate, how they were treated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and/or ICE custody, if they were denied food/water in custody, their intended destination in the US, who is their sponsor and relationship to the sponsor.

Casa Alitas’ welcome center and dining hall

They are given water and fruit, then a healthy, really brothy, soup (known as “Sanctuary Soup”), to make sure they are digesting food ok. They are provided with hair ties, shoelaces, and other articles of clothing confiscated by ICE. Once basic needs are met, and their information is loaded into the computer system, an alert is sent to Greyhound and they help purchase the bus tickets.

When families ultimately get on a Greyhound bus to join their sponsor/family, they will have been given emergency ESL classes, 1–5 days of food rations for each family member, depending on the expected length of their bus ride, changes of clothes, toiletries, and a small toy for each child. This current location of Casa Alitas is expected to remain open for the next 5 years. He’s expecting the city/county to give them an additional 2 units as this humanitarian crisis continues.

The research

Since 2014, we’ve had about 14,000 people come through here. In addition to providing humanitarian services, we’ve also been able to collect data and perform some research. We performed a t-test analysis to determine if there was a significant difference between how Indigenous speakers (23 languages) were treated compared to the Spanish-speaking (larger) population. Hypothesis would be that the Indigenous-speakers would have been treated less well than the Spanish-speaking population. What we found was the exact opposite. Indigenous-speakers were processed half the day faster than the Spanish speakers, and their treatment was overall better.

We discovered that the answers the Indigenous speakers put down for questions such as “How were you treated?” were “good”. But in reality, they were not given any water or food. US Customs & Border Patrol (CBP) is supposed to offer them showers, but in border facilities that have showers, the water was cold. That would cause many not to want to shower. So, while they were answering in the affirmative, Diego suggests that perhaps their perception of good treatment is skewed.

We have a 3-tier medical system. First tier is screening; second tier is for over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, Advil, etc.; third tier is for when a volunteer doctor or nurse would need to use his/her license. If the person has needs beyond this, they are sent to the ER; this happens once or twice a week. People do come from the border detention facilities with communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, chicken pox, and scabies. We had a case of a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant and the hospital placed her in a room with two others who had active chicken pox. There are cases of families coming in deaf, and/or deaf-mute children, who have created their own variations of sign language. One child came to us with leukemia and our medical team consulted with 8 doctors in Texas to see which clinic would be the best one for her medical care.

What are your dream for this site?

Diego has a student from the University of Arizona working on a dream project with him. His dream is to be able to provide every family with a phone. Volunteers would teach them how to use it, and put all critical information of the family and their destination in the phone, establish for them a Gmail account, and have instructional / YouTube videos pre-loaded that would help them get through their first few days in the US. Right now, the cost is essentially for the phone only.

fabric arts presented by Dominican Order of Peace (Sister Rachel, center)

His other dreams for the short term? That basic medical intake would be in the Indigenous languages (this requires sufficient staff and volunteers able to speak and translate in these languages). Expanding the facility to include the nearby park and asking the sports field to give them access for recreational activities. The county is working with the Kino Sports Complex to get tickets to games as well. Flu season is coming! The county gave them 1300 flu vaccinations; in addition to which, staff must be certified to give children their vaccinations so they are ready to start school once they settle in their new home. Or staff must be able to provide them documented results of a titer test to confirm which vaccines they need.

Sidebar: what is a legitimate asylum claim?

Diego shared with our staff during an orientation tour is that there are now 4 reasons people can apply for asylum in the US: fear that they will suffer persecution for their Race, Religion, Nationality, Membership in a particular social group or political opinion. There used to be 5 reasons.

The reason that was removed in June, 2018 was fear of domestic violence or gang violence. Attorney General Jeff Sessions felt that “the Obama administration created ‘powerful incentives’ for people to ‘come here illegally and claim a fear of return.’” In his statement regarding the change in policy, AG Sessions is quoted: “An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances,” he added. “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

The lowering of reasons for legitimate asylum claims provides an added burden on vulnerable women and children seeking protection and safety. If a woman is afraid that her husband will continue his abuse of her and her children if she’s sent back, the administration is saying that is the responsibility of the local government in her country of origin-our immigration system is not responsible to ‘provide redress for her misfortune’. If a family has a legitimate fear that their children will be kidnapped by gangs in their city, the US administration is currently saying that is also the responsibility of the local government, and is an acceptable reason to deport a child back to his or her country of origin.

Read more: Part 3 - What we saw at the border in Tucson and Laredo.

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**Learn how you can take action and support these local efforts at the border. 100% of your donation will help our agencies along the border meet basic needs and ensure that children are being treated with care and kindness.

**Watch our international award winning series, See Their Stories, a campaign created in effort to bring clarity to the mistrust and misunderstanding of the refugee story. A series of short video-story vignettes have been created to illustrate the personal journey of refugees.

** Support to Rochester’s immigrant community has been a cornerstone of Catholic Family Center’s work since its founding in 1917. Over the past 35 years, over 15,000 refugees have resettled to Rochester, NY with the help of Catholic Family Center and our many partners. Learn more about our Refugee & Immigration Services at



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