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Large drop-off of immigrants by ICE strains resources of Phoenix church

Supplies are stacked up outside First Church UCC on Friday, Oct. 12, in Phoenix. (KTAR News Photo/Ali Vetnar)

PHOENIX – A Phoenix minister said his church has seen its resources stretched thin since it took in dozens of immigrants released from federal detention last week, but it’s been well worth the effort.

“To be honest, the financial is not as important as the spiritual and emotional cost that these people are experiencing,” James Pennington, senior minister of First Church UCC, told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Friday.

“This is very small for us.”

On Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped off more than 100 immigrants seeking asylum, mostly from Guatemala, at the church near McDowell Road and Third Street.

Pennington said the old church, which was formerly known as First Congregational United Church of Christ, has a congregation of about 300 and has been drawing on support from the community to take care of the families.

Expenses have included food, translators, medication for children with pink eye and adults with colds, overburdened plumbing that needed repair and trash bins that overflowed, resulting in extra charges.

The church has been working with the Phoenix Restoration Project for over a year to feed and find housing for immigrants seeking asylum or other legal status after being released by U.S. border authorities.

After families seeking asylum come across a border patrol agent after crossing or show up at a port of entry, they are interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer to determine the credibility of their claim.

Immigration judges ultimately decide whether an asylum case can go forward. If they decide the merits are not there, the immigrant is deported.

Because families can’t legally be held more than 20 days, ICE has to release those with valid asylum claims to churches and other organizations that volunteer to help them.

Pennington said the size of the last week’s release – his church wasn’t the only one in the area to take in more than 100 immigrants – was different than what he’s seen in the past.

“We don’t understand why there are so many people being released at once, but we feel we need to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world,” he said.

Pennington said they are working with ICE without asking questions.

“We believe it’s the humane thing to do to be able to provide hospitality for these people who are us,” he said. “They are not the other – they’re us.”

The church is expecting another wave, too.

“We’re being told that potentially this could happen in the coming weeks again,” Pennington said.

Hurricane Michael has caused additional strain on the church, because some families heading east had their travel plans canceled and had to stay in Phoenix longer than expected.

Still, Pennington said the immigrants’ burden is greater than anything his congregation has had to take on while caring for them.

“When everything is said and done and people are on the buses and where they’re supposed to be, their life is hard and they’re resilient and they’re strong and we get to go back to our homes,” he said.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Ali Vetnar and Martha Maurer contributed to this report.

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