Arizona’s Immigration Crisis: Phoenix-area nonprofits work to help migrants
PHOENIX – All too frequently, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement drop off thousands of Central American migrants outside of bus stations in cities like Yuma, Tucson and Phoenix, fresh from up to 20 days in federal detention.
Sometimes, the migrants are released on the streets of those cities.
Since Dec. 21, 23,700 migrants have been released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody into Arizona. Most are family units seeking asylum in the U.S.
While being processed they have given their names, home countries and reasons for entering the United States. In recent months, more of them claim asylum or economic hardship for leaving places like Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Detention centers, by law, provide migrants with food and health care during detention, and transportation afterward. When immigrants are released they are given notices to appear in front of immigration judges in the states where they say they have families and with whom they’ll be staying.
ICE and other federal agencies have claimed their own financial hardships because of the migrant surge.
The Phoenix Restoration Project is not buying that narrative.
“We believe they’re sowing the seeds of chaos,” said Michael Stancliff, a volunteer and organizer with the group that has facilitated temporary shelter, food and transportation for newly released migrants. “They are intentionally creating chaos because it justifies their requests for greater resources and the Trump administration’s declaration of a state of emergency on the southern border.”
ICE’s field director in Phoenix, Henry Lucero, placed blame with the migrants entering the U.S. at record-high levels.
“If you’re in one of these countries in Central America, and you’ve been told you have a 98% chance of being released in the United States once you get there, you’re going to come,” Lucero said. “It’s probably a better place than you’re at now.”
KTAR News has met with more than two dozen migrants since October. Nearly all of them came from Central America, seeking asylum or citing economic hardships in their home countries.
One was a 37-year-old father who came from Honduras with his daughter. He said he came to the United States to flee death threats from gang members.
The man, who asked not to be identified because he feared for his and his daughter’s safety, said three men went looking for him at his house two days before he left Honduras.
“If I didn’t come here, I would already be dead,” he said in Spanish, adding he had no choice but to come to the U.S. to seek safety.
‘THE MOST RESILIENT PEOPLE YOU’VE EVER MET’
The Phoenix Restoration Project coordinates response for newly released migrants with other nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit groups.
Stancliff says his team of volunteers trains churches and private citizens how to take in migrants after their 2,700-mile journeys.
“They have to know that they are taking people who have been through a traumatic situation,” Stancliff said. “They want to make the people feel at home and let them know it’s fine to be off on their own.
“It’s a steep learning curve when a church steps in to do this work,” he said. “We see a shock at the beginning, and then getting used to how it works, and then settling into a smoother process.”
The migrants arrive tired and dehydrated, with sour stomachs acquired from diets of mostly ramen and other cheap foods, Stancliff said.
“We provide a community of welcome,” he added. “Their time in the United States has not been good. We tell people that we’re glad they’re here.”
The volunteer group caters to the migrants’ immediate needs, especially transportation. That includes ensuring they have a bus or plane ticket, or someone familiar arriving within a few days to pick up the migrants and take them to their next stop.
The volunteers know the migrants won’t stay with them for long.
“These are the most resilient people you’ve ever met,” Stancliff said. “They’ll make it on their way without you. They’ve made it this far and they will make it the rest of the way.”
The Restoration Project’s volunteers don’t ask the migrants about their past or if their asylum claims are legitimate.
Even if the migrants have no immediate plans following release from ICE detention, Stancliff claims the uncertainty is still better.
“They’re on their way to the possibility of receiving asylum in the United States, and they’re out of the horrible conditions in ICE detention,” he said. “They have some greater measure of freedom since they have been in ICE custody.”
Phoenix-based nonprofit One Hundred Angels has provided almost 7,000 migrants released from federal detention with medical assistance since it began working with churches in December.
“We are just looking to transform the physical, mental and spiritual health of humanity,” Cecilia Garcia, the group’s founder, told KTAR News.
One Hundred Angels CEO Yadira Torres told KTAR News that the group works to do as much as it can to improve the migrants’ conditions.
“Sometimes they have coughs, foot fungus, they have diarrhea, dehydration … and sometimes they have injuries from jumping the border — ankle sprains to broken bones to lacerations from the wires at the border,” Torres said.
A newly formed nonprofit is providing a different type of help.
The Last Mile AZ is putting together phone kits for migrants to take with them on their way to meet with family members across the United States.
The phone kits include a prepaid phone with about 60 minutes of talk time. There’s also a sheet with common English and Spanish phrases to help migrants communicate along the way, and an envelope with stamps so migrants can mail back the phones once they reach their destination.
THE FLOW WON’T STOP WITHOUT CHANGES IN THE LAW
There’s a loophole in the system, explained Lucero. ICE can’t detain migrants for longer periods.
“People know that and they’re coming across with a child or children… expecting to be released,” Lucero said. “Sometimes it’s a family friend or a relative acting as the mother or family.”
Border Patrol along the Arizona-Mexico border has recorded record-high encounters with family units seeking out agents, or showing up at ports of entry, seeking asylum.
In the last fiscal year, that increase was 273% in the Yuma sector and 230% in Tucson, according to the latest statistics released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on April 9.
The surge has trickled into communities across Arizona.
“We’re operating within the confines of the law,” said Lucero.
That would include how migrants are released into Arizona communities. They get three choices: accept transportation to a nonprofit shelter, accept transportation to a transit hub – ICE pays for the rides – or walk out of the detention center.
Releases are only allowed in daylight for safety reasons.
“We don’t serve the release paperwork at night so that no one is being released at two in the morning from a facility, or if they ask us to drop them off at a bus station,” Lucero said.
Nonprofits like the Restoration Project often claim they run out of resources to house migrants from time to time.
“On some days, we think we have organizations that can receive 200 [people],” Lucero said. “At the last minute, they have said, ‘We don’t have volunteers. We can’t take any.’”
The federal government is neither appropriated nor legally mandated to keep these migrants long term.
“Once we have served our release paperwork, and we give them conditions – show up to court, don’t break the law while you’re in the United States – at that moment they have signed the paperwork, ICE no longer has the legal authority to hold these individuals,” Lucero said.
He said he wants a change to immigration law, especially in regards to the Flores Agreement, the 1997 settlement which prevents family units from being detained for more than 20 days.
Lucero believes longer detention times would help federal agents.
“They only have so many computers, so many staff that can process individuals, and so they cannot process fast enough to get them to ICE for the agency to make a determination whether they’ll be sent to a family residential center, or be released on their own recognizance to go to court on a later date,” he said.
These new cases are added to the already heavy backlog of immigration cases federal judges have on their calendars. The most recent data available by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) showed more than 821,700 pending cases at the end of the first quarter for fiscal year 2019.
These include cases of removal, deportation and asylum.
Currently, there are 424 immigration judges nationwide. Nearly 50 of them were hired in the first quarter of 2019, according to the EOIR. More than 100 positions are currently open for immigration judges.
For the fiscal year 2020 budget, the Department of Justice requested $71.1 million for 100 additional immigration judges and support staff.
SHOULD STATE GOVERNMENT STEP IN TO HELP?
In the absence of congressional action to change the laws and court decisions that have led to the release of migrants into Arizona communities, nonprofits and other organizations have questioned whether the state should step up to help.
“What Border Patrol and ICE is doing in terms of surprising communities, dropping off asylum seekers and refugees with no forewarning, doing it at bus stops and random locations, is just no way to run a government,” Ducey told KTAR News in late March.
Ducey doesn’t think a permanent state-run shelter for migrants would be a good solution, because most only stay in Arizona for a few days, before meeting family members elsewhere in the U.S.
In the absence of statewide help for migrants, nongovernmental organizations are assisting.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Arizona opened a temporary day relief center.
“Our role has really been a safety net for folks, their families,” explained Jessica Berg, chief program officer for the center. “There’s kids without diapers, without shoes, and we’re trying to provide the hospitality piece so they can come here and get those basic needs met.”
St. Vincent de Paul is prepared to assist around 100 people a day in Phoenix.
Mesa pastor Magdalena Schwartz believes the city of Phoenix or the governor’s office should provide a facility to take care of migrants being dropped off at churches or at bus stations.
Schwartz said her network has housed more than 40,000 migrants since the fall while travel plans were being confirmed for them, which can take a few days. She said as many as 15 churches have been involved, but that’s down to 10 because resources are depleted.
“The federal government is not appropriated to house people that they have decided to release,” Lucero said. “Legally, we cannot.”