Local organizations, including one in Green Valley, are helping clothe and feed hundreds of asylum seekers dropped off by ICE agents at bus stations and churches over the past three months across the Southwest, including in Tucson.
Overcrowded federal detention facilities and a spike in arrivals have prompted ICE to release hundreds of immigrants to non-profit groups or to simply drop them at bus stations.
“There’s so much going on, it’s absolutely non-stop,” said Shura Wallin, co-founder of Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans.
The frequent releases have strained faith and other non-profit organizations, who are providing necessities while attempting to contact sponsors or relatives of migrants so they have a place to stay while awaiting for an immigration hearing.
Many of those at the shelters were granted asylum status after requesting it at the border. Others were picked up after crossing the border illegally and were processed under Operation Streamline.
Operation Streamline tries dozens of immigrants at once, with about 70 percent nationwide being deported. Those who make asylum requests and can establish a credible fear of returning home are given a date for immigration court and released.
Most of those now crossing the border are from Central America, according to the Samaritans, who often watch Operation Streamline proceedings in Tucson.
“The chance of getting asylum is very slim, but being safe during the appeals may make it worth a try,” said GVS Samaritan Katrina Schumacher.
Schumacher said that around 75 migrants appear in the Tucson courtroom four days each week, with about half to two-thirds coming from Central America.
The nation rejection rate is about 70 percent, reports show. Tucson is in that range.
Those awaiting an asylum hearing with children can’t be held at government detention facilities for long. Furthermore, many third-party companies that had been housing migrants have not had their contracts extended, meaning ICE has nowhere to house detainees. All this results in ICE releasing them into communities, often with little advance notice. About 800 were released in Arizona in October.
Once they are released, aid groups work to provide basic items and shelter while the migrants attempt to find a place to stay while awaiting processing, which can take years.
Barb Lemmon, a retired nurse who has been with the Samaritans since 2010, recalled a case where she helped two trans women who were fleeing violence go through the asylum process.
It took them two years for their cases to be finished, and they were lucky it was that quick, she said.
“It’s a very long, drawn-out process,” she said. More than 800,000 cases are pending in the system, she said. ”It’s gonna be a long time.”
The Samaritans are doing their part by bringing food and other critical items for the families, including toys for the children.
“They are confused, exhausted and haven’t been eating well,” Lemmon said.
When the migrants arrive, they often have a backpack of items at best, Lemmon said. The groups donate warm clothes, including coats and gloves, since many of the migrants are traveling to meet family in places like Minnesota and the East Coast.
They make sure they have changes of clothes and that they get showers and rest after they get to the churches-turned-shelters.
“Those 24 to 36 hours are really hectic,” Lemmon said. “All of it happens very fast.”
The Samaritans and other groups also make sure the migrants have food for their trip, especially since the journeys often take several days and the migrants have already been traveling for long periods with little food.
The Samaritans do what they can to prepare the migrants and their sponsors for what comes next, making sure they understand when and where the next court date is and how to navigate bus routes and transfers to arrive at their destination.
“The bus tickets are about four feet long with all the different stops and transfers in English,” Lemmon said. “Most of them can’t read and don’t speak the language. That must be scary.”
The aid groups help the asylum seekers because of the situations they face back home, Wallin said.
“They have no options,” she said. “These are people who will be killed if they are sent back home.”
Wallin recalled a man she met recently who was seeking asylum. He told her both of his arms had been cut off and an eye gouged out after he had refused to carry drugs for MS-13, the notorious gang responsible for much of the violence so many are fleeing.
“When you look at situations like that, you can’t help but think, “What would I do if I were in that spot?'” Wallin said. “It gives you a perspective you can’t have unless you go to the border and see these people, talk to them and learn and understand what they have been through.”
The Samaritans plan to provide meals twice a week to Casa Alitas, which is aiding asylum-seeking families.
Lemmon said the “inhumanity and cruelty” of the situation is frustrating and shows the entire immigration system needs to be reformed.
“These people aren’t invaders, they aren’t coming to take anything,” she said. “They are just people that need help. They are fleeing violence, and they are climate refugees. Crops are failing and people are hungry. And a wall isn’t going to do a thing to help,” she said.
Wallin said she has been working to help immigrants for nearly 20 years but can’t remember a time when things were worse than they are now.
“The depths that this has sunk to is stunning,” she said. “The hypocrisy, the ‘holier-than-thou’ attitudes you see now are really distressing.”
Although her group and others are stretched to the limit, with more migrants applying for asylum and being released by ICE nearly every day, they aren’t quitting.
“All these groups have really been stepping up to the plate,” Wallin said. “We are not backing down, we’re going to continue doing what we can to help these folks any way we can.”
“It’s up to us to speak out and speak up, and we will help these people who have absolutely nothing.”
Andrew Paxton | 520-547-9747