Good People Doing Good Work on the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands

Despite President Trump’s hard line immigration policies, or perhaps because of them, good people in our part of the world have stepped up to help migrants trapped by his cruelty and incompetence.   These efforts are chronicled in our recent visits to the migrant shelters, Casa Alitas in Tucson, and Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora.  In addition, a new guidebook, “Crossing South: Resources for People Returning to Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala,” helps the many people and families who have been forced to return to their native countries, either voluntarily or due to deportation.  Issued by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, the guidebook helps people prepare so they can make the uprooting and return as safely and simply as possible.

Casa Alitas

Casa Alitas is located in a remodeled juvenile detention building owned by Pima County and leased to Catholic Community Services; the new facility opened in August 2019. During the year of 2019 Casa Alitas helped support over 18000 asylum seekers connect with their sponsors across the United States.  We were greeted at the entrance by Diego Pina-Lopez and followed him into the long, open hallway set up today as a playroom for children. Most migrants arriving are parents with children and pregnant women who have left their home countries to escape violence and poverty.  Diego oversees the daily operations at the shelter in addition to studying at the University of Arizona College of Public Health. He explains that lately about 65% of the migrants are from Guatemala, 20% of whom speak only an indigenous Mayan dialect.  All of them have completed the long, difficult and dangerous journey from their homelands up through Mexico to arrive at different checkpoints across the 2000 mile border.

In Nogales families have waited for weeks to apply to the U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities for an asylum hearing. ICE provides them with documentation and orders to report for an immigration hearing and then drops off the families at Casa Alitas, sometimes as many as 150 per day. The shelter provides the families with a safe place to care for their children, food and water, and rest from the arduous journey.

This morning part of the hallway has been converted into a children’s playroom, a place to be happy once again.

This morning part of the hallway has been converted into a children’s playroom, a place to be happy once again, Diego explains.  Kids are encouraged to draw something they love and the walls are covered with thank you notes to Casa Alitas and nostalgic drawings of home villages they have left behind.  “We care for people” Diego states emphatically. The Center is staffed by 600 active volunteers, including many Snowbirds in the winter months from out of state.  About 150 people come in to work in shifts every week.  Casa Alitas provides showers, a change of clothes, and laundry.  We were introduced to Katie Hirshboek, retired University of Arizona faculty, who coordinates the Casa Alitas laundry facilities.  Katie explains that migrants arrive wearing clothes that have seen them through the journey and sleeping on the streets of Nogales.  Each family selects clean sets of clothing from racks labelled in Spanish and English donated by the Tucson community and from across the United States. Donations are usually needed for children 5-12 years old, girls especially, and shoes in small sizes. Clean clothes, a shower and warm meal are all part of the care provided by shelter volunteers.

The services provided also includes health care. We enter the medical clinic and met Dr. Timothy Dormer.  The clinic is staffed by volunteers who treat minor illness; colds, respiratory infections, asthma, lice, torn and bruised feet and hands, malnutrition from lack of adequate food and clean water, and stress-related symptoms.  Dr. Dormer notes that nursing moms are often unable to produce adequate milk and both moms and infants need supplemental nourishment. Diego recounted an incident when a pregnant woman needed a caesarian section to deliver and he frantically texted for help while Googling the procedure until the ambulance arrived.  Kent is especially interested in why Dr. Dormer volunteers.  “I am retired,” he replies.  “That is how you have the time,” Kent says.  “But why did you decide to spend it this way?”  Dr. Dormer relies, “I am a physician and people need my help.” That explains the Casa Alitas credo and values in a nutshell. The Tucson community’s compassion and willingness to help needy people is truly uplifting.

Casa Alitas is building new partnerships, for example with the University of Arizona College of Nursing where they are working to provide wellness checks for each child so they can make certain that the children are healthy and are up to date with the required immunizations for school once they get to their State-side destinations.

Our final stop is the travel office where Diego shows us a rack of bus tickets to the family’s final destination to a sponsor where they will live as they pursue their immigration process.  Most often the sponsor is a family member or a friend from their home community.  He shows us a ticket for a Guatemalan family to New York with multiple stops along the way.  “We include a note with our phone numbers in case they get lost, stranded or need help.”  Diego is a remarkable person himself.  A second-generation immigrant, he can personally identify with the migrants passing through Casa Alitas. His commitment to the philosophy of Casa Alitas is unmistakable.

The bad news today is Trump’s new Migrant Protection Protocols that require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearing instead of with sponsors in the United States. Today, migrants arriving in Arizona are returned to Nogales, Sonora and must take a number and wait often for weeks or months.   When their number is called, they present themselves to the US Customs and Border Protection. Many are sent back to Mexico to make an additional journey to a court hearing which takes place in El Paso, Texas.  This means they have to cross the border from Juarez, Chihuahua, a journey from Nogales, Sonora of almost 300 miles over dangerous territory. Trump’s motive is to discourage migrants from seeking their legal right to apply for asylum so that they will return to their home countries.  In the meantime, while Casa Alitas now is seeing fewer people, the migrant shelters in Nogales, Sonora are flooded with desperate families. For the moment Casa Alitas will be exploring how its infrastructure and resources can be deployed to provide help where help is needed. The Tucson community can assist in many ways and is encouraged to step forward now as it has in the past.

Our next post will feature the Kino Border Initiative’s response with new shelter facilities in Nogales, Sonora.


Learn more: Casa Alitas and the Humanitarian effort. Citations courtesy of Bryna Koch, MPH.

Ingram, Paul. 2019. Tucson Border Patrol bypassing ICE in releasing migrant families. Tucson Sentinel.

Jordan, Miriam. 2019. A Migrant Family Takes a Greyhound Across America. New York Times.

Trejo, J. and Trejo, M. 2019. Central American migration is about more than economics. Arizona Daily Star.

U.S. Immigration Policy

Pew Research Center (2015). Selected U.S. Immigration Legislation and Executive Actions, 1890-2014.

Pew Research Center (2015). Selected U.S. Immigration Legislation and Executive Actions, 1890-2014, Appendix B: Immigration Law Timeline

Misra, T. (2016) The Rise of Crimmigration.

Garcia Hernandez, C. (2018). Deconstructing Immigration.

Chisti, M, Hipsman F, and Ball I. (2015) Fifty Years On, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Continues to Reshape the United States.

Massey, D, and Pren K, (2012). Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-196 Surge from Latin America.

NPR Fresh Air. (2019). Eugenics, Anti-Immigration Laws Of The Past Still Resonate Today, Journalist Says.