Community Volunteers Provide Vital Services to Current Wave of Asylum-Seekers Arriving at U.S.-Mexico Border

Interview with Katherine Smith, site manager of the Monastery shelter in Tucson, Arizona, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Migrant families from Central America and southern Mexico have been arriving in record numbers on the U.S.-Mexico border, fleeing from violence and the impact of climate change on their agricultural communities, where severe and ongoing drought has killed crops and stolen livelihoods. 
The crush of migrants around El Paso, Texas led immigration authorities to force those detained to sleep under a bridge with nothing but aluminum space blankets to cover them on frigid nights. Some of those families were later transported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE – to a beautiful former monastery in Tucson, Arizona, where they joined hundreds of other families recuperating and getting prepared for the next leg of their journey to sponsors all across the United States.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spent nine days in Tucson and south across the border into Nogales, Mexico, speaking to asylum-seekers and the people who are supporting them to learn firsthand about a microcosm of the migrant crisis. She walked migrant trails in the desert, visited shelters and communal kitchens, and volunteered for three days at the Monastery, where she spoke with Katherine Smith, site coordinator of the Monastery shelter. The shelter is run by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona after it took over a much smaller operation known as Casa Alitas that was launched in 2014. The monastery was purchased by a developer, who is currently allowing immigrants to use the space for free, paying all utility bills, for the next few months.
KATHERINE SMITH: So these are all people who are seeking asylum in the U.S., and they are processed by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and they’ve passed a credible fear interview, which is to say they have a fear of returning to their home country, and they also are kind of in this lucky group of people that have a U.S. sponsor. And they’re released on humanitarian parole, which is six months’ permission to be in the U.S., and in that six months they will have ICE check-ins, and from there they will give them a court date, a hearing, and that’s when they start their asylum case, and from there it could be denied right away or it could go on for months with a lawyer and things like that.
BETWEEN THE LINES: This is my third day that I’ve been here for part or all of the day. On Sunday, there was hardly anyone here, and then yesterday there were already some people and then 90 more people came, and I heard today 100 more are coming. Most of the people yesterday were from Guatemala. Is there a pattern? Are they mostly from Guatemala, or does it change day by day?
KATHERINE SMITH: No, I’ve been here for a year-and-a-half and I would say that for the majority of my time, it’s been mainly Central Americans and people coming from Central America, with the majority being from Guatemala and within that, probably around 40 percent of the people coming from Guatemala are coming from indigenous communities. Then it’s people from Honduras, El Salvador, southern Mexico.
BETWEEN THE LINES: That’s been my experience, just talking to people. So, this seems incredibly well organized. And my understanding is that going from a couple of houses, and I guess there were some hotel rooms, too, to this space, you set it all up in a couple of days?
KATHERINE SMITH: Yes. I was even out of town when we moved in here, but I knew that we had access to this space – a huge, beautiful old monastery – and we were thinking of setting up for a week and making sure everything was ready to receive people, and then we got notice there’s a large amount of people, and if you don’t take them right now we’re going to send them to the streets or to the Greyhound bus station. So, in two days they pretty much set up everything. The community has stepped up so much. Obviously, 99.9 percent of everyone here is a volunteer, and you see so many people coming throughout the day. But it was, yes, a very large undertaking to set everything up.
BETWEEN THE LINES: So, tell me, what are the services people can get while they’re here?
KATHERINE SMITH: Yeah, so, right away, after we welcome people and explain to them where they are, we will offer them right away just water and fruit, if they are coming dehydrated, to get some liquids in their system. And then right away we will start with a medical screening, and that’s with nurses and doctors who are here every day. So we’ll do a check in to see if there are serious medical issues; if there are we will take them to the actual doctor’s office, and from there if they do need to go to the hospital we take them to the hospital. So the main thing at first is medical care. And from there is the service of connecting them with their family members.
A lot of people are coming without money and without phones; we’ll bridge that gap of communication and help them connect with their families, their sponsors. And then, obviously, serve three meals a day. There’s always food available, always coffee. And we’ll offer them new clothes. They’re donated clothes, but they can pick a new pair of clothes, to them – shoes, belts. We’ll offer them shampoo, conditioner, Chapstick, lotion, different toiletries like that. And then, obviously, a room. Sometimes they’ll be sleeping on a cot in a larger room, but at least a bed and a blanket.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Better than they had under the bridge in El Paso.
KATHERINE SMITH: Yes, and you can just see people are coming so tired, and not necessarily dirty, but just worn out, wearing the same clothes for weeks on end, super chapped lips, and just really wanting a shower. And I think a lot of that is on purpose, too. A lot of what we’ve (the government) set up against migrants is dehumanizing. A lot of the system is dehumanizing.
And so to be able for them, yeah, they may be sleeping on a cot here, but from where they’re coming from, they can regain that humanity, and help us sweep, and help us cook in the kitchen, and things that help them feel like a person again, because at home those are the things they would be doing.
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