‘It’s a crisis’ as ICE releases hundreds of migrant families in Phoenix




More than 20 migrant families from Central America were dropped off at a Phoenix church by in a Department of Homeland Security bus the night of Tuesday, October 9. Overwhelmed by the surge of migrant families coming to Arizona’s border, immigration officials are relying on community groups to help accommodate the families and make travel arrangements in the U.S. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Tuesday night was a first for Pastor Angel Campos.

His Phoenix church had never accommodated migrant families just released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and in need of a place to stay.

The congregation of mostly immigrants at Monte Vista Baptist Church mobilized Tuesday afternoon to feed, clothe, house and welcome about 44 people, all families from Central America.

“Just how these people are coming, one day that was us, too,” said Laura Leyva, who’s lived in Phoenix for 18 years. “We have been blessed in this country, and we have to share the blessings God has given us.”

Immigration officials in Arizona began releasing migrant families on Oct. 7, said ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe. A surge of families coming to the border has limited the government’s capacity to hold them without infringing on limits on how long minors can remain in ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol custody, she said.

Mesa Pastor Magdalena Schwartz and Leah Sarat of the Phoenix Restoration Project are both assisting in finding accommodations for migrant families with their respective networks of volunteers. Both commended ICE for working with community groups to accommodate the families.

“We’re grateful that they’ve trusted some of the churches,” Sarat said.

Schwartz said she’s grateful and relieved immigration officials are not separating these families, as they did this summer under the now-defunct zero tolerance policy that resulted in the separation of almost 2,600 children from their parents. Many of those families were seeking asylum.

Still, taking in these families is an overwhelming task, Schwartz said.

Besides the essential needs, volunteers are helping migrants connect with family members and consular representatives in the U.S. and get on a flight or bus to relatives around the country who are expecting them.  

Several of the children arrived Tuesday night at the Phoenix church with coughs and fevers.

Ashley Maria
Ashley Maria, a Guatemalan migrant, peeks through empty water bottles at a Phoenix church on Tuesday, October 9. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Ashley Maria’s tiny curls rested on her mother’s forearm as she drank purple cough syrup. Earlier, she had arrived to the church parking lot, wide-eyed, held up in her mom’s arms. Her mother, Maria Acevedo, 38,  looked tired and anxious Tuesday night, her gaze blank as she sat with her three-year-old daughter at her side. Acevedo used her fingers to pop the bubble wrap that bagged the charger and extra battery of her GPS ankle monitor.

“I’m thinking that I have to start working. And about my son who I left there,” Acevedo said. She said she left Guatemala because she had received threats from criminal groups. At the church, Acevedo and her daughter had been able to bathe and change into clean clothes. A red bow was clipped to Ashley Maria’s damp curly hair. Acevedo said she’s happy to be in the U.S., but doesn’t know how she’ll fare.  

“We came lawfully, and it will be up to the law to decide if we stay,” she said.

ICE: Migrant surge and holding constraints to continue

As midnight approached on Tuesday, Schwartz, Campos and two other volunteers were sifting through the migrants’ transportation paperwork, which needs to be documented.  

Wednesday was going to be even busier, as ICE officials told Schwartz it plans to release another 100 families.

“It’s a crisis,” Schwartz said, adding that the communities in are up to the task.

By the time the week is over, Sarat said she expects about 170 families will have arrived in Phoenix after being released from ICE custody.

Groups in Tucson have also seen larger group of migrant families being released, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

Monte Vista Baptist Church
Volunteers of the Monte Vista Baptist Church mobilized to bring in clothes, shoes, food, hygiene products, medicines and toys for the more than 20 migrant families who arrived there Tuesday, October 9. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Pitts O’Keefe, from ICE, said officials expect the high volume of migrants being released to continue.

“After decades of inaction by Congress, the government remains severely constrained in its ability to detain and promptly remove families that have no legal basis to remain in the United States,” Pitts O’Keefe said in a statement. “As a result, family units continue to cross the border at high volumes and are likely to continue to do so, as they face no consequence for their actions.”

ICE’s statement mirrors language Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen used a month ago, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed changes to do away with court limits on detention of child migrants.

“Today, legal loopholes significantly hinder the Department’s ability to appropriately detain and promptly remove family units that have no legal basis to remain in the country,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement to several media outlets. “This rule addresses one of the primary pull factors for illegal immigration and allows the federal government to enforce immigration laws as passed by Congress.”

While HHS, under the purview of its Office for Refugee Resettlement, has over 100 facilities where it houses minors who migrated without their parents or separated children under the now-defunct zero tolerance policy, there are only three family residential centers with a combined capacity of about 3,000 beds, the Washington Post reported. DHS asked for space to house 12,000 beds for families and another 20,000 beds for unaccompanied minors, according to the AP.

Ana Sofia
Ana Sofia, 5, from Honduras holds a purple sweater her mother picked for her out of a pile of donated clothes at a Phoenix church. She is among the hundreds of families in Arizona that are being released from immigration custody to community groups in the Phoenix and Tucson area. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Arizona’s border arrests double

Between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 5 of this year, Border Patrol has arrested 45,704 unaccompanied children and 90,563 family units, which are parents traveling with their kids. While these figures represent a nationwide increase of 19 percent increase for unaccompanied minors and 27 percent increase for families from fiscal year 2017, Arizona’s border has seen its numbers more than double.

Arizona’s souther border includes two Border Patrol sectors — Yuma, which covers 126 miles from the Imperial Sand Dunes in California to the Yuma-Pima County line; and Tucson, which covers rest of the 262 border miles east to New Mexico-Arizona border.

In the Yuma sector, arrests of unaccompanied children between Oct. 1, 2017 and Aug. 31 doubled from 2,534 to 5,060 since the same period year last year; this area saw a 128 percent increase in arrest of migrant families, from 5,429 to 12,367.

In the Tucson sector, unaccompanied minors arrested increased 40 percent, while the family unit arrests doubled.

Border Patrol has reported that several hundreds of migrant families have been arrested in recent days in an area west of the Lukeville Port of Entry.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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