Two white buses with the Department of Homeland Security seal brought 30 migrant families, mostly from Guatemala, to a northwest Phoenix church Friday evening.
The smell of chicken soup, the sound of clapping and the faces of smiling parishioners welcomed the families to an outdoor stretch of grass where tables and chairs were set up for them to dine.
Wilder Jose, 4, lifted his eyes above the church building where he’d be sleeping with his dad on an air mattress. With his little hand soaked in chicken broth, he pointed to the bright moon on the southeast clear sky.
“Daddy, the moon!” he said in Spanish, and then resumed picking at the chicken with his hand while he held a rolled up tortilla in the other.
As the Casa de Oración #2 church on 21st Avenue and Union Hills Drive was accommodating these families, President Donald Trump railed about immigration during a campaign rally 50 miles away inside a hangar at the Mesa-Gateway Airport.
Thousands of Trump supporters pointed their phones to the Marine One helicopter carrying Trump and U.S. Rep. Martha McSally as it arrived at the rally venue. Once on stage, Trump urged them to send McSally to Congress and criticized the migrant caravan traveling through Central America and Mexico to reach the U.S.
“Right now, Mexico is… fighting some bad people in that group. You see the people come up and you listen to the fake news back there and you think they’re all wonderful people,” Trump told the crowd. “You got some bad people in those groups, you got some tough people in those groups and I’ll tell you what — this country doesn’t want them. We don’t want ‘em.”
Trump also took repeated jabs at Democrats, saying their views on immigration will bankrupt the country.
“As we speak, the Democratic Party is inviting millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our borders and overwhelm our nation,” he said.
‘We have plenty of space’
At the Phoenix church, Kenia Quezada, 25, went around the tables where the migrants sat. She got their basic information to fill a registration form. All week, she’s helped the families arrange their travel to meet with relatives, she said.
Quezada, who has a work permit and protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, said she sees herself and her family in the migrants who are arriving.
She said she admires the sense of hope migrants in the caravan from Central America have. Quezada said she thinks the country can welcome them in since communities are coming together to respond, help and house these families.
“We have plenty of space,” she said. “Give these people an opportunity. Have a heart, please, let these families come, let them. We will help. We are helping as much as we can. (Trump) has a community that are supporting these families, and he’s not alone in it if he was to give them a chance to come over here.”
Since Oct. 7, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been releasing families in coordination with community groups in the Phoenix-area and southern Arizona. A network of volunteers and churches in Phoenix have received over 350 families, according to estimates from two organizations involved. An ICE spokeswoman said the official tally is unavailable.
Trump: US can’t ‘throw them the hell out’
In Mesa, Trump also talked about the economy and the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but he kept coming back to immigration and border security, the issue that was at the center of his 2016 campaign for president.
“We have the greatest people, ICE, Border Patrol, law enforcement. And the law doesn’t allow us to throw (immigrants) the hell out, we have to take them, we have to write them up and then we say, come back in three years for a court case, and in the meantime, they’re released into our society,” Trump said. The crowd around him booed. “And you know what the percentage of people that come back for their case? Three percent. (…) It’s a disgrace.”
Inside a small play room at the church, Claudia Janet Cano Rivas, 24, sat next to her daughter, Sheily Alexandra, 5, who was building a house out of colorful small foam building blocks. Her little boy, Jeremy, 3, stood close by, watching other boys play with plastic bowling pins.
Cano Rivas wore a black brace around her right ankle.
She and the other migrant families ICE has been releasing are enrolled in a parole-like program called Alternative to Detention. Migrants are released with GPS ankle monitors and agree to terms of release, like in-person or telephonic check-ins and appearing in court. Cano Rivas was scheduled to check-in with an immigration officer on Oct. 30 in Minnesota, where a family friend was waiting for her and her two children to arrive.
More than 99 percent of migrants in the ATD program complied with court appearances from fiscal years 2011 through 2013, according to a review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014. An ICE director told a Senate committee in September that, while migrant families show up to court, when the court proceedings point to an apparent deportation outcome, about 28 percent of them abscond.
Cano Rivas, a single mother, said she left Guatemala because there she “feels completely alone.” As she talked about her 9-day journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, she began to cry and wipe the tears with her hands before they could roll down her cheeks.
“This journey here has been all suffering,” Cano Rivas said, and then pointed to her kids. “And they are suffering double what I am. They get tired more, and they feel the cold more.”
“I think, ‘Are they going to forgive me for all that I’ve put them through?’” she said. “But if we do have an opportunity in this country, I know that one day they’ll say, ‘Thank you, mommy, for fighting for us.’”
Her daughter turned five while they were on a bus in Mexico to the U.S. border, she said. She wants an Elsa birthday cake and an Olaf piñata, from the movie Frozen.
“Even if it takes me a while, I’ll look for the way,” Cano Rivas said.
Volunteer: Helping migrants is honoring God
In Mesa, Trump neared his closing remarks.
“We are one people, one family and one glorious nation under God,” he said.
God and her faith drew Janette Buhl to the Phoenix church Friday night. She drove there after her 10-hour shift as a nurse at a hospital in downtown Phoenix to tend to the medical needs of the newly-arrived migrants.
She wore a stethoscope around her neck and listened to parents inside a small play room with baby blue walls and toys.
Most were coming to her with symptoms from walking long distances without water, changes in diet and colds, she said.
Buhl, who lives in Mesa, said she decided to spend her Friday night at the church because her faith teaches her that everyone has value.
“As a Christian, I believe everyone is my brother, or sister, or cousin … and that I need to honor how God feels about that person,” Buhl said.
A few feet from her, energetic boys kicked around a soccer ball, and other children ran in between the metal fold-up chairs where fathers and mothers sat with a tired look on their face as the night moved past 10 p.m. But they weren’t going to cut their kids’ play time short — it was the first time in days the boys and girls got to be just children.
Buhl said others should seek to understand the migrant families around her beyond the labels ascribed to them by those seeking political power.
“This cute little four-month-old and the mom who has so much stress on her right now… and a dad who’s trying to hold it together… They’re human,” Buhl said.
Their presence shouldn’t be dismissed either, she added: “Whatever is put in front of you, you deal with it. You don’t wish it wasn’t here, you don’t turn your back.”