Amid refugee crisis, volunteers show what truly makes America great

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, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

There’s an army of angels in communities across the Southwest who are doing what they can to welcome the newest strangers to our strange land.

It’s a grassroots, humanitarian reaction to the nightmare being lived by the thousands of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the kind of response that reminds us of what Americans should stand for, even when our government falls short.

Since the fall, federal immigration authorities have been detaining refugees and other migrants, mostly from Central America, and dumping them – there’s really no other way to describe it – in church and bus station parking lots in cities and towns across the Southwest.

Kudos to the journalists at various news outlets for diligently tracking these developments and shining a light on the poor and sometimes downright cruel treatment of the migrants by federal immigration authorities.

The real praise, however, goes to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volunteers offering up their time, in some cases their homes, to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, and even emotional or spiritual comfort to the migrants.

As the Mirror’s Laura Gómez recently reported: “In Phoenix, a network of churches and small Hispanic congregations, along with non-profits and refugee resettlement agencies, have helped welcome thousands of migrant families.”

Gómez adds that similar work is underway in Tucson and Yuma, and other communities in Texas, California and New Mexico. In a growing trend, local governments have begun stepping up to help address the crisis by opening city and county facilities as shelters or providing other assistance, though, as Gómez reports, “similar support” by the City of Phoenix and Maricopa County is “nonexistent.”

In Mesa, Magdalena Schwartz, an evangelical pastor, is among those leading local efforts to help the migrants. The Arizona Republic’s John D’Anna recently reported on Schwartz as she addressed to a roomful of church volunteers, “We know we do this with all our hearts. It’s not my mission, it’s God’s mission. We need to be one spirit, united … because when you serve people who are hungry, thirsty, scared and sad, you serve Jesus.”

At a community forum hosted this week by Uncage Reunite Families Coalition, a Phoenix-based nonprofit, long-time activist Roberto Reveles echoed the pastor’s sentiments. He recalled how Schwartz reached out to him last October. “She called to tell me that busloads of immigrants were being delivered to her church parking lot. She asked if I could help. So, I went. It was a beautiful but sad sight to see fellow human beings with children in their arms seeking refuge in a country they had never visited before, hearing a language they were unfamiliar with. But we welcomed them. We welcomed them because all of the major faiths that we profess harken us to welcome the stranger among us.”

Over the past few months, Reveles said he’s thought a lot about what’s behind the crisis. Reveles agrees with those who say much of the violence and poverty that’s forced so many Central Americans to flee north is partly rooted in the decades of U.S. military interventions in the region. Central America, like Mexico, is also a staging ground for brutal international trafficking rings and well-armed street gangs who make billions from the sale of illicit drugs to U.S. consumers.

Yet, Reveles said he can’t help but ask if the Trump Administration is actively politicizing the issue by offering up policies intended to worsen the chaos at the border to maintain support with the far-right xenophobes who make up much of his base.

The answer to Reveles’ question is unequivocal, “Yes.” Among a slew of ill-conceived policies Trump has proposed or implemented in recent years – the worst being the forced separation of migrant children from their parents – the president has also threatened to detain refugee families at the border and then ship across the country to “sanctuary cities” led by Democrats.

Mary Joe Miller, executive director of Refugee Aid, also spoke at the forum. She described conditions faced by the detained migrants, some of whom had to walk more than 2,000 miles to make it here from Central America.

Miller said migrant families are being held in bare bones border facilities for several days at a time. Many are kept, at least temporarily, at Border Patrol outposts, metal buildings with concrete floors. The buildings are unheated in winter and kept ice cold in summer, according to Border Patrol officials, to keep germs from growing, said Miller.

“In some cases, there’s no room to lay down, and people have been forced to stand for more than 24 hours, keeping their children under their arms so they wouldn’t be crushed,” said Miller. “There may be one toilet and no sink, with no wall around the toilet, no privacy.”

The migrants are given a single foil “blanket” to protect against the elements, Miller said, and they’re typically fed noodles three times a day and provided one bottle of water person per day. In one instance, said Miller, a mother and her two-year old child were held in a fenced, makeshift, open-air compound for three days under the international bridge in El Paso.

The woman and child were later transferred to a federal immigration facility in Phoenix, then handed over to local church volunteers, who, as they have for thousands of others in recent months, fed, clothed and welcomed them as strangers among us.

Note: James E. Garcia is a former volunteer communications coordinator for Uncage Reunite Families Coalition.

James E. Garcia is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.


  1. I have been hosting families. One of the common experiences has been that they are robbed in Mexico by Federal Officers, police and gangs. Some are robbed as they hold their children in their arms to protect them. Why isn’t Mexico stopping this crime? It seems to be common practice that has gone on for years and tolerated as, “modida” a forced fee to pass through Mexico collected by the officials who are supposed to protected the citizens.

    Where does the new Mexican president stand on this?
    Irene Chavez


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