Volunteers blast Phoenix council for lack of action on migrant families releases

By: - June 6, 2019 9:15 pm

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Two Phoenix residents this week warned the city council that there could be an emergency with the release of thousands of migrant families as summer temperatures rise and an ad hoc volunteer network that sprang up last fall is beginning to falter due to the heavy workload.

During the public comment period on Wednesday’s city council meeting, Carolyn O’Connor and Sarah Eary blasted the city leaders for their lack to provide meaningful assistance in the eight months that faith-based, nonprofit and volunteer networks have worked to support migrant mothers, fathers, and children released by federal immigration agents.

“We volunteers are exhausted,” O’Connor said. She co-directs the Uncage and Reunite Coalition, a group that came together last summer to denounce the separation of migrant families.

O’Connor added that, in recent days, immigration officials have left groups of migrant families on the side of a street in Phoenix.

“This is a fatality waiting to happen,” she said.

Leary told the council she has been working with Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest since January, and said she hopes her statement will be a “wake up call.”

“It is by God’s grace alone that we have not had fatalities in this community,” Leary said. “We are weeks away from an emergency. It’s time that you help us.”

Since October, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement has partnered with churches and nonprofits in the Phoenix area to release large groups of migrant families. The migrants, mostly coming from Central America to seek asylum in the U.S., have been processed by border and immigration officials.

After being released from custody, they need assistance arranging travel elsewhere in the country, where they’ll meet family or friends and begin their immigration cases in court.

The churches and nonprofits have pooled resources and worked with volunteers to offer the migrants a place to sit, eat, bathe and change their clothes. They have mostly done this work without any support from city, county or state governments.

O’Connor’s and Leary’s statements echo calls from faith leaders and other nonprofits who have asked for government partners since March. They have made requests for a government-owned space where migrants can sleep overnight, or for funding to support the organizations.  

So far, no meaningful help has been secured, though there’s been several meetings.

“It’s just meetings and we don’t get anywhere,” said Magdalena Schwartz, who leads a coalition of pastors in Phoenix and the East Valley. “I don’t know why they don’t want to help.”

Now some churches are dropping out of the volunteer network because they can’t afford to continue the work, said Schwartz and Connie Phillips, president of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.  

“We are truly weeks away from seeing a really severely diminished capacity to do this humanitarian work,” Phillips told Arizona Mirror.

Higher utility bills and vehicle maintenance are among the costs churches can’t afford, Schwartz said.

In a statement, Mayor Kate Gallego said the groups involved with helping the migrant families “deserve immense credit” and the city “is actively engaging” with them.

“The city is bringing people together to help study this complex issue and we are developing solutions that will benefit everyone in our community,” Gallego said.

Spokeswoman Annie DeGraw said the solutions considered are in the “nascent stages” and declined to detail what they could entail. Some of the churches involved have worked weekly for more than eight months on the issue and their leaders have ideas for what solutions could look like.

Cities in other border states, including San Antonio and El Paso in Texas and Las Cruces, New Mexico, have stepped up by setting aside funds and staff support or opening city-owned spaces to the migrants families.

According to ICE, between Dec. 21 and May 21, it has released 32,500 migrant family members in Arizona, mostly in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma.

DeGraw said several staff from the Mayor’s Office and other municipal departments have met and talked with groups and individuals involved in assisting migrant families.  

Gallego also said this local immigration issue is caused by a “direct reflection of inaction on the part of the federal government.”

“Washington, D.C., continues to turn a blind eye to this crisis, as cities and states are left to deal with the damage caused by their inability to address the situation,” Gallego said in her statement. “We will continue to talk with our community partners and work to find solutions for this crisis.”

For months, ICE has said a surge of families coming to the border is straining the government’s capacity to hold those groups without infringing on limits on how long minors can remain in the custody of ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

Gallego added the network of heat relief stations, which are places where people can get water, air conditioned spaces and emergency heat relief centers, are open to all, regardless of immigration status.

Responding to a proposal that one 24/7 heat relief centers be used to receive migrant families, Ed Zuercher, the city manager, said it wouldn’t be practical since those centers are small and scattered.

“It doesn’t overlap with their mission,” he said.

Zuercher also placed the blame on the federal government and said the city doesn’t have a responsibility to address the issue.

“This is not a local issue, this is a federal issue,” he said, and added that city staff has participated in meetings with groups involved to keep tabs on the issue.

Zuercher said Phoenix doesn’t have facilities that are empty and equipped to house large groups of people like the groups have asked.

“We don’t have room to displace things for something else,” he said.

Councilman Michael Nowakowski, one of four Latinos on the city council, said city leaders are putting pressure on the federal government. He said a solution could be to get immigration officials to make travel arrangements for the migrants before releasing them, allowing for the families to be taken directly to the airport or bus station.

ICE has said for months that it does not have the capacity to help the migrants make travel arrangements, something it routinely did prior to the surge beginning in late 2018.   

Nowakowski, who has been in office since 2008, said the two new Phoenix council members, Carlos Garcia and Betty Guardado, could help form a stronger coalition on council to push a partnership with the faith and nonprofit groups.

Garcia and Guardado are political newcomers who were sworn into office Thursday morning.

Guardado said she is familiar with the needs the volunteer organizations have and the work they have done. She added that, as a newly-minted councilmember, she still doesn’t know what the city has done or could do to respond to community concerns.

Garcia also said he needs to understand what city resources could be made available, but he agreed Phoenix needs to be a partner in the response.  

“I think it’s a crisis, and for whatever reason, it’s landed on us. As a city, we can step up,” Garcia said.

He added that it is an opportunity of the city to leave a mark on the newly arrived migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum in the U.S.

“We are given the opportunity to give them the first impression of this country, and it’s an opportunity we should take,” Garcia said.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Elementary School District is looking to lease a closed school building to the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement organization in Phoenix also involved in helping the groups of migrant families, The Arizona Republic reported. The old Ann Ott School near 14th and Durango streets is the space being considered, and the agreement has not been finalized, said district spokeswoman Sara Bresnahan.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.