On Saturday, an elementary school in south-central Phoenix opened its doors to children for the first time since it closed in 2007. But instead of kids with backpacks and fresh back-to-school haircuts, it was a group of migrant children, mothers and fathers from Mexico and Honduras who stepped off a U.S. Department of Homeland Security bus and through the doors of the former Ann Ott School.
The group of 30 migrants, who recently arrived at the U.S-Mexico border (many to seek asylum), were the first to arrive in Phoenix’s first centralized shelter for migrant families, dubbed the “Welcome Center.” The new shelter is run by the International Rescue Committee of Phoenix, a non-profit organization that provides resettlement services to refugees.
The shelter currently has capacity for about 70 people. By the end of the summer, it’s expected to hold nearly 280 people.
The new site is a relief for a network of volunteers, churches and small Hispanic congregations that have been working to feed, clothe and offer a place to rest for thousands of migrant families since October. That’s when U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement began to release hundreds of migrants daily to community groups.
At times, when the churches were at capacity, ICE dropped off the families on the street near the Greyhound bus station, prompting safety and medical concerns among community groups.
The number of families released has slowed down for the summer months, according to figures provided by ICE. Between July 1 and July 22, ICE released 500 family members to groups in Arizona. That’s in stark contrast with the spring, when immigration officials released 9,200 migrant parents and their children in Arizona between March 5 and April 8 – a span of 34 days.
From Dec. 21 to July 22, ICE estimates that it released a total of 40,500 family members to Arizona groups mostly in the Yuma, Tucson and Phoenix areas.
The community groups in Arizona help the migrant families arrange travel within a couple of days to meet with their relatives or sponsors elsewhere in the country. The migrants are released with a court date to begin their deportation or asylum cases, or have an appointment with immigraiton officials.
‘Your community is so much richer than you realized’
The new facility was entirely funded through private donations.
“The generous outpouring of support that makes the Welcome Center possible demonstrates the strong desire of Arizonans to make asylum-seekers welcome,” said Aaron Rippenkroeger, executive director for the IRC in Arizona. “We look forward to working with our partners to provide humanitarian assistance to these families in need.”
For six years, Leah Sarat has worked assisting migrants released from federal custody. Sarat is part of the Phoenix Restoration Project, one of the main community organizations that has worked with ICE to coordinate migrant drop-offs.
Standing in the old cafeteria, which now serves as a welcome area, Sarat said the new center is wonderful and beyond what she thought was possible in Phoenix. At the same time, she’s not surprised it’s a reality.
“What I’ve seen through this work is that this is really an opportunity for us to realize how much love and connection we are capable of,” Sarat said.
She said those opposed to the work Phoenix Restoration Project does often have two arguments: First, that there’s not enough resources to help foreigners and therefore help should go first to U.S. citizens, and second, that it’s unsafe to work with migrants.
She has hosted dozens of migrants in her home, lent them money, and always felt safe, she explained.
“Because there’s been so many donations, and so much material support and time support from volunteers, my sense of my own safety and my sense of my own abundance of living in this place has increased, rather than decreased,” Sarat said. “Rather than taking away resources… You suddenly realize that your community is so much richer than you realized when everyone was more locked into individualist thinking.”
A place to serve
The school’s former nurse’s room is now the medical office for One Hundred Angels, where trained volunteers provide basic medical attention to migrants. One Hundred Angels is a non-profit organization that provides medics to sites receiving migrant families in the Phoenix-area.
The volunteer medics have serviced about 13,000 people since late December in 31 sites throughout the Valley, said Cecilia Garcia, founder of One Hundred Angels.
Garcia said having a permanent space will bring stability to their work. More importantly, she said she sees the new center as a place for growth in the community.
“Our community also needs a place to serve and grow, to create a better world,” Garcia said.
“These children are an opportunity to create change. Every person who experiences what it is to give is already a gain.”
The group is fundraising to hire a full-time staff to work at the new Welcome Center, as they’ll continue to assist other organizations receiving migrant families.
Partnership with school district
The IRC leases the school building from the Phoenix Elementary School District.
The cafeteria was transformed into a welcome area, where families can sit and eat, and some classrooms will be turned into bedrooms. Other classrooms will be used for legal consultations, a non-denominational chapel, and other services provided by other community partners.
The old elementary school in south-central Phoenix closed in 2007 when the City of Phoenix acquired the surrounding lots for sound mitigation purposes for the Sky Harbor International Airport, and displaced neighbors.
Since then, the space served as a storage area for the Phoenix Elementary School district.
IRC will pay the district $500 a month in rent, according to the lease. The district will pay for the repairs it takes to keep the building in compliance with the fire code. The IRC will also pay for the time district employees spend cleaning, repairing or maintaining the new shelter. The non-profit is also responsible for paying most of the repair, maintenance and utility costs.