For more than two weeks a network of Valley churches and community groups have called on the state government and the city of Phoenix to assist their work of receiving migrant families released from federal custody. Government leaders haven’t stepped up with a plan.
“I hope we can knock on their doors, with prudence,” said Elias Garcia, pastor of Alfa y Omega Church in central Phoenix. Charity groups want the state or city to provide a temporary shelter with beds and showers, and they’ll supply food, clothes and hands to help.
But for Garcia, help from local and state government could look different.
A letter of support from the city, his city council member or police would go a long way, he said. That would recognize, and in a way legitimize, the work he and his congregation have done for six months. With that, Garcia said he can better mobilize support.
The fire department could help inspect and make improvements to the church to be better suited for hosting large groups of people, he said. Or the city could provide a larger dumpster to his church and offer assistance with the trash collection bill.
Since October, in coordination with federal officials, migrant families have arrived at Garcia’s church weekly. The volunteers feed, clothe, host them overnight and give rides to the bus station and airport. At the peak of activity, Garcia received 250 people per week for four weeks, he said. Now, he cut back to 60 people a week, he said.
Concerns seeking to limit or stop altogether the work of helping migrant families are coming both from the outside and inside, he said.
From the outside, members of the right-wing group Patriot Movement AZ have showed up to his church to protest the welcoming of migrant parents and their children. The protesters are confrontational and harshly critical, and inacurately accuse the church of human trafficking. They call the arriving families illegal invaders. (They are seeking asylum in the U.S. and are being released by the Department of Homeland Security while their asylum claim in processed and considered.)
From the inside, some members of the congregation have told Garcia they’re afraid of liability and city code compliance. He worries the city might come after him. He also worries he’ll be required to only have volunteers who are professionally trained to tend to adults and children who’ve experienced trauma.
In his heart, and before God, he knows he’s doing what’s right, he said.
“I don’t know about politics, I know about human rights,” Garcia said.
Garcia is from the state of Chiapas, in southern Mexico neighboring Guatemala.
“I’m especially fond of Central Americans,” he said. Last week, he welcomed a group of 85 mothers, fathers, teens, children and babies.
Church volunteers served them yellow rice, chicken, tortillas and juice. A wooden cross hung from the wall in the back of the dining hall where the migrants gathered. Garcia stood there and said he’ll serve spiritual food.
They stood, and bowed their heads. A young man held a baby sleeping in his arms. A woman with long hair had her kid wrapped in a cloth tied around her back. Another mother nursed her baby boy. They sang. They prayed. They cried. They hugged.
“This is a way for me to thank all those people who helped me when I arrived (in the country) when I was 23,” Garcia said.