St. Vincent de Paul opens Phoenix center to hundreds of migrant families




    A sign welcomes families at a St. Vincent de Paul building in Phoenix where 100 migrant parents and their children arrived March 26, 2019. The charity group has committed to hosting about 100 migrant families daily as a volunteer network reached a breaking point. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

    St. Vincent de Paul on Tuesday kicked off a daily drill to welcome migrant families at one of their Phoenix locations.

    Before lunchtime, 100 migrant parents and their children arrived at the building entrance, enveloped with the sweet scent of jasmine shrubs. Warm meals of roasted chicken, yellow rice and beans were ready for them.

    The doors of St. Vincent de Paul will stay open to accommodate roughly 100 migrant family members every day in Phoenix, in coordination with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Jessica Berg, chief program officer for the Catholic charity group.

    Berg said nobody from their day-to-day work, which mostly includes homeless people and poor families, will be turned away or displaced to accommodate the migrant families.

    “St. Vincent de Paul is very much a safety net for the entire community,” she said. “We had some empty chairs in our dining room, and now we are filling those empty chairs.”

    The non-profit is operating its “day release center” in partnership with churches and community organizations like the International Rescue Committee — a refugee resettlement agency in Phoenix — and the Phoenix Restoration Project, a network of volunteers who for years have supported migrants released from federal detention.

    Their joint effort to run the new space comes as a several faith leaders have said their resources are strained after more than six months of work. Because the volunteer network was at capacity, ICE began to regularly drop families onto a sidewalk by a Greyhound bus station.

    “We have a space that’s safe, welcoming and healthy in ways that a bus station can’t be,” said International Rescue Committee spokesman Stanford Prescott.

    Since October, ICE has partnered with groups in Arizona to coordinate the release of thousands of migrant families, many of whom are seeking asylum. The families either crossed the border or went to a port of entry to seek protections. They spent several days in facilities with no beds or showers run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

    ICE releases all of the migrant families with scheduled immigration check-ins elsewhere in the country where they’ll stay with relatives. There, the migrants will begin an immigration court process of deportation or asylum.

    Prescott said several groups have worked for months to execute a “scale up” of their assistance to migrant families. The goal is to curb the need for ICE to drop off the fathers, mothers, teens, children and babies on the street.

    “They are families, including women and children, who are following the legal immigration process,” Prescott said. “We have a responsibility to welcome people to the U.S.”

    Meanwhile, state and local officials have failed to provide a plan to partner with the charity groups, and have passed the buck to the federal government. Last week, Gov. Doug Ducey told KTAR that “Congress needs to act on this situation.” Two Phoenix council members told Arizona Mirror that “immigration is not a local issue.”

    At the St. Vincent de Paul day center, volunteers helped the families make travel arrangements and phone calls. Medics and a lawyer were available, too, Prescott said. Some were given rides to the bus station or airport, while most of the others stayed overnight in homes or churches.

    The groups requested the location of the center not be specified for safety concerns. The organizations did a test-run of the day release center Friday with about 130 people, KJZZ reported.

    Prescott said they’ll continue the work “as long as there’s a need” but he is expecting the flow of migrant families flows arriving at the border to slow down in the summer.

    The number of migrant family members arrested by Border Patrol between October and February already surpassed the total figure of families apprehended in Fiscal Year 2018, CBP data shows. Children are becoming the “fastest rising cohort” of border arrests, The Washington Post reported.

    Laura Gómez
    Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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