Immigrant families still coming, but in smaller numbers

58 minutes ago • By Perla Trevizo

A few months ago, the Greyhound station in downtown Tucson was packed with dozens of mothers who had recently crossed the border with their children. Volunteers stood ready to help with boxes of donated food and clothes.

Now, with fewer families coming across, immigration officers drop off the women and their children at Casa Alitas, a Tucson home owned by Catholic Community Services where families usually spend the night before continuing to their final destination somewhere in the United States.

The government attributes the decrease of Central American families and unaccompanied minors to a strong campaign, here and abroad, to deter would-be migrants from coming, along with Mexico’s enforcement efforts and more detention space.

In response to the surge over the summer, ICE temporarily opened through December a 700-bed detention center for families in Artesia, New Mexico. Now it operates two permanent detention facilities in Texas to house families. One, in Dilley, will hold up to 2,400 people, and the other, in Karnes, has 1,200 beds. As of Jan. 15, there were nearly 300 parents and children held in Dilley and 473 in Karnes.

In Tucson, some families are still being released on humanitarian parole, but ICE did not respond before deadline as to what criteria is being used. Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman in Phoenix, said the agency hasn’t transported any families from Arizona to either center in Texas.

Customs and Border Protection officials said they expedite the removal of a family if they are from Mexico and aren’t seeking asylum, or they refer them to ICE.

Casa Alitas has seen an average of 60 families a month since September, most of them from Guatemala, said Galen Hunt, an Americorps VISTA in-house volunteer.

“Pretty much every night, somebody spends the night here,” he said.

That number doubled in December to 120, he said, but it’s too soon to know if it’s a trend.


So far this fiscal year, 621 family units — a single parent with at least one child — have been apprehended at the border in the Tucson sector. That’s down from more than 1,000 during the same period last year, but slightly higher than in 2013.

During the surge last year, nearly 70,000 family units were apprehended nationwide in the fiscal year, 76 percent of them in the Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas.

Some were transferred to Arizona to be processed and released on humanitarian parole while their cases were pending because ICE lacked the bed space to house them. Parents apprehended with their children cannot be housed with the general population.

Volunteers of the local group Casa Mariposa were meeting them at the Greyhound bus station where they were dropped off by immigration officials, often with no money and no way to contact their family members.

The group became overwhelmed as the numbers continued to grow. Over the Memorial Day week, they saw 200 immigrants — mostly women and children — with only a volunteer staff of five to help.

In the summer, a coalition of volunteers and organizations, including Tucson councilman Steve Kozachik, Catholic Community Services and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, took over under the name Project Mariposa.

Shifts of volunteers cooked a hot meal to serve the recently released migrants. People dropped off shoes and clothes, and prepared packs with toiletries and snacks for the long journey ahead.

In August, they started working out of the Pio Decimo Center, and now from a home owned by Catholic Community Services.

With the smaller numbers, volunteers are able to offer more services to the families, Hunt said.

“It seems that the original idea of what volunteers were doing here in Tucson was to put people on buses safely,” he said. “Now it seems to be more about trying to ensure a safe, happy journey all the way to their destination and giving them a safe, happy, healthy location to wait — sometimes days — for their buses.”


Entering the house, flags from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador hang over the entryway to the dining room.

Drawings welcoming immigrants to the United States, drawn by Sunday school students from different parts of the country, adorn one wall. Large maps of Guatemala and the United States dominate another.

“We wanted to create a welcoming environment,” Hunt said. “Pretty much everything is to go if they want it,” he added in reference to the books and toys in the living room.

There are three rooms with bunk beds and a kitchen where they can cook.

There’s a big backyard where volunteers want to start a garden and a shed full of donated clothes and shoes.

Most of the time the numbers are manageable, Hunt said, but if they need the extra hands, they have a list of about 15 houses they can reach out to.

One recent day, Hunt and Sarah Michelson, the other in-house volunteer, were scrambling as immigration officials dropped off three families ahead of time — while the volunteers also hosted a group of educators who wanted to know how they could help.

The Catholic educators from California, Texas and Arizona quickly grabbed their cell phones and got to work helping families call their relatives across the country. Some served them a warm plate of bean soup, bananas and orange wedges, and helped them pick out clothes and shoes.

One little girl picked out a backpack with purple and pink hearts. A letter, written in Spanish by the child who had donated it, said they had heard on the news about all the children fleeing their countries. It welcomed the girl to the United States.

The 8-year-old from Guatemala read it aloud and finished with a wide smile. The following day, her family’s ride would be there to drive them to the bus station and head out to their final destination in California.