No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization based near Sister Eileen in southern Arizona. They work to shine a light on the number of lifeless migrants found in the desert and to uphold fundamental human rights, while working toward immigration reform. Their most recent newsletter highlights the “comedor” at the Kino Border Initiative, which is run by Jesuits and Mexican Sisters and many volunteers some who also volunteer at the Tucson respite center, Casa Alitas. They also provide commentary on the experience of those first arriving at the Nogales, Arizona which is the nearest port of entry to Tucson.
“Returning from Mexico into the USA at the Mariposa port of entry in Nogales, travelers are greeted with a symbol emblematic of our government’s current border policy - razor wire wrapped around the statement, “Welcome to the United States.” Volunteers from No More Deaths and others who cross the border daily to help at the Kino Border Initiative “Comedor” (kitchen) in Nogales, Mexico, where migrants and asylum seekers show up for two meals a day, medical aid, check cashing and phone services, are confronted with the contradiction of such a “welcome.” That same “razor wire” attitude toward refugees and immigrants is being felt across the country as well.”
On August 9, 2019 Tucson Diocese’s respite center for asylum-seeking refugees moved from the former Benedictine Sisters’ Monastery to three unoccupied wings of Pima County’s Juvenile Detention Center. The spacious, welcoming sacred old space of the monastery is a memory for the volunteers who served hundreds of refugees daily for six months.
Today’s guests are received in sturdy, smaller structures that daily are being transformed from a correctional institution to a colorful welcoming respite center. For guests, the current center is far better than their “lodgings” on their trek from violence to safety and hope for a future. Within 48-72 hours, they travel to their families or sponsors who assume responsibility for them. The refugees are not eligible for public assistance. In the United States they await their formal asylum hearings.
Not only has the respite center setting changed. During the six months the monastery served as respite center, 100 to 200 new guests were received daily. Beginning August, only one, two or three dozen guests have arrived daily. The presidents of Guatemala and Mexico have heeded Washington’s threats by blocking their borders to refugees. Routes have been blocked, but not the desire and need to flee.
During this “down time”, Tucson volunteers continue to make the center ever more welcoming.
The respite center in Tucson recently decided to move out of the former Benedictine convent that had been a way-point for asylum seekers on their way to their sponsors. The center will be relocated into an unused portion of a juvenile detention center.
Those of us who have volunteered at the monastery respite center for asylum-seeking refugees will be challenged by the stark new facilities after serving at the beautiful, homey, welcoming monastery. We will work together to make the new place welcoming for our guests. The new facility has the advantage of sturdiness built for frequently rotating residents in contrast to the careful attention needed to maintain an older Convent. Our 1,000 + volunteers are committed to continue welcoming and serving our guests. They enter stressed and frightened and leave grateful and smiling.
The last few weeks ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) and well as CBP (Customs & Border Patrol) have been bringing to the center 200 to 250 guests daily. As before, all have children. Up to 500 had been there each night challenging the generous services and resources of volunteers and donations. Last weekend the city of Tucson opened two recreation centers to provide hospitality to 120 guests each after they have been welcomed and medically screened at the monastery center. The guests continue to come primarily from Guatemala and smaller numbers from Honduras and El Salvador. During these two weeks, Border Patrol has been bringing two large busloads daily from El Paso whose services have been “maxed”.
This week new support came from surprising sources. Catholic Charities of the U.S. invited its agencies across the country to send volunteers. The first group to respond has been the Archdiocese of New York with a team this week and others will come the next two weeks. They help with hospitality, intake, transportation and everything in-between. Perhaps others will follow! Just in time as faithful local volunteers are getting weary… Another touch of kindness was from the flower-bearers who came today. To add a touch of festivity to the guests’ dining room one group brought dozens of roses. Faculty from the University of Arizona brought table centerpieces from yesterday’s graduations. All in time to celebrate Mother’s Day both US, Mexican, and Guatemalan!