As ICE releases migrant families by the hundreds, churches and businesses step up to help
Local charities and businesses have stepped in to provide coats, clothing, shoes and temporary shelter to migrant families being released weekly by the hundreds at local churches.
The outpouring of generosity comes as the number of migrant families seeking asylum in the U.S. continues to rise at the border, overwhelming Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Since October, the agency has been forced to release several thousand migrant families, dropping them off at local churches that have agreed to provide shelter until the families continue to their final destinations in other states to reunite with families. Once there, migrant families, who are typically given electronic GPS monitoring devices to wear on their ankles, are required to re-check in with immigration authorities to begin the process of applying for asylum.
The release of large groups of migrant families, however, has strained the resources of local churches, most of them small Hispanic congregations.
Several groups are assisting them. And while their efforts seem to some at odds with the Trump administration's tough stance toward Central Americans migrants, groups providing humanitarian assistance to migrant families say their work has nothing to do with politics.
Trump has ordered thousands of active-duty military troops to help secure the southern border in response to the thousands of Central American migrants traveling in caravans, and sought to limit who qualifies for asylum.
"I think the people that are helping don’t see this group of people as a demographic. It’s not about politics for them. It’s about people," said Susan Whetten Udall, the Arizona volunteer coordinator at LDS Immigrant Services, a program run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The program received a $7,500 grant from the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City to provide humanitarian assistance to migrant families being released in the Phoenix area, Udall said.
"We are all children of God.That is the bottom line," Udall said. "These are our brothers and sisters who are suffering, and people of faith — all faiths — feel that they are brothers and sisters and that they need our help."
Coats, jackets, shoes and backpacks
The Border Patrol apprehended 5,794 family members in the Yuma area during the first two months of this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, a 190 percent increase compared with the same period the year before, according to CBP statistics.
Another 1,922 family members were apprehended in the Tucson sector this fiscal year, up 257 percent compared with the same period last year, CBP statistics show.
The vast majority of the migrant families apprehended by the Border Patrol this fiscal year are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, three countries in Central America known as the Northern Triangle with high levels of poverty and violence.
After ICE drops them off, the migrant families typically stay for a day or two at local churches until they can arrange to travel by bus or airplane to their final destinations.
Many of the migrant families from Central America arrive without warm clothing but are traveling to other states in the country where it is now cold, Udall said.
Udall said the money from her church was spent on coats, jackets, shoes and backpacks to distribute to migrant families being dropped off by ICE at local churches.
Udall said she spent $200 of her own money to purchase personal hygiene supplies to distribute to families on their trips to other states.
They also arrive with shoes worn from the long journey, or with feet so blistered from walking long distances their shoes no longer fit, she said.
Udall said her group also spent money buying new stuffed animals to place inside backpacks along with a note that says "Te Amo," which means "I love you" in Spanish.
Many of the migrant children released by ICE have been traumatized during their journeys to the U.S. or in crossing the border, she said.
"That little stuffed animal helps them with their trauma," she said.
Business owner contributes shoes
After hearing about migrant families being dropped off at local churches, Gene Petrini bought 75 new pairs of sneakers to pass out to children. He's the owner of Ms. Carol's Gymkids, a business in Mesa that offers gymnastics, dancing and singing lessons.
"Being a Christian, that is what you do. You help other people in need," Petrini said. "These people have nothing. The Lord has blessed us and our business and I wanted to give back in some small way."
Petrini said he plans to buy more shoes, since more families keep coming.
He heard about local churches providing shelter to migrant families released by ICE from Magdalena Schwartz, a Mesa pastor who has an office in the same strip mall.
Schwartz has been helping coordinate the release of migrant families by ICE at local churches. She said ICE dropped off about 100 families totaling about 200 people Monday at the Monte Vista Baptist Church in Phoenix.
The 100 families was in addition to the 250 families, totaling about 500 people ICE dropped off at other churches last week, Schwartz said.
ICE has declined to release data on the number of family members the agency has released at local churches in the Phoenix area since October. But Schwartz estimated Tuesday the total number is now approaching 6,000.
How churches help
About 10 local Hispanic churches are now providing shelter on a rotating basis, she said.
Several non-Hispanic churches are also providing housing, among them the Grove Church in Chandler, and the Central Christian Church of Arizona.
Leisa McDonald, associate director of global outreach at Central Christian Church of Arizona, said congregants have opened their homes to about 350 migrants released as families by ICE.
The migrants are dropped off by ICE at the church's campus in Mesa, where they are served hot meals, provided the chance to shower, and given clothing and toiletries, she said. If needed they also receive medical care by volunteer doctors, she said.
The migrants are then taken to the homes of host families, where they typically stay between 24 and 48 hours. The church has five suburban campuses in Mesa, Gilbert, Glendale, Queen Creek, and Ahwatukee Foothills.
"They will have the opportunity to go home and sleep in a bed and be cared for by someone in our local community and that person will then help them get to their bus or airport departure time when needed," she said.
McDonald said the decision to provide humanitarian assistance to migrant families released by ICE is not at odds with the Trump administration's crackdown on Central American migrants.
"Our desire is to demonstrate compassion," she said. "We exist to serve the community in need and some of that community in need is actually the government itself ... (ICE officers) are overwhelmed in their work so part of our work is to help them."
The outpouring of generosity, she said, seems tied to the holiday season. "It makes it much, much easier for people to step up and want to participate," she said.
The church has received some complaints from people who believe the church shouldn't be helping migrant families, but they have been "very few," she said.
She noted that church already has several programs aimed at helping the homeless and local people in need.
"Every so often some will say, "Why aren't you doing something for our own community?'" she said. "We as a church are focused not only on people outside our community but also on providing compassion and support for our local community as well."
How you can help
To help assist migrant families, contact Mesa pastor Magdalena Schwartz at 480-221-7970 or at email@example.com.