By Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz
Although fewer people are entering the United States seeking asylum, nonprofit organizations are working harder than ever to help migrants trying to work within recent changes in U.S. immigration policy.
Since Title 8 went into effect in May, the surge of migrants has declined because of more restrictions placed on their entry. Volunteers working with advocacy groups are stepping up their efforts to help organizations providing services, shelter and care as part of the asylum process.
In southern Arizona, Migrant Aid Sonoran Coalition is made up of various groups doing such work, with some overlap of volunteers.
Humane Border water run and Samaritanos Sin Fronteras migrant shelters visits
It’s hot — 102 degrees Arizona hot—so there are reminders to make sure the box of hats, to give to possible migrants in the desert, gets into the truck.
Tom Wingo, his wife Carol Wingo, and Marcus DeSieno are packing the trucks for two organizations as they prepare for the day. The Wingos, of Ajo, Arizona, volunteer for Samaritanos Sin Fronteras and are currently helping Humane Borders with the organization’s water runs. DeSieno is a Washington state-based photographer working on a documentary project on migrant deaths.
It makes Carol feel good to help others and the relationships she has developed with some gives her something to look forward to every week, but it goes a little deeper.
“My dad escaped Nazi Germany as a young teen with his family. After reading about how people looked the other way, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to stand up at that time, but I can stand up now,” she said.
About his volunteerism, Tom said, “you can blame my parents.” Back in the 1960s, when the Freedom Riders’ bus was attacked in his Alabama hometown, his mother and father hid ten of the bus-riding protestors in their garage until they could be picked up in the middle of the night and taken to safety.
They have to go get Doug Schnare and they’ll be on their way. He will drive the water truck and Carol, the Samaritanos Sin Fronteras one.
The first stop once on the road is in Why, Arizona. There is a patio set for Joyce Millar’s Cactus Cupboard and she, in turn, has items for the migrant shelter the crew will be visiting later in the day. Cactus Cupboard is a nonprofit Millar founded which provides basic necessities to those in the area needing such.
U.S. Border Patrol agents have a tent set up at the entrance of the Organ Pipe National Monument, where the Humane Borders water stations are set up. Carol estimates there are about 100 migrants, some standing in the sun and standing or squatting in the shade.
“The Wall,” designated as that during the Trump administration, curves across the border between the U.S. and Mexico in the distance and the trucks follow the curved road across the desert land.
The barrel at the first water station needs water so Tom joins Doug to go fill the barrel on the truck and then they’ll return. Carol and DeSieno refill the crates with bottled water, check the number of disposable cups available for the other five water stations.
Humane Borders is working to prevent deaths by dehydration and exposure for those crossing the desert. Since 2000, they have maintained water stations at various places in the Sonoran Desert, including Ajo, Tucson and Phoenix. There are canopies to provide relief from the hot sun and keep the water from getting too warm.
DeSieno points out that on the barrels themselves and the flags above have solar-powered lights. The lights, he said, “really become beacons for migrants, especially in the more remote areas at night where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to find these water spots.”
He and Carol remove trash and litter from the general area of the stations. Most found items are tossed into the garbage can, but blankets or clothes in good condition are folded and left near the water barrel.
Paper finds this day, according to Carol, include a temporary work visa for someone from India, notifications of final departures from Mexico as well as a CBP One registration confirmation. Carol and DeSieno stop at the Border Patrol tent to have an agent sort through the scattered papers retrieved; what the agents will take hold of, what can be discarded.
Earlier, Tom said weeks ago they ran into migrants from China. While they have encountered people from a variety of places, including Brazil and Guatemala, while maintaining the water stations, today they have encountered none walking in the desert.
The next stop is Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico where Carol and DeSieno visit the migrant resource center, Centro de Esperanza, directed by Karla Betancourt and Aaron Flores Morales.
Children run across the dirt courtyard in play, or they huddle together, sharing toys, at the tables in the patio area.
Flores Morales shows Carol and DeSieno the progress being made on various projects. They discuss current needs for the center.
Next is a trip to the grocery store for meat, tortillas, fruit, and hygiene items for Casa Del Migrante. The shelter was created for men who have previously been deported from the U.S. and had nowhere in Mexico to go. About 20 men live there currently.
Tom and Schnare have already arrived at the shelter. Schare has been a volunteer about the same time as the Wingos, taking a brief hiatus for health reasons. These days he is getting back into it, he says. Once a week he’ll go with the Wingos or someone else to the shelters in Mexico.
“We go down and ask how people are doing and what we can do to help,” Schnare says. “This is kind of the main thing I do.”
And while he admits his Spanish is “terrible,” he uses his phone to help translate. “You can say a lot if you just take your time and do it slowly.”
When Carol and DeSieno get there, they all, along with some men from the shelter, unload the truck. A bit more visiting, but it’s early afternoon and still hot. Time to head back.
There’s a short wait at the border checkpoint. The agent asks a few questions, “Why were you in Mexico? Are you bringing anything back?”, then a quick scan of the passports and they’re allowed to cross the border.
Migrant Aid Sonoran Coalition: working together, working for good
Kenne Jones facilitates the biweekly meetings of the Arizona coalition of organizations. He said the groups “share a common goal to provide humanitarian aid and relief,” and on occasion, they work directly together. Coalition partners include Tucson Samaritans, Green Valley Samaritans, Project Hope and the Florence Project, among others, he said.
Jones is a site lead at Casa Alitas, another organization in the coalition.
Casa Alitas was founded in 2014, a program of Catholic Community Services, in response to the large number of asylum seekers being dropped off at bus stations in Tucson, with no support available, he said.
Migrants are provided food, water, showers, clothes, medical care, assistance with ticket purchases, legal resources and a place to stay, Jones said.
Casa Alitas might receive between 200 to 1,500 guests. The migrants are placed at the organization’s sites or sent to a Phoenix shelter, if necessary. Working with the U.S. Border Patrol, ICE, Pima County and the city of Tucson, Casa Alitas is able to “receive asylum seekers released on humanitarian parole and assist them until their departure from Tucson to reach their sponsor,” Jones said.
Serving migrant populations in the New Mexico-Texas-Cuidad Juárez, Mexico area
Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico is one of several organizations serving migrants in southern New Mexico; in El Paso, Texas; and neighboring Cuidad Juárez, Mexico. The organization provides social and legal services for migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers, Kenneth Ferrone, executive director, said.
Immigrations services are provided at low cost or no cost. People are helped with naturalization and citizenship; petitions to bring family from another country; green card renewals; Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, also known as DACA; and asylum and defense of deportation, among other services.
Having representation is very important, Ferrone said. “Immigration is the most complex legal network and system the United States has. And for an immigrant to navigate that on their own, it’d be extremely difficult,” he said.
Catholic Charities does not work with the Border Patrol or ICE as other organizations do, but Ferrone said they do work to have lines of communication with the government. “It’s very important for us to keep in touch with our government colleagues to understand what’s happening, what’s changing. And I think they appreciate that as well. They have their job; we have our job.”
Ferrone said Catholic Charities is “trying to do the best for the common good” and works to empower immigrants in different ways. The organization, he said, has on staff a cadre of community organizers whose work includes going out into the migrant community and providing information about available benefits; informing them of available resources, whether financial assistance or medical attention; and announcing community activities.
“We connect to people,” Ferrone said. “We provide compassionate care. We want to treat them as they should be treated — with dignity and respect.”
Another New Mexico organization is the Border Service Corps, which is a ministry of the Peace Lutheran Church. Dignity and respect are core to their tenets as well, according to Mica de la Rosa, the organization’s engagement and education manager.
The organization offers a border immersion program which gives those living in the interior of the U.S. a “better sense of the borderlands” as well as “the reality” of what those communities face, de la Rosa said.
The second, and bigger, piece of the organization’s work is providing direct services to asylum seekers. They offer “hospitality” through the shelter in Las Cruces, New Mexico, run by the organization. It is not a long-term shelter; most stays are about 48 hours, but de la Rosa said in most cases that is more than enough time “for folks who just need a place to rest for a little bit, and maybe medical attention and some guidance on how to contact their sponsor here in the U.S.”
The shelter is a high-volume operation with the capacity of receiving 250 migrants daily, although recent numbers are just shy of that.
The sheer number of migrants passing through the shelter means that most are never heard from again.
“That is something,” de la Rosa said, “that does weigh on our staff, and weighs on our hearts a bit; hoping and praying that the folks that passed through our shelter are doing okay and landed somewhere safe, somewhere welcoming, somewhere kind.”