PHOENIX — Busloads at a time over the past 12 months, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released 48,000 asylum seekers in the metro Phoenix area with little to no money, no place to stay, no access to medical care and no idea where they would find their next meal.
An overwhelmed coalition of 40 churches absorbed the waves of people with no government support.
“We came face to face with people who would have died without us. That’s not hyperbolic,” said Sarah Eary, community integration manager for Lutheran Social Services Southwest. “When ICE released them to us, they were sick, malnourished, lost and without resources.”
When the coalition was stressed to the breaking point, she said, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stepped up to hold it together. On Friday, she personally thanked one of the church’s senior leaders, Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Elder Rasband visited a new welcome center for asylum seekers that the church helped the coalition open in an old school with outdoor basketball courts on its roof.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the east, another member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Ulisses Soares, visited an immigrant welcome center in Austin, Texas, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working with Catholic Charities on a plan to open more of the centers in central Texas.
Elder Rasband also met with Arizona’s governor and one of its senators, while Elder Soares visited the Central Texas Food Bank, where a Deseret Industries truck delivered a church donation of 41,000 pounds of dry goods.
“We came here today to thank you,” Elder Rasband said at the old school that now shelters asylum seekers. “This is exactly what the mission and focus of our church is, to care for the poor and needy, to reach out to all of Heavenly Father’s children, to show love and compassion like you have. Thank you for your kind expressions to us and know how deeply we feel about the work you’re doing here.”
He called it a privilege to be a partner in the coalition. Then he promised Eary, “Our partnership with you is not over.”
“Thank God,” she said.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey complimented the church’s influence in the state during a lunch with Elder Rasband, said Paul Gilbert, a partner at Beus Gilbert, the law firm that hosted the luncheon.
“I’d say he celebrates who the Latter-day Saints are in his state for the contribution they make to the goodness in the state of Arizona,” Elder Rasband said.
Elder Rasband and Ducey discussed the governor’s campaign to end homelessness. Elder Rasband introduced the church’s Just Serve website and app, which helps volunteers find service opportunities.
“We do believe it could make a difference in this state,” Elder Rasband said.
Ducey, a Catholic, also discussed religious liberty with Elder Rasband, who shared the church’s Fairness for All initiative that encourages legal protections for housing and employment for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, coupled with clauses protecting religious liberty.
“He agreed with the importance of protecting our voice in the public square,” Elder Rasband said of Ducey. “He aligns with our views on that.”
Elder Rasband met U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, the first female fighter pilot to fly combat missions, in her office on Camelback Road in Phoenix. They found common ground discussing the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers and refugees on the U.S. border, religious liberty, government dysfunction and the Equality Act.
Michelle Curry of the church’s Metro Phoenix Public Affairs Council, told McSally about the coalition of churches helping asylum seekers and asked for the senator’s support.
Asylum seekers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border from south and central America are interviewed by ICE, then released all over Arizona and Texas to await court hearings on whether they will be granted asylum. Each must have a family or a sponsor who will care for them, but ICE releases them without anywhere to go until they obtain bus, train or plane tickets to unite with those sponsors.
“We fed, clothed, sheltered and transported 48,000 people in a year and nobody in Phoenix missed a meal,” Eary said. She called it a miracle.
“We’re used to thinking of miracles in a magical way. There was nothing magical about this,” she said. “It was a miracle of hard work.”
The coalition took in 1,500 people a week, seven days a week from October to June, until the U.S. government changed its policy from catching and releasing asylum seekers to a policy of having them remain in Mexico.
At the peak of the crisis, when Eary took over the Lutheran organization’s program, she said many of the coalition’s congregations were exhausted and struggling to continue to pay for the food necessary to feed asylum seekers three meals a day for a few days each.
“These are not wealthy churches,” she said. “They were just tapped out.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated $40,000 worth of goods from its local Bishops’ Storehouse, allowing the churches to continue to shelter asylum seekers in their buildings and feed them.
In April, at the peak of the crisis, the coalition and the International Rescue Committee decided to find a shelter to serve 270 people at a time and obtained the old school. Gilbert did pro bono legal work and the church donated more money.
“We couldn’t have done what we we’ve done without your support, and your moral leadership has meant everything,” Beth Strano, asylum seekers and families coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, told Elder Rasband.
In Texas, the church donated $80,000 to Catholic Charities in San Antonio to provide hygiene supplies for immigrants there.
Elders Soares met with senior Catholic leaders, including the Very Rev. James Misko, vicar general of the Diocese of Austin.
”We’re glad that you came to visit us, and we’re glad to continue working with this important initiative,” the Very Rev. Misko said. “We know that the dignity of the human person is one of the most important tenets of all of our faiths, so we’re happy to partner with you on on that by helping people who are in need. It’s a wonderful chance to get to work together.”
Misko said the Catholic tradition includes a belief in helping people live full lives, and that the churches are working together to provide that opportunity to immigrants.
”There are no geographic barriers for that,” Elder Soares said. “So as it was said here, we love people and we want them to enjoy life because that is part of the plan God had for us.”
At the food bank, where 260 partners provided 45 million meals for people in 21 counties last year, Elder Soares met a worker who himself previously had needed help with food.
“He knows what it is to be hungry, so that is why he is working with this organization,” Elder Soares said. “So is that not beautiful that you receive the blessing and then you bless the others? That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what we preach.”