Editor's note: On the same week that President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, Deseret News reporter Tad Walch and photojournalist Jeff Allred traveled to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, to discover how churches fill the nation's humanitarian gap.
NOGALES, Mexico — The Arizona sun sat low and cast long morning shadows from a chilly blue winter sky as a bus bearing the logo of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security turned into the parking lot of a nondescript church in the Phoenix suburbs on Monday.
The driver was an ICE agent. The passengers were Central Americans detained over the weekend at the U.S.-Mexico border 175 miles to the south. Wearing a uniform and laced-up boots, the Immigration Customs Agent briskly stepped down from the bus and handed a passenger manifest to the pastor. Members of the congregation and a few immigrants released the previous day began to unload light backpacks from the storage bay of the bus before a second ICE agent could get to it.
"I was going to jump in there and grab it," the agent said. "Thanks, guys."
The first family appeared in the doorway of the bus. One by one, children, mothers and fathers stood at the top of the tall stairs, then started down awkwardly, each one pausing to gauge the last giant step.
They wore sneakers without shoelaces. The shoe tongues stuck out and flopped up and down as the migrants clomped away from the bus. They walked across a sidewalk and sat at cheap picnic tables pushed together in a single row on the grass along the length of the back of the church, hidden from the road.
"We try to keep a low profile," said the pastor, who requested we not use his name. "The neighbors don't want this. They're against it."
A second bus without a logo turned in, pulled up and repeated the process. The ICE agent who drove it warned the pastor about a car that had followed the buses for a while: "You might get protesters," he said, even though everyone carried proof that they had U.S. government permission to be here.
When it was over, 70 migrants, 35 of them children, quietly faced each other on opposite sides of the long row of tables, shivering without coats in the Valley of the Sun. It was 38 degrees. The ICE agents climbed back up the tall stairs. The buses roared away.
The entire process took 10 minutes.
Then, virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world and with an outdoor grill pumping out tortillas, eggs and refried beans, members of the congregation, four Latter-day Saint women and two medical volunteers began to feed, clothe, treat and care for the poor and needy.
Nearly half an hour later, one man shyly approached the pastor with a short question in Spanish.
"Can we put on our shoelaces?"
Scenes like this are unique to most Americans but frequent in Phoenix and Tucson. ICE now releases asylum seekers almost daily to churches there.
A decade-long spike in the number of families seeking asylum overwhelmed ICE last fall, according to an agency spokeswoman. Most of the families seeking asylum are fleeing what universally are considered some of the world's capitals of murder, gang violence and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
"The statistics are war-zone level," said Aaron Rippenkroeger, interim executive director of the International Rescue Committee's Phoenix office.
Whether families crossed the border illegally or lawfully presented themselves at a port of entry, ICE is by law required to accept asylum seekers. The government then must determine whether they have a credible fear about returning home.
The number of credible-fear interviews skyrocketed from fewer than 5,100 in 2008 to nearly 92,000 in 2016 because of global displacement, most of it from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, according to Homeland Security.
In fact, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras now account for 73 percent of credible-fear screenings.
Last fall, ICE began to release asylum-seeking families who aren't considered flight risks and have identifiable sponsors by the dozen in Phoenix. The agency simply can't hold all those who are awaiting hearings and appeals, which can take months.
ICE gives them an ankle monitor or wristband, papers stamped "Paroled: Humanitarian" and an order to make a first appearance in their case within 14 days, according to paperwork reviewed by the Deseret News. ICE authorizes their travel to a sponsor's home, which can be anywhere in the United States, but the agency releases them before the travel is arranged.
That creates a humanitarian gap.
Despite their temporary legal status, no formal safety net exists. These families rarely speak any English. Many know little Spanish because they speak indigenous languages. They have little or no money, don't know anyone in Arizona and have nowhere to stay the night they are released by ICE. Some might have a backpack with one change of clothes. All are tired, some are sick and they are hungry.
"To me, it's a big gap," Phoenix Mayor Thelda Williams said, "and there's no government jurisdiction at that point. When they are dumped at the churches, the city is not notified. It's extremely important that we don't have individuals or families roaming the streets of the city with no ability to speak or read English, no resources, who don't know where they are going and often have no help. We're very fortunate that across many different faiths a group has emerged to step up and fill this role."
For something that begins with a massive government agency like the Department of Homeland Security, the process is remarkably informal.
Someone at ICE calls someone working in an emerging, unofficial coalition of churches to say the government is ready to release more asylum seekers. They determine which church is prepared to receive the new group. Almost always, the bus or van arrives early.
Then ICE agents and a mishmash of congregations and religious volunteers work together, setting aside politics and doctrinal differences to help some of the most vulnerable people on American soil. There is no talk of funding a wall or Republicans or Democrats or even right and wrong. For a few minutes on a February day, they sew up a tear in the system for families whose requests for asylum have resulted in fragile permission for a tenuous stay in the United States.
The biggest threat to the indefinite arrangement in the Phoenix area arose when an ICE bus dropped off 100 people at a bus depot with no warning.
"ICE has alerted local and state officials and reached out to (charity) partners in the area who are prepared to provide assistance with transportation and/or other services," ICE's Arizona spokeswoman, Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, said in a statement. "The safety of those in ICE’s custody remains the agency’s highest priority, with special attention paid to vulnerable populations."
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey told the Deseret News the religious response fills a need.
"Where there's not enough resources or enough people or enough volunteers or enough government employees to help, it's always been the faith-based community that typically not only provides backup but actually demonstrates leadership," he said. "It has been these sanctuaries where people can find shelter and food assistance to follow the gospel message of Matthew 25 to help the least of us."
Protesters have appeared at a few Phoenix churches, which now have become media-averse. Two churches, the described above in the Phoenix area and a Catholic operation called Casa Alitas that operates out of a former Benedictine monastery in Tucson, gave the Deseret News permission to observe and report on the broad, emergency response of the Arizona religious community to a humanitarian crisis. Latter-day Saint service missionaries and volunteers who support the coalition with supplies and work at the Somali American United Council also shared their stories of humanitarian relief.
Some migrants granted permission for the use of their names and images. Others requested anonymity because they said they are hiding from international gangs that operate in the United States.
South of the border
The journey to asylum is long and often dangerous. Those who try to cross legally always end up in a border town. We met Keisy Cortés on the Mexico side of the border.
Cortés, 25, reached Nogales a week ago after a 1,000-mile voyage. She struck out for the United States in January, she said, after a notorious gang robbed her. That was the final straw for this slight young mother who struggled alone to feed a 4-year-old daughter amid oppressive Honduran poverty and violence.
On Tuesday, she and little Karina sat on top of a skeletal metal bunk bed just 15 yards from the imposing steel barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, they could see it from their rickety perch inside a crumbling cement shelter run by a small Nogales church called La Roca (The Rock).
The rust-colored, steel-slat barrier is 18 feet tall. On Super Bowl weekend, the U.S. Army finished covering the American side of the wall with barbed concertina wire. Cortés badly wants to cross the border and live on that side.
"I want to work," she said simply. "I don't care what kind of work it is."
She approached the U.S. port of entry here on Monday, got a number and was told she would have to wait at least two weeks. When it is her turn, she will surrender herself to Border Patrol and be taken into custody without having broken any laws. To win her case, she will have to testify under oath that she has a credible fear that if she is returned home she will be subject to persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Fleeing poverty typically does not meet the requirements.
If the asylum officer determines Cortés has failed to demonstrate credible fear, she will be banned from reapplying for five years.
For now, she is lucky. La Roca may be crowded — at its maximum capacity of 55, like it is now, some women and children sleep on the cold cement floor — but the shelter is a safe haven run by a reformed drug addict with a kind smile and a burning desire to expand, Pastor Renán Torres.
"God changed my life," he said. "He gave me one more opportunity. I'm trying to use it."
He stood next to an open fire that blackened the bottom of a bucket heating water for the men's shower. Behind him, a group of men cut rebar with a handsaw for a new bunk bed. He takes people in off the street, people from the Northern Triangle, southern Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
"They are seeking refuge," Pastor Torres said. "We teach them the word and bless them with love and understanding."
If her asylum officer finds Cortés' fear of repatriation credible, she may remain in custody before she sees an immigration judge who will make a final determination.
Or ICE could release her until that hearing, which means she would end up in a van or bus without shoelaces, bound for a shelter in Tucson or Phoenix.
On an overcast Saturday, the new home of Casa Alitas looks exactly like the monastery it used to be, with classic southwest salmon-colored walls and a turquoise dome. It is attended by palm trees, manicured shrubs and a broad collection of cactus plants. Carved ornately in wood above the front door are the words "Benedictine Sanctuary of Perpetual Adoration."
Catholic Community Services is converting the monastery into a new kind of sanctuary, one with 40 rooms reserved for Central American families released by ICE. Tucson has a longer history of accepting ICE releases, but the spike in asylum cases prompted CCS to expand.
Fortunately, new volunteers have emerged. And they are hooked, said Dr. Kenneth Iserson, professor emeritus of emergency medicine at the nearby University of Arizona.
"We have a variety of religions working side-by-side here, and everybody has the same attitude, the same common religious values," he said. "In Judaism, it's called Tikkun Olam," which is a concept of acts of kindness performed to repair the world.
Just before noon, a white van labeled Department of Homeland Security turns into the sanctuary's driveway and pulls around to the back door. Another ICE agent delivers another manifest to a volunteer while 11 migrants disembark and stand patiently in a line.
They do not have shoelaces.
While one volunteer, Irene Murillo of the Diocese of Tucson, greets them — "Bienvenidos" (welcome) — others swiftly hand out bananas, oranges and bottles of water. After a brief explanation — "We are not the government; we are private church people. We want to help you" — and some rules, she guides them inside.
"They're so afraid," she says later. "I love to receive them and tell them they have a safe place to stay and will have all the resources they need, including tickets to where they are going and help from immigration lawyers."
A human assembly line develops. A new van is expected every hour of the afternoon until 80 new asylum seekers are delivered. The anticipation of a long day creates excitement and stress. Volunteer coordinator Diego Lopez polices the troops, urging them to follow protocols, reduce chaos and move families from station to station efficiently.
The first stop is a row of chairs in a dimly lit hallway. Volunteers complete medical intake forms. After two doctors from a Jewish synagogue conduct routine exams, the families move into the cafeteria and gratefully devour a hot meal.
Dr. Iserson brushes aside the long day.
"I'd probably be interested in adopting at least half the kids I see," he said. "They're cute. They're bright. They're happy. They're going to make awesome Americans."
In fact, only about 30 percent will be granted full asylum by an immigration judge later this year. Twelve months after that they will receive a green card. The rest will be repatriated, sent back to their home countries.
The next station is a review of passports and other paperwork the families brought with them or received from ICE. In this room and the travel room that comes next, volunteers explain how critical it is that the families appear in the ICE-sanctioned court near their sponsors within 14 days. In the travel room, a staffer calls a family's sponsor, obtains payment from them for bus fare or plane tickets and begins to arrange travel.
The Deseret News spoke with families bound for Baltimore, Los Angeles and Caldwell, Idaho, among others. While one family got up and moved down a hallway to get flu shots, a man who arrived two days earlier bundled out the door to ride with a volunteer to the Tucson bus depot to catch his bus to Kansas.
Casa Alitas is far from the only game in town. In fact, Tucson has a long history of receiving migrant releases from ICE. A few years ago, the agency was dropping busloads of people off at bus stations and other public places. Juanita Molina of Border Action Network suggested it involve faith-based organizations.
She gave ICE the number of a Methodist bishop, and the Inn Project was born. It provides a shelter similar to Casa Alitas. Lutheran Social Services is intertwined with those and operates other projects, like refugee resettlement. A Mennonite congregation provides support. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will open a welcome center in the monastery soon, replicating what its service missionaries already have started in Mesa and Phoenix. The center will begin providing classes soon.
"These faith communities have taken on a tremendous role of modeling this and providing this care and comfort and providing it in such a way that the federal government is comfortable," Molina said. "When I look at this faith-based effort, I really think we are working to be a beacon of God's love on earth."
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild applauded the faith community via email.
"For years, churches in Tucson have stepped up to help immigrants released by ICE with such essentials as food, shelter and clothing as they work to get to their destination city in the United States," he said. "Tucson is a diverse city, an immigrant-welcoming city, a city where people care about and for each other, and we consider these to be among our greatest strengths."
The Arizona Republic reported last week that a citizen petition seeks an official declaration of Tucson as a sanctuary city.
Fleeing a gang
The final stop on the Casa Alitas assembly line is the clothing room. Donations are lagging behind, so each person is allowed to fill a new backpack with two sets of clothing. While his 14-year-old girl picks through the racks same as she would in a shopping mall, a fit 36-year-old father tells a harrowing tale about rescuing her and his 12-year-old son from gang initiation in Honduras.
With a Los Angeles Chargers cap perched on his head, he pulls up videos on his phone that show the girl jumping over a wall as 200 young gang members try to grab her. The videos were posted on social media by girls trying to shame his children for not joining the gang.
"They did not want to leave," he says. "I didn't want to come, either, but I couldn't risk my kids' lives."
The girl finds a knitted pink beanie. Delighted, she puts in her backpack. Finally alone, the family walks up the stairs to look for room 238. There they find three metal cots covered with blankets. Their top concern is towels and the location of the showers. They haven't bathed since being taken into custody.
This family requested anonymity. The father said he wants to return home when it is safe, but that is not his immediate concern. He owes his sponsors money; they wired a total of $2,000 to him as he brought his children north on buses and paid for rooms.
"I'm in debt up to my forehead," he says. "My biggest concern is to find work and pay them back."
That is complicated. Federal rules prohibit asylum seekers to work during the first six months.
He is excited for his children to learn English and attend school, but even that produces anxiety.
"I don't know English," he says. "How will I help my children with their schoolwork?"
For all the unknowns he will do what he did on their journey, which included a bad foot injury that cost the family a month: He will pray.
"Call unto me," he says, quoting Jeremiah 33:3, "and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not."
When the ICE releases picked up in Phoenix last fall, the pastor at the Phoenix-area church we visited wanted to help. He began by volunteering at the first church that was accepting busloads of migrants.
"I couldn't sleep when I saw what was happening on the news," he said. "You feel for them. I was grateful for the opportunity to help. We see this as a privilege. This is what we teach."
A few weeks later, while he prepared to conduct his 5 p.m. church service on a Sunday afternoon in mid-November, he took an urgent call. The leader of the church where he had been volunteering said ICE had two more busloads of asylum seekers the sanctuary couldn't handle. Could the pastor's congregation shelter them?
He had two hours to prepare to receive 50 people.
"I called our church leaders," he said. "Thank God they responded. By 7 p.m. we had volunteers, 50 sleeping bags or blankets and a meal done. We were ready."
He felt blessed.
"I had started a series of sermons called 'Compassion in Action,' about having a willing heart to provide time and money to help others. That day, I was preaching the parable of the Good Samaritan. That's what we're called to do. That's the best example of what being a true Christian is. It's not what we do on Sunday; it's what we do during the week. When I sent out the message, they responded immediately."
The pastor also said yes immediately when the man asked if he could lace up his shoes.
He clomped back to the picnic table and told his family. They grabbed their backpacks from under the benches and pulled out the long strings. The man put his foot on a bench and strung a shoelace through one eyelet and then another.
Others noticed. Soon, dozens of people were doing the same. A woman blew bubbles that little children chased. A ball appeared and boys played soccer. The sun stood a little taller in the Arizona sky.