Phoenix Organizes to House Migrant Families

Phoenix, Arizona is one of the main cities where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are releasing migrant families awaiting asylum claims, often with no food or water. Sometimes the families, many with young children, are just dumped at the bus station and left to fend for themselves. Many people in Phoenix active in defending the migrant families felt this was a way to further terrorize the families while overwhelming those organizing against detentions and deportations and for the right to asylum. But the Phoenix community responded by stepping up their efforts, organizing a wide network of 30 churches and other facilities to house and feed about 1,400 migrants a week, many of them families with young children. Generally, families released in Phoenix only stay about a week until transportation is available to reach their sponsors or family members in other cities.

Recently, in what appears to be a direct effort by CBP and ICE to undermine the organizing efforts, many migrant families are now being released in nearby Yuma. Yuma is a city of about 100,000, with one migrant shelter housing 200 people. Officials there were told the shelter was only to serve as an "overflow" for migrants who could not be released at shelters in Phoenix.

Since October, the Border Patrol had been transferring migrant families detained in Yuma to ICE, which then transported them to Phoenix. But at the end of March, the arrangement suddenly changed and CBP began transferring fewer families to ICE custody and instead began releasing them in Yuma.

In April, Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls was forced to declare a state of emergency to deal with the flood of migrant families being released by CBP. Meanwhile, Phoenix saw a significant decrease in families and the hundreds of beds available were going empty. Organizers say the government is purposely creating chaos and striving to make conditions more difficult for migrants and communities alike.

Another example involves St. Vincent De Paul in Phoenix. In late March, the church agreed to let ICE release up to 100 migrants daily at one of its dining halls to provide a safe place for them to stay during the day until they could be driven to local churches to spend the night. The opening of the dining hall was intended to prevent ICE from dumping large groups of migrant families at the Greyhound bus station, or on the street, as the agency had done on several occasions before the network of churches had been developed.

But just two days after the St. Vincent De Paul dining hall opened to migrant families, the CBP announced it had started releasing migrant families in Yuma instead. CBP is also releasing families in Blythe, a city of only about 20,000 on the Arizona line. They are doing so even though many of the migrant families released in Yuma and Blythe are headed to cities in Eastern states, and must pass through Phoenix anyway. Yet CBP and ICE are organizing to not bring them to Phoenix.

Data provided by Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, one of the main defenders of migrant families in Phoenix, shows that during the 11-day period from April 14 to April 25, the number of migrants released by ICE in Phoenix fluctuated between 50 and 234 daily. On all but one day during that period, the number of migrants released by ICE fell far below capacity at the nearly 30 churches currently providing shelter on a rotating basis.

For example, on April 25, ICE released 70 migrants in Phoenix on a day when the capacity at local churches was 220. So far this fiscal year, the Border Patrol has seen a 374 per cent increase in the number of migrant families arriving at the border compared to the same period last year, from 39,975 to 189,584, according to CBP data.

In the Border Patrol's Yuma sector, apprehensions of migrant families have increased 273 per cent so far this fiscal year, from 6,487 to 24,194, the data shows. ICE released 153,000 between December 21 and April 22, according to statistics provided by the agency. Of those, 26,700 were released by ICE in Arizona, 14,800 in San Diego area, 49,300 in El Paso area and 62,200 in the San Antonio area.

Immigrant rights organizers emphasize that migrant families are fleeing horrendous conditions in their home countries, often created by U.S. interference, and have a legal right to pursue their asylum case in the U.S. Many also feel ICE and CBP are acting in a manner to justify further attacks on migrant families and at the border more generally. "I think the broad goal in all of this is to create the impression that our country is under siege by refugees from Central America," said an attorney who is executive director of Refugee Aid. The Phoenix-based non-profit collects food, clothing and other necessities to distribute to migrants released by ICE and some volunteers also host migrant families in their homes.

Layal Rabat, a spokeswoman for the Phoenix Restoration Project, another community group helping migrant families, feels the Trump administration is intentionally creating chaos in border communities to provide ammunition to attack the Flores agreement, a court-settlement that prevents the federal government from holding migrant families who ask for asylum for more than 20 days. She also worries that the Trump administration is trying to justify plans to build large detention facilities to hold migrant families indefinitely by creating chaos in border communities.

In Phoenix, as in El Paso, San Antonio, San Diego and many other cities contending with government attacks on migrant families, people are rejecting these efforts to justify further criminalization and dehumanizing of people and instead stepping up efforts to defend the rights of all.

This article was published in

Volume 49 Number 17 - May 11, 2019

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Phoenix Organizes to House Migrant Families


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