By Marta Vázquez’s count, since Christmas she’s welcomed 306 newly arrived Central American parents and their children to spend the night at her house in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona.
The families had all spent days in federal custody after presenting themselves at the southern border, and had nowhere to spend the night after immigration officials released them in Phoenix. They did not have bus tickets, money or functioning phones.
Over the last three months, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released a reported 107,000 parents and children in Texas, Arizona and California. Shelters, churches and volunteers like Vázquez have stepped in to help these families get to their next destinations. Most are trying to join relatives and friends elsewhere in the US.
On a couple urgent occasions, Vázquez and her husband hosted more than 40 people in their home at once.
“I cannot leave them on the street. I just can’t. I cannot leave a child in danger, hungry and cold.”
“I cannot leave them on the street,” said Vázquez, a 44-year-old Honduran immigrant and US Army veteran. “I just can’t. I cannot leave a child in danger, hungry and cold.”
ICE’s mass releases are a contrast to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy last spring, in which the US government sought to criminally prosecute parents for crossing the border and separated them from their children. Systematic family separations ended last June. Since then, a federal judge reaffirmed that immigration officials cannot detain families with children for more than 20 days.
As a result, immigration officials are quickly releasing families from federal custody — so quickly that some observers describe the process as chaotic. Volunteers who help the families say they often do not have sufficient notice before ICE drops them off at area bus stations.
Some of the families are asylum-seekers fleeing violence. They either endure long waits to present themselves at official border crossings between the US and Mexico, or cross the border illegally and turn themselves in to Border Patrol. Others turn themselves in without indicating they are seeking asylum, according to immigration officials. The ICE office in Phoenix says the majority of the families coming through Arizona are from Guatemala. Others come from Honduras and El Salvador.
All will face immigration court hearings and mandatory check-ins with ICE when they arrive at their destinations. Some parents must wear GPS ankle bracelets.
The plight of these families feels personal to Vázquez. She fled violence in Honduras as a young mother 26 years ago and was granted asylum in the United States.
“I see myself in every single one of these immigrants,” she said. “And in each little face of the kids, I see the child that I brought with me.”
An underground network
The text messages exchanged among the Phoenix volunteer network are constant. They coordinate rides, housing, food, donated clothes and travel arrangements for the families.
“We have eight families who need a place to stay.”
“Drivers we have an emergency situation and need immediate help.”
“If you are bilingual or have trusted friends who are, we are looking for help.”
ICE drops off up to 300 families per day in Phoenix, according to the agency. When there is room at local churches, ICE will bring families there. Otherwise, ICE offers migrant families transportation to the local Greyhound bus station.
Demand for volunteer aid has increased recently due to a combination of factors: more families are arriving at the US border, shifts in ICE procedures on managing families, and a change in Greyhound policy aimed at barring stranded migrants from waiting inside its stations.
It used to be routine for ICE to ensure immigrants released from its custody already had bus or plane tickets purchased, usually by relatives. But in October, ICE changed the practice. It now releases families without travel arrangements.
That shift has “greatly increased the labor of the volunteer network,” said Michael Stancliff, a volunteer who has been helping migrants and asylum-seekers for the last five years with the Phoenix Restoration Project.
Stancliff said now families must often spend a couple nights in Phoenix as they reach out to relatives and friends who can arrange travel. They often stay with volunteers as they wait for their buses or planes to depart. In that time, they need food, shelter, clean clothes and showers — a big undertaking for local churches and volunteers.
“It creates the perception of a crisis … It creates the perception that we are overwhelmed by people being released from detention.”
“It creates the perception of a crisis,” Stancliff said of ICE’s highly visible mass drop-offs of families without onward travel arrangements. “It creates the perception that we are overwhelmed by people being released from detention.”
But ICE has said the change has to do with the higher volume of families crossing the border and the legal mandate to release families within 20 days. In February, 36,000 parents and children were taken into US Border Patrol custody at the border — more than six times the number in February 2018.
Henry Lucero, field office director for ICE in Phoenix, said once his agency clears a family for release, “we no longer have the legal authority to detain them. They are free to go.”
ICE cites the same reason for why it cannot consistently offer volunteer and community groups more notice before drop-offs.
Recently, Greyhound announced ICE can no longer drop families off inside their bus stations, and families cannot enter without a ticket. In Phoenix, ICE now leaves families on a nearby street corner.
Volunteers say this change has put pressure on them to quickly find a safe place for families, then transport the families to that location. Given the country’s heated debate over immigration, some say they fear there could be violent confrontations if the families are left stranded outside the bus station.
A local group known as AZ Patriots has been protesting the arriving families for months. In a video posted to Facebook, protesters can be heard shouting “Criminals!” and “You do not qualify for asylum. Go home!” as ICE drops off families at a local church.
Volunteers housing migrants keep the locations of where they shelter families secret to avoid protesters. Those who come to pick up families to host at their homes are supposed to know a password of the day and show their identifidation, said Jen, the director of All Hands AZ, a volunteer and grassroots coalition with more than 500 people in its network.
Jen asked to only use her first name, since she said people who oppose these families entering the country have sent her hateful messages and attempted to “dox” her by publicizing her personal information.
“It really is quite an underground railroad we have all had to commit to.”
“This has been an underground effort, the whole thing. Everything is within trusted contacts,” she said. “It really is quite an underground railroad we have all had to commit to.”
On a recent evening, volunteers transported 60 parents and kids who had been left at the bus station to an empty banquet hall. Other volunteers had already secured food, water and donated clothes. A weary-looking dad walked in, holding his young son’s hand, while a mother with a small baby waited to visit with a volunteer doctor. A small boy rooted through a pile of donated clothes, giggling when he found a new pair of bright green Nike sneakers in his size.
All Hands AZ is calling on state and city officials to create a designated shelter for families coming out of ICE custody. San Diego County recently opened such a shelter.
“Long term, I don’t know how we will do this without greater support,” Jen said. “We just want the local and state government to step up and help us create something that is sustainable. And what is sustainable is a dedicated space.”
Lucero of ICE said he believes the number of families coming to the border will “continue to climb” unless Congress changes immigration laws so ICE can have the option of detaining families longer — a proposal immigrant rights’ advocates oppose.
ICE is bound by a 1997 legal settlement in a case known as Flores, which says immigrant families with children cannot to be detained longer than 20 days. A federal judge last summer denied the Trump administration’s request to modify the settlement agreement.
Lucero said the requirement to release families swiftly encourages more people to come with children to the border.
“That information is all over Central America, and that’s what’s driving this increase of these numbers that we haven’t seen before in this area,” Lucero said.
Temporary house guests
The policy debate feels far away from 38-year-old Kate’s Phoenix living room, where she has been hosting Central American families. She asked to only be identified by her first name to protect the location of her home.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America, and so many people throughout my travels have opened their doors to me,” said Kate, who works in higher education. “I’ve really wanted to just be able to return the favor.”
Two young Guatemalan girls who arrived with their mother decorated Kate’s driveway with colorful chalk drawings of flowers and rainbows. After they boarded a bus to Mississippi, a Guatemalan father and his 16-year-old son rested inside Kate’s house, listening to the radio quietly while she was at work.
“I am going to thank you guys who live here in the United States, you are good people to us,” the father said in Spanish, his second language. “You gave us food and where to sleep, everything. I don’t have anything to thank you with, but God will bless you.”
Then he and his son departed on a bus for Florida, leaving vacant a spot for the next family.