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Tucson motel shelters Central American migrants after release by ICE

With her hands wrapped around a styrofoam cup full of soup and wearing an overly-large maroon sweater, a six-year-old girl from Guatemala still shivered against freezing rain as she waited for her mom, who stood in line to get soup, tortillas, and a small salad — one of dozens of meals served from the window of a motel room by volunteers. 

In another motel room, a doctor who volunteered his time pressed his stethoscope against an eight-year-old boy's back and listened to his breathing as his father reassured him. 

And, in a third room, people talked on cellphones and began working through travel arrangements for people, scheduling bus tickets and airline flights. 

The motel has become an ad-hoc way station for migrants in recent days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel dropped off around 160 people on Christmas Eve. 

On Thursday, another 70 arrived, marking the fourth time that ICE has asked local religious groups to quickly find shelter for migrants, mostly asylum-seekers from Guatemala, said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for Catholic Community Services.

"ICE has no choice," Cavendish said. "They're under a directive to find shelter, and in absence of shelter space, release people to the streets." 

Cavendish said that ICE officials in Tucson are "doing everything they can" to avoid dropping people off a local Greyhound bus terminals, in an effort to avoid replicating scenes of families sleeping in buses as they did in El Paso earlier this week. 

ICE has become increasingly reliant on religious groups to give shelter to migrants, as hundreds of people — mostly families with children seeking asylum — have crossed into Arizona either along the border near Yuma and Lukeville, or have headed to U.S. ports. This has strained the agency's meager shelter space for families, and so, ICE began releasing them, often with nothing more than a document called a Notice-to-Appear in court, and an ankle-monitor strapped to a parent's leg. 

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While this has been occurring in Tucson since 2014, the numbers have increased significantly, rising to more than 6,000 released in Arizona alone. 

Just days before Christmas, Border Patrol said that agents had apprehended 306 people in a 24-hour period, including a group of 242 who turned themselves over to agents about 15 miles west of Lukeville, 110 miles southwest of Tucson. 

On Thursday night, ICE officials left 80 people at the Greyhound station in Phoenix, the Arizona Republic reported. 

A request for comment at ICE went unanswered as many federal staffers are currently furloughed, including those in ICE's public affairs office. 

"All of ICE’s public affairs officers are out of the office for the duration of the duration of the government shutdown. We are unable to respond to media queries during this period because we are prohibited by law from working," the agency said in an email.

With just a few hours' notice, Cavendish said that community groups quickly pulled together, organizing shelter spaces, and launching clothing and food drives. 

Usually, local groups can manage about 100 people at a time, and they expect to see around 40 or so from ICE at any given time, but on Friday, ICE told Cavendish that they needed to send 300 people to Casa Alitas, the shelter run by Catholic Community Services.

"I didn't have a rabbit in my hat, the community pulled this together," Cavendish said. That includes not just Casa Alitas, but also several other churches and humanitarian groups. 

As a doctor asked questions in Spanish, Dr. Richard Wahl, a doctor at Banner University Medical Center, helped organize the inventory of medicines that were available. "We're seeing a lot of issues that are related to detention. Not only are we seeing dehydrated, hungry and tired people, but we're seeing coughs, sore throats, runny noses," he said. 

The health of migrants, especially children, has taken priority after two children died while they were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the El Paso Sector, which covers New Mexico and a western tip of Texas. 

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The first, seven-year-old Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, died on Dec. 8, in an El Paso hospital 26 hours after she was apprehended, along with her father and 161 other people, by Border Patrol agents near Antelope Wells, N.M., a lonely stretch of terrain in the state's boot-heel. 

And, on Christmas Eve, eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo, died of complications from the flu at a hospital in Alamagordo, N.M.

The deaths of the two children in CBP custody was a "game-changer," Wahl said. "We're looking for sick kids, and we've sent a few to the to the ER because they gave us a scare," he said. 

The flu, especially combined with the dehydration that many migrants experience in detention, could be dangerous for kids, he said. "And, we're doing this the best we can, and we've been doing it since the first of October," Wahl said. 

Next to the room where people were arranging travel, and charging up malfunctioning ankle monitors, another room was devoted to clothing. "People have lost everything on their journey to the U.S., and we want to make sure they have what they need to travel," said Cavendish. 

Along with undergarments and warm jackets, people needed blankets, backpacks and beanie hats suitable to cover the heads of babies, she said. 

As Cavendish spoke, a Guatemalan woman grabbed a blanket, and neatly folded it to creating a swaddle to carry her six-month old. 

In the kitchen, Victoria Ortiz, a native of Chile, served food as a volunteer along with her daughter and son. For her, speaking to the migrants has been poignant. 

"There are some sad stories, and some funny ones," she said. 

 One girl asked for her help, telling Ortiz that she was sexually assaulted during the journey, and they discovered together that she was pregnant. "Everything will be alright," she told the girl. 

Later, one of the men asked to help out, and she told him to grab a mop and clean the floor. After a few minutes of watching him struggle with the mop, she tried to gently critique him. "Did your wife do all the cleaning?" The man told her, that no, he could clean, but he'd never mopped the floors at home because their house had a dirt floor. "Oh, I felt so bad," Ortiz said. 

"They keep telling me that they just want to work the land, but they say 'we lost our land and those who have it, don't pay enough'" Ortiz said. "They tell me that sometimes they only eat beans and tortillas once a week, and that kids die of hunger." 

Ortiz said that some migrants complain of their treatment at the hands of Border Patrol agents, including agents who told a girl that she was ugly, and other agents who told cold detainees that they could always make the detention cells colder. 

"I don't under that, we all breathe, we're all people," Ortiz said. 

Dr. Delle McCormick, the senior pastor at the Rincon Congregational United Church of Christ, said that she was happy to help.

"Just getting dropped off on the street is very traumatic for people who have already been traumatized," McCormick said. "Our job is just to love up on them." 

"There's a real hunger out there for people to come and help. People are just waiting for the opportunity to do something to help, and give people loving support through the asylum process, which very difficult, even cruel," she said. "This is the story of Jesus, and especially around Christmas, how could we not open ourselves up to help?" 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Migrants wait in line for food at a Tucson motel, one of several rooms that serve as a temporary shelter operated by Catholic Community Services.

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