Tucsonans have long history of offering sanctuary
Local groups aid undocumented immigrants
TUCSON – It’s late Friday night and only a few quiet souls are waiting in the stark, cold Greyhound bus station to continue their journeys.
Among them is Luz Tejada, a 36-year-old woman from Peru wearing a borrowed sweater and a weary expression. She sits on a bench near a line of vending machines, clutching only a small purse.
Tejada’s journey began when she fled an abusive relationship. When she reached the U.S.-Mexico border, she walked through the desert with others, guided by a coyote – a human smuggler – into the United States. But the U.S. Border Patrol quickly caught the group and she was sent to the federal detention center in Eloy, about 50 miles northwest of Tucson, where she was held for more than a month.
On this night she was among a group of a few women who were released on their own recognizance, pending hearings on their applications for asylum. Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped them off at the bus station in Tucson, per ICE’s weekly routine.
Like the others, Tejada had no extra clothes, no money, and very few belongings with her. But as she and the other women were dropped off, volunteers from Casa Mariposa, a faith-based community for social justice, were waiting for them.
Every week, the volunteers offer the released detainees something to eat, a small amount of cash for bus fare, and a warm, caring approach – a momentary sanctuary.
Tucson has a long history of setting the stage for offering immigrants sanctuary, playing a key role in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s that sought to give refugees from Central America a safe haven after fleeing political repression.
While Tucson officials today say they do not consider the city a designated place of sanctuary, the human rights work continues through local organizations like Casa Mariposa and another Tucson-based center that serves migrants called Casa San Juan.
Casa San Juan
Casa San Juan was started in 2002 by the Diocese of Tucson, at the request of leaders and members of the St. John the Evangelical Catholic Church.
One of its founders, the Rev. Raul Trevizo, said the center was started in a joint effort with the Pima County Interfaith Council, an organization of churches in the area.
“I was concerned with what was happening to our immigrant families, and so I brought together the catechist which is those that teach religion and speak Spanish,” Trevizo said.
He had asked the group what could be done for the immigrant community, and one woman responded with what would be their founding idea.
“One lady came back with the response of ‘If they had a place where they could go to get the right information and they knew they were safe, that would be extremely helpful,’ ” said Trevizo, who added that the center was started shortly after.
It was the first center serving migrants in the Diocese, and remains the only the center that exclusively serves migrants.
Today, Casa San Juan is a quaint, white, pueblo-style building that sits on the grounds of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church on Tucson's South Side.
According to Trevizo, a myriad of services can be requested at Casa San Juan.
Everything from free medical clinics, non-perishable foods, prepared meals, and legal advice are offered to those who come knocking.
“The needs have become more desperate, people are facing more desperation with employers’ sanctions and fear from immigration sweeps,” Trevizo said.
Casa San Juan’s main goal is to provide help to immigrant families and work for justice to improve the quality of life for those in Tucson’s poorest areas.
“These people are in despair, and there’s a fear and weariness,” Trevizo said.
Trevizo, a middle-aged native of Arizona with gentle eyes and a soft disposition, said the center sees and helps about 200 people a week.
Most of those who come in for Casa San Juan’s services are local women and some men who are passing through the city, Trevizo said.
The women, according to Trevizo, are usually between the ages of 25 and 40, and need food to get their families through the week.
Food is a large part of Casa San Juan’s hospitality. Casa San Juan spends most of its donated money on purchasing non–perishables and prepared meals for patrons.
That night at the bus station, food and support were what volunteers from Casa Mariposa offered the group of released women.
Casa Mariposa started in the spring of 2009, and is an organization that functions like a community blending faith and action.
Casa Mariposa is based out of a seven-room century-old house, painted red and grey with a bright blue fence, not far from downtown Tucson. There, the volunteers live, work, and commit their lives to helping those in need.
The program began when like-minded volunteers from different religious backgrounds came together to form the ecumenical social justice organization, The Restoration Project.
The Restoration Project is the name for the work the community members do for detainees who have been released and need help.
“From the beginning, our community has pooled our resources to pay for the house where some of the community lives and where we offer hospitality,” said Carol Bradsen, one of the founding leaders at Casa Mariposa.
Dozens of volunteers have been working since April to respond to the needs of men and women who are dropped off at the Greyhound Bus Station from Eloy.
The migrants released from detention centers, like the one in Eloy, are released for a number of reasons: some make bond, some are granted humanitarian parole and others are set free by a judge. Many apply for asylum.
While they are awaiting adjudication of their cases, they are all authorized to be in the United States and are free to travel at their own expense. Some win their cases to stay, Bradsen added.
Once detainees at the detention centers find out they will be released, ICE has said that they have time to make travel arrangements if they are able. However, migrants that end up staying with Casa Mariposa say otherwise, according to Bradsen.
In 2003, there were 42,114 claims for asylum filed with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Bureau, and the percentage of cases approved was 29 percent of cases decided, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
Tejada had been released on a pending asylum case after her month–long stay in Eloy, and explains the stay at the detention center from two perspectives.
At first, getting caught by Border Patrol was “a relief,” she said in Spanish through a translator.
“There’s no way to prepare walking through the desert,” said Tejada of the physical exertion it takes, and for the mental preparedness of witnessing some unfortunate things.
She mentions painful blisters that develop on their feet, the scorching heat from the sun, and the long journey with no food or water.
Tejada said that if someone in the group falls behind from lack of water, or fatigue, they are left for dead out in the desert.
Women are raped out in the pitch-black of night, Tejada explained, with no one to help, and one woman actually had to leave her husband behind who likely died.
Life at the detention center
From another perspective, getting caught and being taken to the center meant they didn’t have to be subjected to the elements of heat, danger and horror anymore, yet incarceration had other challenges.
“Life (at the detention center) is very sad,” said Tejada, “everyone has their own story.”
Tejada added that the detention center was crowded, mentioning that in one area she was put in, “there were a hundred people.”
According to Tejada, her time in the detention center was a nervous waiting game.
While dealing with the embarrassment of having to be stripped searched, she faced the uncertainty of what would happen to her, or whether she would ever be released.
“I didn’t realize that the state would actually offer asylum to women abused and battered,” Tejada said.
Her case still has to be proven as a legitimate abuse case by both the United States and Peru, to receive asylum.
“It all depends on the court, the judge,” Tejada added.
On this night, Tejada was awaiting a bus to take her to Maryland, where her sister and a few other family members are living.
Tejada’s personal experience at the detention center is mirrored in another woman, a 20-year-old from Guatemala who asked to be called Nancy.
Nancy, with her possessions contained in a black backpack, sat that night at the bus station near Tejada and another woman with curly back hair who didn’t want to talk.
At first glance, Nancy looked to be a woman in her 40s; her face was weather–beaten and reflected the fatigue of a long, unsettled journey.
She spoke softly and timidly in Spanish, about her similar trek through the Mexican desert and her time spent at the Eloy Detention Center.
“We came through the canyons in Nogales,” said Nancy, “And we were caught, and were asked questions about our vitals.”
Initially, Nancy left Guatemala due to what she described as personal problems.
“A man there was constantly assaulting me,” Nancy said.
After her arrest, Nancy became one of the 1,476 people who on an average day are detained at the Eloy center.
“Obviously the services aren’t the best, but they fed us and gave us water,” said Nancy.
Nancy added that she was released on “trust and faith” that she could find work. She was waiting for a bus to take her to Connecticut to join her parents and siblings.
Stories like Tejada’s and Nancy’s, once played out mainly in the Southwest, are now commonplace throughout the country.
In Alabama, a new law known as House Bill 56, is now considered one of the toughest laws concerning illegal immigration in the country.
An Alabama judge has blocked some portions of the law, namely sections that would require public schools to verify students’ immigration status, and authorize local police to inquire about a driver’s immigration status during routine traffic stops or arrests if there is reasonable suspicion for that person being in the country illegally.
Despite the law’s key points being blocked, churches and activist organizations there are stepping up their efforts to provide for the needs of the undocumented community.
“Being undocumented has always been difficult, but now it’s near impossible,” said Bart Thau, a pastor at the United Methodist Church in Pleasant Hill, Alabama.
Thau, who also the chair of the Board of Directors of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, explained that while the church doesn’t have a set program for hospitality toward undocumented immigrants, the church does a lot on it’s own for the congregation.
“We always do try to get the physical needs met,” added Thau, of the members of the church who happened to be undocumented.
The church provides a food bank, part–day childcare, gives out gift cards during the holidays, and helps people understand their legal options and resources.
Yet, Thau mentions they are unable to meet one of the biggest needs he sees out there in Alabama.
“We can’t give them work or jobs,” Thau said.
“People want to be self-sufficient, that’s the hardest need to me, and you can’t meet that need,” he added.
The efforts of groups like Thau’s in Alabama and Casa Mariposa and Casa San Juan in Tucson don’t go unappreciated. For the women at the Tucson bus station that cold Friday night, even the simplest gestures made quite the difference.
“It’s so wonderful to know that we are here with nothing, and that an organization that doesn’t know us is reaching out to us,” said Tejada, as she was clutching a manila envelop of Casa Mariposa’s papers and wiping tears from her eyes.
And then the silent woman with the black curly hair sitting among Nancy and Tejada that late night, spoke just as volunteers from Casa Mariposa leaving to let the women get some rest before the buses came.
“All we can do now is leave it up to God, “she said.