Casa Alitas is a non-profit, immigrant welcome center near the border in Tucson, Arizona. The compassion offering for Casa Alitas from our congregation will help people at the border find a safer, more secure life.
Casa Alitas provides a warm welcome, food, clothing, and shelter for a few days for legal asylum seekers who have crossed the border. It also makes travel arrangements for people to reach the homes of their sponsors in the United States. Casa Alitas provides services to 500 to 1,000 guests every day.
ORUCC has a hands-on history with Casa Alitas, particularly through our annual clothing drive, such as the drive ongoing now. In addition, a number of us have had the opportunity to volunteer at Casa Alitas.
Funds from the compassion offering will provide direct services to immigrant families. Funds will
buy items for play bags for children,
pay for transportation to reunite families who have been separated at the border,
buy plane tickets for people to reach the homes of their sponsors in the United States, and
pay for the food, medical services, and shelter provided by Casa Alitas.
March 12, 2023 One by one, they enter Casa Alitas, dragging large, orange onion bags containing all their belongings, all dressed in the same dark blue paper-like ‘scrubs’ they were given by Border Patrol. With the exception of women with young families, they have spent the last few days in a detention (prison) camp, a congregate setting, sleeping on a hard floor with foil ‘sheets’ and eating frozen burritos. Some left home one-two weeks ago, many left home one-two months ago. The majority of them have made their way by foot, van, or air (for those with money to fly) to our southern border where they have stepped onto American soil to claim asylum.
I have tried many times to put myself in the shoes of these guests arriving at Casa Alitas. Would I ever make the decision they have made, leaving their home country and, for many, leaving loved ones behind? In talking with them, they tell me that it was a difficult but necessary choice. Many of them shutter as they talk of armed men knocking at the doors of their homes, demanding money that they may or may not have, holding their children ransom if they don’t give what they have. They seek security and freedom from fear. Younger men say they have been told that there are jobs in the United States. They yearn to work so they can send money back to their families. Whenever I feel a hint of feeling sorry for myself, these are the people I think of. It doesn’t take long to change me around.
So they come; many, many come, with few possessions, but lots and lots of Hope. And I am so fortunate to be in a position to greet them. As many of you who are reading this know, I am a volunteer at Casa Alitas, the immigrant welcome center in Tucson, AZ. Casa Alitas is here to provide guests a welcome to the United States, an opportunity for a shower, clothes (like those from ORUCC and MMC), and a warm bed and food for a day or so, until arrangements are in place for the next step of their journey to their sponsors.
Guests are greeted at the doors of Casa Alitas with a warm smile, a “Bienvenido,” and, yes, a COVID mask. They arrive in groups of 30 or so via a Border Patrol bus. Following a group brief introduction to Casa Alitas, they sit in rows of chairs where they wait their turn to sit at a table across from people like me to do “intake.” There aren’t many volunteers who are bilingual and available to do intake, so we are in high demand. Of the 100 or so people per day who volunteer at Casa Alitas, I would guess that only 10-15 of us are fluent English-Spanish speakers.
Even though each of us doing intake is gathering the same basic information needed to set up arrangements for food, housing, and travel, I have noticed that each of us has a slightly different approach and way of asking the questions. Mine was inspired by watching my now-friend, UCC Minister Delle McCormick. Think of how our pastors would greet this set of people and marvel at how they seem to find just the right words for the moment. That is what Delle provided for me a number of years ago. I now adapt that to the present.
I know I’m not supposed to do this due to COVID concerns, but I greet everyone with a warm handshake. (Only 1% of our guests tests positive for COVID). I say a silent prayer as I hold their hand. I take a few deep breaths with them and I can feel the release of anxiety. I think they are starting to feel safe. Many break out with warm smiles.
I introduce myself as Ana (Ruthanne is far too difficult for the moment) and ask their name. I show them their name when I enter it into the computer and ask them to check it to make certain it is spelled correctly. This brings another smile – recognition that I know who they are and a sense they can trust me. I explain that I am going to enter information into the computer from their papers so that the people in the next room at the Help Desk will have the information to help them with transportation to their sponsors. They immediately pull out their papers and give them to me. We’re on our way!
The 2-3 pages of looseleaf papers that they give me are now their only ID. Their passports had been confiscated and then tossed by Border Patrol. (Yes, I have seen big piles of passports stashed at the border). The first set of information I ask about is very basic: name, DOB, their new ID number, at what entry point they were registered by Border Patrol. And then the more sensitive information: Are you traveling alone? Were you separated from any family members? I show them the dates that they are to appear in court, the first in about two weeks to confirm their presence in the United States, the second in anywhere from 6 months to 3 years for their first opportunity to plead their case for asylum.
Sometimes I have the opportunity to share one of the welcome postcards from our Madison congregations. They thank me in disbelief that people from a place called Wisconsin would be thinking about them! I love asking the men if they are pregnant – I tell them it’s a question on the form. This never fails to bring a smile and chuckle to the guys, especially the younger men. One said with a chuckle, “That’s the one thing I’m sure about. No, I’m not pregnant!”
I hope I am conveying the emotionality of this moment for these new arrivals. It can certainly be a special moment for me. These moments, especially these initial ones, stand in dramatic contrast to how many have been treated in recent days and weeks. It’s hard for me to accept, whether one agrees with an immigration policy or not, why people are not treated with respect and dignity. But that’s a topic for another day.
Many people ask me how many guests arrive per day at Casa Alitas. The answer is that, just as in past years, the number of guests varies from day to day. Border Patrol notifies Casa Alitas only about an hour before they drop off a busload of people. On one recent day, we welcomed 175 people; on another day we welcomed 547. When I volunteered here the last time, most people were coming from Venezuela, Colombia, and Cuba. Now the majority are coming from Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, and even some from India (I can now do an interview in Punjabi!). There is always at least one busload of Moms with small children. And there is also always one busload of singles, i.e., men traveling alone. And today there was a set of people from Africa, so we were searching for people who could speak French!
After intake, people are asked to go to another area in the room for a COVID test. Nearly everyone tests negative. Those who test positive are immediately isolated and transported to an off-site hotel managed by Catholic Social Services and Casa Alitas staff for a several-day stay. For those who test negative, it’s off to the next room for a meal and a visit to the Help Desk, where staff arrange bus and phone travel to their sponsors. Some guests do make their own bus or flight plans, but most wait for help from staff at the Help Desk to find less expensive flights and better connections than doing it on their own. From this point, it’s off to my favorite part of the day: taking people to the Tienda de Ropa or clothing area.
After the rush of intake, I appreciate that I have the liberty to be a “floater” and do whatever needs to be done. Day before yesterday, I met “Shirley” at intake, a lovely young Latina from Colombia making her way to Sacramento, California to join her husband. I saw Shirley sitting alone with her phone and sat down to talk with her.
She so wanted to take a shower. She didn’t want to wait for a shower in the hotel room where she would be staying that night. I showed her where she could wait in line. A few minutes later she emerged with her long wet black hair hanging down her back and a big smile on her face. I escorted her to the clothing area. This room is the landing place for the clothes from our Madison congregations.
Shirley’s eyes popped at the racks of beautiful clothes. After a short time, she found a pair of pants and a top that she liked. I knew the top would be too short at the midriff but it was clearly what she thought she wanted. She went into the dressing room and tried things on. In a few minutes, she emerged with the top on and a quizzical look on her face. “What do you think about the top,” she asked. I decided to respond with a quizzical look, too. It was important that it be her decision. She responded to my look with a question, “Too short?” I said, “Let’s find a better one.”
We found the perfect top that she tried on and liked. Remember that she was headed to Sacramento. And, sure enough, I looked around and spotted the perfect jacket for her. It was indeed a beautiful jean jacket with embroidered flowers on the front, back, and sleeves. She put it on, and it fit perfectly. Shirley beamed. I said, “It’s Miss California!” For those old enough to remember it, in my mind I could hear Bert Parks singing, “There she is! Miss America!” Big smile. Shirley dropped her former travel clothes in a big bin and strolled out the door, carrying herself like a new woman. Showered, dressed, and ready for the next step of her journey. Granted, this all could have occurred at a local Kohl’s or Penney’s in Madison, but its significance for Shirley at this point and time and place cannot be overestimated.
I’m sure you get a sense of how full the days have been. I’ve been in Tucson now for over two weeks (although the first days don’t count because I was recovering from two 13-hour days of driving). The evenings have been full, too. One of the first evenings was with the Tienda de Ropa volunteers. Peggy Gessner, the person who has met Steve Sheets when he delivers our clothing shipment, sends a shout-out to everyone. Then there was the Casa Alitas community forum the next night, 167 volunteers in attendance, when it was announced that they will be opening a larger center near the current Casa Alitas within the next few weeks. Last night I attended a meeting of the Tucson Samaritans, a group of activists who do “water drops” in the desert areas along the migrant trails. Next week I’ll be driving to the border with a Samaritan friend.
And it hasn’t been all work, no play. The first weekend I didn’t miss the Tucson Jazz Festival, and last weekend was the Tucson Book Festival, largest non-profit festival in the United States, held on the University of Arizona campus. And who did I get to see there but our own Madison-based best-selling author David Maraniss, talking about his new book on Jim Thorpe. This weekend it’s down to Sahuarita, AZ with Ann and Mike Kehl for some time at the Good Shepherd UCC coffeehouse with local folk musician, Larry Worster. On Monday, I’m thrilled that my sister Karla and husband Pat, who are vacationing near Phoenix, will be here to visit. And those of you who know me know that I love good food, so I’ve been keeping some of my favorite Tucson restaurants busy.
And one last personal note. My social network has changed dramatically since the first time I came to volunteer in Tucson six years ago. I came the first time not knowing anyone. Yes, some would call that crazy, I know. But I believed in the humanitarian work of Casa Alitas and felt I could help. Now I am greeted at Casa Alitas with hugs and “so happy to see you again,” dinners with friends like Marian who is ORUCC Jill Westberg’s cousin, and an actual welcome party organized by friends and colleagues here. Know that people here know of the faith-based justice activities that we do in Madison, and they are with us, as we are with them. When I introduced myself as part of the Mennonite worship service last Sunday, several people greeted me after worship with recognition: “Ah. Welcome! You’re with the church that brings clothes to Casa Alitas.” I now extend that greeting to you.
Casa Alitas is a non-profit, immigrant welcome center in Tucson, Arizona. The Center provides a warm welcome, food, clothing, shelter for a few days, medical care, assistance in reuniting families who have been separated at the border, and then assistance for these families with transportation to sponsors who await them in the United States.
ORUCC has a hands-on history with Casa Alitas, even though it is miles away. You may remember that we sponsored a wonderfully successful clothing drive in 2021, and are planning another for this August.
Funds from the compassion offering will be used to provide direct services to immigrant families. For example, it will help reunite families who have been separated at the border, to buy plane tickets for people to reach the homes of their sponsors in the United States, and to pay for the food, medical supplies, and shelter provided by Casa Alitas.
This weekend brings a close to my March-April 2022 volunteer time in Tucson and Casa Alitas. I return to Madison this coming Wednesday (the day before Maundy Thursday of Passion Week). This means packing in all those things on my “want to do before I leave” list. For me, this has meant a trip to wine country south of Tucson (I drank more wine that day than all of COVID time – 4 glasses), Sunday at the Greek Orthodox monastery south of Tucson (positively exquisite), and many lunches and dinners with friends (couldn’t be better – both the friends and the food). All have left my body and soul wonderfully nourished and grateful.
I think the most important lunch for us at ORUCC was with Peggy Gessner, co-lead of the clothing unit at Casa Alitas. You may remember Peggy from our last clothing drive to Casa Alitas. Peggy, delightful as always, shared the ups and downs of maintaining the Tienda de Ropa open while the surge of guests arriving at Casa Alitas has increased. She shared that the most difficult thing she had to do was close the tienda on some days when the numbers of guests was so high that she had to totally close the clothing area because we were not able to serve everyone, so served none (with a few urgent exceptions). On those days, she and her team set up mini units outside the clothing room with sox, underwear and hygiene kits, so at a minimum we could provide those basic items to guests. Peggy was thrilled to hear about the upcoming ORUCC clothing drive and confirmed that any time this summer would serve them well.
The number of guests arriving each day continues to increase as before, stretching every resource. Day before yesterday, we housed 445 people, far exceeding capacity. Out came every cot available. Two local churches agreed to house several families for a few days. If Casa Alitas says that we have reached capacity and cannot accept more, although it’s hard to believe, Border Patrol drops people on the streets or at bus stops, no money and nowhere to go. These people are referred to as street releases. It’s a cruel practice that I’m concerned is going to increase in coming months.
I am told that what is happening at Casa Alitas is also true of Annunciation House, the welcome center in El Paso, Texas. I’m also told that the detention centers themselves are also full. Couples continue to be separated as are those traveling with extended family members. At the same time, it is clear that the pattern of randomness of who is permitted to pass to our doors and who is immediately deported continues to be the case. So hard to hear those stories.
Over the last month, the majority of people arriving at Casa Alitas are families rather than singles. As I mentioned the last time, this has transformed Casa Alitas into a grand child care center. This brings all the delight and challenges you might suspect. I marvel at how young parents travel by plane with their young ones, and can’t imagine what the lives of these parents have been like in recent months as they make their way to us. We pass out bags of toys and coloring books to the children. We’re rewarded with happy smiles. I never cease to be amazed at how well behaved the children are, perhaps by force of necessity – I don’t know. In any case, I love spending time with them.
The policy that is prompting so many families to come our way is referred to as Title 42. Title 42 is the controversial policy that allows Customs and Border Protection to turn migrants away in the name of public health and back across the border without allowing them to file for asylum. Unless something changes, the policy is slated to end on May 23, less than two weeks from today. Border Patrol has already started to permit more and more people to enter the country, pre staging the repeal itself. This has all been hitting the headlines.
To me it is irresponsible to end the policy without putting in place preparations for the impact of the repeal. At the same time, I view the policy as a violation of the rights of migrants and one that puts the lives of migrants in even more danger. It’s a moral dilemma.
The government has been using Title 42 on the U.S.-Mexico border to turn migrants away without allowing them to apply for asylum, regardless of their country of origin or reason for traveling. The right to request asylum is guaranteed by both international and U.S. law.
The way it’s supposed to work is if a noncitizen comes to our border seeking asylum, they are to be put in normal immigration proceedings. One might say that migrants “should do it the right way; they should get in line.” The use of Title 42 means there is no line because you have denied them the process to proceed.
Because much of the infrastructure relating to immigration was defunded and dismantled during the Trump administration, to me it is essential that the focus of the current administration be to rebuild the capacity to receive migrants and process their claims for asylum. Easy to say, not easy to do. To date, what that has consisted of is greater militarization of the border and more Border Patrol agents, where instead what we need is funding for more welcome centers, personnel with the compassionate attitudes skills, and knowledge to greet migrants and help manage the next steps in their journey.
Three red states — Arizona, Louisiana, and Missouri — are suing in hopes of stopping the government from ending Title 42.
A sidebar to the discussions about Title 42 is the status of refugees from Ukraine. We have not received any people from Ukraine at Casa Alitas. However, a few have crossed at Tijuana-San Diego.
It is now 3am Arizona time, 5 am Wisconsin time, and I have fallen into my typical pattern of being wide attack til late into the night. It will be a busy day tomorrow. I leave you with these thoughts and a few photos to complement the above. I look forward to being home soon. Blessings to all.
Hello and greetings from sunny Tucson! It is a beautiful sunny spring day here, the birds are chirping, and I woke up to the aroma of freshly baked bread. Life is good!
This day stands in contrast to my arrival in Tucson, five hours later than scheduled and in the middle of the night, due to a change of flight plan in Dallas. It was a full flight and few were complaining, however, probably due to actually being able to reboard and not stay overnight in Dallas. I’m sure it disrupted in a big way many a planned arrival. I was a lucky one, however, because I had Peter and Paul from ORUCC here in Tucson on a month hiatus from Madison awaiting me with transportation and good cheer.
Peter and Paul had already been in Tucson about a month, investigating the extensive system of bike paths in and around the city. This was a new world to me, having restricted myself totally in the past to transportation by car, and mostly from where I was living to Casa Alitas. I would really be tasked to maneuver my way around Tucson, especially in the city itself, where the bike paths on the primary roads stop and start without warning. The outskirts, however, have beautiful, well-kept, manicured paths that many enjoy. The welcome and time spent with Peter and Paul was exactly what I needed to transition into another month at Casa Alitas.
I received an equally wonderful welcome when I arrived at Casa Alitas. I was greeted in the office with, “Ah, our star is back!” (They may say that to everyone, but I can tell you that it warmed my heart). I was also introduced to several new interns, one of whom said, “Oh, I’ve heard about you. So glad you are here.” I think I’m practically old guard here now – definitely the only one with white hair!
Another good reason to welcome anyone bilingual and with experience is because they are so short on experienced staff. Thank goodness for the new young interns, many fresh out of college, full of eagerness and healthy, welcoming attitudes. Many of the young interns have backgrounds from junior-years abroad, peace corps, or as volunteers in refugee camps, perfect background for this kind of setting. This group, most of whom volunteer with intake or travel arrangements at the help desk, stands in contrast with those in the clothing area, any number of whom have been volunteers with Casa Alitas for many years, know each other well, and are able to fill a full schedule of time at the Center.
I wouldn’t want to miss mentioning, also, that one of the first people I saw was Kirsten Johnson, a fellow Madisonian, who I met through a mutual friend of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition and encouraged to volunteer at Casa Alitas. Kirsten was volunteering for several weeks (has now returned to Madison), as were a number of others from Wisconsin and Minnesota. We liked to joke about it as the Wisconsin takeover of Casa Alitas.
Many things have changed at Casa Alitas since I was here only four months ago (Oct-Nov 2021). It is testament to Casa Alitas staff that everything continues to function as well as it does. Casa Alitas basically turns on a dime from one day to the next.
One of the most obvious recent changes is the cost of plane tickets. We’re all aware of this, and it hurts, but when the cost of a plane ticket shoots from $300 to $1,000 for someone who has little or no money in their pocket and a sponsor with $300, the impact bounces across the entire system. One of the first is that people end up staying longer at Casa Alitas or one of its companion hotels for more than the customary one to two days while alternate arrangements are investigated (like bus transportation) or the sponsor seeks more funding to pay for the ticket. Another is that the available housing fills up. Day-before-yesterday we had to shop for additional hotel rooms for guests and they come, of course, at a cost that burns quickly through a pocketbook.
A second change is the number and nature of the guests arriving, many of whom are families with young children. First, in terms of numbers, we average 230 – 300 guests per day. There was a day when 150 was tops. This number stretches all resources – whether it be intake staff, food staff, help desk staff, and availability of clothing.
You may remember that the majority of guests arriving the last time I was here were from Cuba, Colombia and Brazil. Note: not from Mexico. People from Cuba, Colombia and Brazil are able to gain entry due to agreements conjured up between the U.S. and Mexico during the Trump administration such that Mexico stated that those from these countries could not be turned back to live in Mexico so should be passed through to the United States. In contrast to this, those people attempting entry from Mexico or the other Central American countries are automatically turned back to Mexico. This is part of the ”Return to Mexico” policy.
Another major policy affecting the number of guests arriving is what is referred to as Title 42. This is the public health policy again conjured up during the Trump administration by which people from Mexico and the Central American countries were turned back for fear of their expanding the number of people with COVID. One of the ironies of this, which I myself find hard to believe but I see with my own eyes, is that of 300 people who we tested for COVID yesterday, only four people tested positive. This kind of data is well-recognized by those working with the asylum-seeking populations, but not-so-much by those in a position to change the law. However, the word is that this is changing! The word is out that Title 42 is going to be amended or totally dropped, and we are beginning to see people from Mexico and Nicaragua come through our doors.
I mentioned that we are now overflowing with guests with families. Kids of all ages and sizes, but primarily little ones, several months to 8-10 years old. The result is that, at the moment, Casa Alitas is like a huge day-care center with kids of all ages wandering around, some tagging along with Mom or Dad, other sleeping in whatever spot they find comfortable, others poking around on their own. I love talking with them and making sure they are OK. I think you’ll appreciate this one incident.
Due to the influx of so many guests, we are restricting everyone to just one set of clothes. We give everyone a large cloth or paper bag to carry them in. One afternoon this week I was helping in the “tienda de ropa,” helping people find clothes that they liked and in their size. I noticed these two little ones, a little boy and girl, perhaps ages 8 and 10, wandering among the rows of clothes with a sack that looked very full, so much so that their little hands could hardly carry it. So I asked them if they had found some clothes that they liked.
The little boy (Santiago) enthusiastically told me that he found a whole bunch of things – as he pulled out about 10 pairs of underwear. He explained to me that he liked all the colors of the underwear. Hmmmm. So I asked if he could pick out a favorite pair to wear tomorrow. It turned out that his sister had also found about 5 little tops that she liked. As they were deciding which ones they liked best, their younger brother appeared, perhaps a 4- year- old. We ended up deciding to make 3 sets of clothes, one set for each of them, and having fun finding clothes that were actually their size. So it all worked out with everyone happy, even though little Santiago didn’t get to take all 10 pairs of underwear with him. And in the meantime, their parents sought them out. They had been trying on some clothes for themselves while the kids decided to do a little shopping on their own.
This story is typical of my days. I’m sure you can see why this can all be so rewarding. At the same time, know that there are those difficult moments. One situation that I find particularly difficult is when we have to close the clothing area because we have so few clothes, or not enough for so many. On those days we provide only underwear, sox, and a packet of healthcare supplies.
I see that this is getting quite long, so I will close with a few paragraphs about two things: information about where I am living, and a note or two about the conference I attended this weekend.
Nearly everyone asks about where I am living, so here’s the scoop. You may know that the last time I was here, I stayed at the home of a Mennonite couple who had been recommended to me by a Mennonite member of our Immigration Team (this all has a much longer and fun story to relate at some other point in time). After I left Tucson the last time, I asked my host who she would recommend that I stay with if I was able to return (her home was going to be under construction). She recommended her best friend, who turns out to be my current host (Jen).
Jen is a positively delightful person, also a Mennonite, who has lived in Bangladesh and Viet Nam and traveled all over the world, including Africa and Egypt, let alone the most common Eastern and Western European countries. She teaches fourth grade in a nearby school of 600 students. The Mennonite church where she is active is about 3 blocks away (I attended church with her last Sunday). Living with Jen is a wonderful lesson in environmental awareness, especially as it relates to water conservation.
Jen’s home is large – three bedrooms, two baths, large kitchen, with a separate room devoted to where she makes home-made soap, and another where she does her sewing, which is evident wherever you look. In the back yard is a cistern in which she collects rainwater, a small garden on which she sprinkles crushed up eggshells from the eggs of her two chickens housed in a separate building in the back, along with a small swimming pool and large hot tub. I haven’t even considered using the hot tub because I see how carefully she conserves water and it appears to be such a waste of that resource – I’d probably feel differently if it were 110 degrees outside. We are sharing costs for groceries and enjoying cooking and sharing meals together. So, in terms of the “home” front, life is good for me in so many ways, despite all the pain and tragedy in the worlds of so many. Hopefully, I provide some solace to those I welcome at Casa Alitas.
Turning to the conference I attended this weekend – Wow! The title of the conference was “All the Walls Must Fall.” The focus of the conference was on the militarization of so many borders throughout the world, with particular emphasis on the US-Mexican border and that of Gaza and Israel. I was particularly interested in the history of those walls. Maybe there will be a time to share a bit of it with you all.
I close with gratitude to our church and to you for all that you do to support justice- related activities, and for taking the time to read about all that is happening here. Please check out the attached photos.
Hello from Casa Alitas and Tucson (fast becoming my favorite city)! It’s been a very full and rewarding week, and now that I’ve settled into what might be called a routine, it’s time to come home. I will have been here a month as of Wednesday, November 17 and I admit to a longing to see friends and family (in person), walking in the arboretum, and sleeping in my own bed. The week+ has been filled with many hours at talking with folks at Casa Alitas, visits to a number of new places and some old favorites, with some wonderful dinners and a trip to wine country thrown in the mix.
The number of people arriving at Casa Alitas in the last two weeks has exploded, meaning that 100-125 people arriving per day is now the norm. No one that I’ve talked with has an explanation of why the increase and I’ve decided that this fits into the description of so many things that happen on the border. There’s a randomness to almost everything. Especially notable are things that dramatically effect the future of the lives of a person or family. For example, there are certain border patrol, ICE officers, and judges whose names are recognized for their mistreatment and “questionable” decisions. There are others for whom what they do on a daily basis is just doing their job, shuffling people through lines and filling out forms.
As you know, the people we see at Casa Alitas are those who have been on the receiving end of so many seemingly random decisions of so many. We are there to welcome them. They are so relieved at seeing a welcome face and hearing kind words. As I talk with them, it’s apparent that they are not aware of the challenges that await them as they take their next steps in the broken immigration process of the United States. For me, it’s a joy to share these moments of gratitude with them, providing food and clothing, and sometimes a bit of a geography lesson as they figure out where in the United States (other than Miami) their sponsor actually lives. I assure you that no one knows where Wisconsin is (near Chicago?) and the first time they may have seen the name is on my T-shirt.
The majority of singles that arrive at Casa Alitas continue to be from Cuba and Venezuela. Some of them appear to be well-heeled, as evidenced by how they are dressed and the fact that they arrived via flights from Mexico City, Caracas, or Cancun. I don’t mean to imply that they didn’t save for years to afford these flights. However, their transport here stands in sharp contrast to those who have arrived via caravan, long hauls via van, or walking in the desert.
Going rate for a person arriving from Guatemala is $10,000 per person, paid to a willing coyote who drops them off miles from the Mexico border. As they near the border, they are picked up by Border Patrol or ICE, taken to a U.S. border location where ID stats are taken, then some are shipped back across the Mexican border while others (after being stripped of passports and belongings) are permitted to enter the U.S. This is where the randomness comes in. As you probably assume correctly, it’s the singles and families arriving from the Central American countries (the triangle) that have the least possibility of making it to the doors of Casa Alitas.
It was a fascinating day to travel to a welcome center on the other side of the border, Casa de Esperanza (House of Hope), in Sasabe, MX. Sasabe in on the border almost directly south of Tucson. The Casa de Esperanza is a a former small restaurant that is charged a friendly rental fee of $30/mo that has been transformed into the likes of a community center. “Esperanza” provides free telephone, food and clothing to migrants who, as Dora (the owner) describes it, have been “picked up, thrown into cages, then dumped across the border” back into Mexico. The Mexican National Guard brings the migrants to Casa de Esperanza. After a short stay, the migrants go to the main plaza of the town located a few blocks away, where coyotes sit in vans to ask for payment to take them back to their home country. Many become indentured through this process. Casa de Esperanza does fund raising to help pay for transportation to take people to Guatemala. The day I was there we spent hanging up donated clothes (some of which had made their way from Casa Alitas) and sitting with a small group of women planning their Thanksgiving and Christmas activities. The group included the mayor, two social workers, the cook, and us.
It was as interesting getting to Casa de Esperanza as it was being there. I was a bit concerned about crossing the border, even though I was traveling with people who pass through the border nearly every day. They know the names of many of the Border Patrol officers that stop or wave you through the border crossing – we were waved through, coming and going. One of the women (Gail) is a former forest ranger and now communications director of the Samaritans, the group that does water drops in the desert. According to her, the only area that she has concerns about passing through is on the American side. She pointed out several places that we passed that are hangouts for QAnon extremists and other such groups. Gave me shivers. I was surprised by her answer when I asked about the activity of the cartels. We happened to be at the border crossing. She pointed out the wall at the border separating the two countries, one section of the wall was much shorter than the other. She said that the lower, original wall was built in an attempt to keep the cartel smugglers out of Mexico. The taller section of the wall is the Trump wall. She said that, contrary to common belief, the cartels smuggle more guns from the United States into Mexico rather than the other way around. We also talked about the young kids that are forced by the cartels to run guns from Mexico to the United States. In other words, the cartels play it both ways, whatever fills their pockets.
There’s also the telling story of the little Mexican boy who was observing the barbed wire at the top of the border gate. His question:” Is that there to keep the Americans out?”
And my favorite Sasabe story. Downtown Sasabe consists of a general store with a gas pump and a bar that is open from 5pm to 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Many stop by to gas their cars. I wanted to stop to use the bathroom. So I went inside the store and was told that there was a $2.00 charge and the bathroom was across the street. I was given a key. Sure enough, there it was, a porta potty with a padlock. Definitely worth the memory.
On the way back to Tucson from Sasabe, we stopped for several short walks in the desert along migrant trails, and also checked the water supply of one of the water tanks that are placed in the desert by Humane Borders. The tanks have to be checked regularly to make certain that no one shot them full of bullet holes in order to drain the water. This kind of help on the border has a very ecumenical feel to it, since the primary organizations providing the assistance are 501(c)(3) arms of the Methodist Church (Humane Borders), No mas Muertos (Universalist Unitarians), Samaritanos (Presbyterians), Green Valley Samaritans (UCC), and Derechos Humanos (I think it’s Amnesty International).
Back in Tucson, I spent an amazing afternoon at San Xavier du Bac, the mission church on the Tohono O’Odhan reservation. It’s an impressive structure, filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings, founded in 1692 by Father Kino, the equivalent of the patron saint of Tucson. This setting can’t help but take you back in time to an 18th century space. The Indians built the church. If the history is accurate, I appreciated hearing about an early Catholic mission whose mission was more than changing the religious beliefs of the Indians. The church is now a national landmark.
I also stopped by Borderlinks, the organization that sponsored the ORUCC delegation to the border some years ago. They will be in touch with us about future delegation possibilities. Also, I don’t want to forget the visit to the de Grazia art museum in the desert. And, as I’ve mentioned in the past, there’s been a lot of fun tossed in among these days – like an afternoon trip to the vineyards (we stopped at three and had lots of laughs).
And on Sunday, It was so wonderful to share the litany of saints with everyone via Youtube. And today I participated in a zoom meeting to get more detailed information from local Madison leaders on Humanitarian Parole for Afghan refugees.
I so look forward to seeing everyone at church again.
I so much appreciated the Sunday morning sermon on thin places. I was particularly aware of this presence with God at the top of Mt. Lemmon outside Tucson on Saturday. I was invited to join a friend, Marian (Jill Westberg’s first cousin) for a drive up the mountain, all 10,000 feet, and observe the changes in scenery as we ascended, first desert, then pines, then golden aspen. As in Wisconsin, the leaves were wild with beauty. We had many quiet moments, standing in awe of our surroundings. I think this awe was shared by others we saw at pull-off points. Conversations were muted, people walked slowly, and the bright blue sky and standing-rock formations seemed to almost talk to us, reminding us both of our minuscule spot in the history of time while also our uniqueness and ability to change the world.
The experience of Mt. Lemmon was a perfect entree to All Soul’s Day / Week in Tucson. There is celebration of Halloween particularly with the kids. But in Tucson, this week is less secular than in many cities. As in the Mexican tradition, it is the week to remember relatives who have died in previous years by visiting their graves and, with ease, having conversations with their loved ones, alive or dead. Indeed, it is recognition of the thin veil that separates the living from the dead, the celebration of El Día de los Muertos.
There are El Día de los Muertos processions in Tucson every night of this week, with a very large (thousands) and long (several miles) one this Sunday November 7, ending in a well-known market area in downtown Tucson. I chose to participant in a smaller procession sponsored by the local Immigration Justice Center and taking place in South Tucson, traditional home of the Latin community. The procession ended at what is referred to as the Tiradito, a small park area about the size of Friendship Hall that is designed as a meditative remembrance spot for the community. There is a small altar at one end of the area. I had visited this spot the last time I was here and at that time the small altar was filled with small remembrances and crosses from previous visitors.
For last night, people has constructed a much larger altar, filled with candles and crosses. I’ll include a photo. The crosses had the names of the people who had died in 2021 written on them. However, instead of names, the majority of the crosses had the word “Desconocido” written on them, meaning “unknown.” These were people whose remains had been found in the desert. The primary focus of the evening was the reading of the names of the people on the crosses. After each name, we were asked to respond, “Presente,” affirming the presence of the spirit of those people among us. The list included the names of 197 people. It reminded me of our worship service when we are asked to stand and name a person we want to remember as in a litany. And, of course, there was music, great music, initially slow and mournful, then ending, would you believe, in “la bamba.” It was a wonderful evening in many ways.
And I don’t remember mentioning in my first email that I attended worship at Southside Presbyterian Church.Southside is best known for its history as a sanctuary church.It’s a small church in a circular formation.There is a person at the door who takes your temperature.The worship itself is available on line, and the Sunday I attended was the first Sunday that the church was open to congregants. One of the moments I especially appreciated was the initial prayer of blessing in the Tohono O’Odham language. This Sunday was also the day that the church officially renamed the principal rooms of the church in the Tohono O’Odham language.The minister, Rev. Alison Harrington, had us repeat each of the new names with her three times.Also, what an interesting choice of names – Rain, Sun, Butterfly, Saguaro, The Wind Before the Rain – all in Tohono O’Odham.It made me wonder what the names of our rooms would be like in Ho Chunk.And I can’t not say something about the music.Ah, yes, the music, a choir of 7 people who sounded like they had all sung in gospel choirs.It was chilling – and everybody sang out, loud and clear.
Now turning to Casa Alitas – I head over daily about noon. People are dropped off by ICE about 2pm. The men arrive in chains and shackles that the Border Patrol officers remove after they step out of the Border Patrol van. Families also arrive in vans, no chains. The word that comes to me to describe the families is despirited. Then everyone passes through a chain of quiet “bienvenidos” from the volunteers, given a KN95 mask, and asked to be seated in the open patio area. First thing is the COVID-test, given to all. On average, only one in 100 has COVID – I find this amazing. Those who test positive are immediately asked to sit elsewhere and are shuttled off to a separate hotel where they will be quarantined. More waiting for them. None of the people I have seen who tested positive are feeling ill. Nevertheless, needless to say, their results prompt more tests and quarantine for them.
After a brief introduction to Casa Alitas by one of the site leads, the next step is what we refer to as “intake.”This is my baby.I love doing intake.It is basically an interview in which we gather the information we need to arrange transport to sponsors, set in motion searches for family members from whom people were separated at the border, and other similar details. I do this slowly, basically trauma-training 101. I see no need to rush so thy can wait some more for the next step. I welcome them, ask about their health, find out about their families, and talk with them a bit about the city or state where they’ll be headed.We then serve hot chicken soup and a sandwich – most have had nothing but cold burritos for 5 days.And from there I escort them to the “tienda de ropa,” a large, separate room with lines of donated clothing and shoes.Their eyes pop.I think if I weren’t there, they’d be stripping of their old clothes with abandon. Instead, they hurry into small cubicles to change.It’s almost a ceremonial act when they find something that fits and they toss their old clothes in a huge trash can.No doubt that the clothes area is one of the happier moments of their short stay.From that point, it’s all on deck to help each one of them with travel arrangements.Most will fly out the next day, and will be transported late afternoon to the central Tucson Hyatt Hotel.The hotel houses only guests from Casa Alitas, and each guest gets their own room.They are thrilled to find out they will have their own room, shower, and bed.I’ve left out many details here, but you can imagine all that’s happening when 60 men arrive at the same time.Intense but also filled with many warm fuzzies.
Per above, the majority of people arriving now are men from Cuba or Venezuela. Many have saved for years to fly, for example, from Cuba to Ecuador, then to Chile and/or Mexico, then to the border. Casa Alitas staff do not know from one day to the next how many people will be arriving. We suspect now that the men are arriving because the detention centers at the border itself are full and we are receiving spill-over. Thank goodness they make it to us. Many of the men have been separated from their wives at the border. ICE usually sends the women to a detention center in Phoenix. When this happens, our job becomes one of seeking out the details to ensure reunification.
In contrast to the groups of men from Cuba or Venezuela, the families that I have talked with are from Nicaragua. They frequently travel with small children, age several months to 5-7 years old. Kids nearly all have diarrhea from the bad burritos they’ve been fed the last 5 days. And yes, some have been separated from their parents for, at a minimum, several hours. All these families appear destitute, many are concerned about whether their sponsor actually has enough money for their travel. I think it’s safe to assume the next years of their life will be very difficult.
There are those joyous moments, too. Most travel with cell phones and you’ll see them literally jump for joy when they connect with a loved one in the States. Yesterday, one of the men ran around the room with photos of his grandkids. Another ran up to me with a photo of the X-ray of his son in utero, 7 months and counting. One man asked me if there was Mass today – I escorted him to the chapel for some quiet moments alone. I love taking the kids to the children’s area, filled with rocking horses and books and stuffed animals. Beautiful moments.
The staff of Casa Alitas do not know from one day to the next how many people, or if any people, will be arriving at our doorsteps. As you’ve probably heard on the news, the word as of two weeks ago was that the entire border was going to be closed to asylum seekers as of November 1. Well, it’s November 4! My impression is that this policy was deterred, as least for the moment, partially because of the response of activists throughout the United States, including ours in Wisconsin. Everything appears to be in a state of flux, even our immigration policy. You may have heard about the recent meeting in Washington in which activists walked out of a meeting with Biden. Heavy duty!
But I don’t want to leave the impression that it’s been “all work, no play.” I carve out time for many a good restaurant and time with friends. It was a particular joy to have dinner with Delle McCormick, a UCC minister I met in 2019. She has been a primary mover within church circles here at the border, having spent many years working in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. It was fun to find out we were both working in Cuernavaca, Mexico at the same time, only blocks from one another. Delle organized a center specifically for lesbians in Cuernavaca, way before her time. She works with Randy Mayer, another UCC minister at the border.
And some of you will remember the name of Peggy Gessner. Peggy received the boxes of clothing from our clothing drive and made that wonderful video with Steve Sheets. We had lunch recently and I sent a photo of us to Steve. She’s as much a delight in person as she was on the video.
This weekend I hope to visit the church of San Xavier, one of the first churches and schools established by the Dominicans in the Southwest. The church is on the Tohono O’ Odham Indian reservation. You may have heard about their indigenous land that was destroyed to make way for Trump’s border wall. And I want to head up for a walk through Sabino Canyon in the foothills, not far from here. Next week I hope to join a friend for Samaritan trip to the border, when we will do water drops in the desert. I also plan to meet with the director of Borderlinks to explore the possibility of an ORUCC delegation at some point within the next year. More to come……
Hi Bonnie – Thank you for your email. I’m going to use my response to you as a way of providing a brief update to a few others also. First off, it’s been a packed and wonderful few days, reorienting to Casa Alitas and settling in at my Mennonite Tucson home-away-from home. To answer your question, the number of migrants arriving at Casa Alitas is unpredictable and varies from 12 to 200 per day. In recent weeks, there were as many as 300 Haitians per day for a several days, then none. The majority of arrivals now are from Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador and some who have made their way from farther south in South America.
There are many factors that affect the number of people arriving at Casa Alitas, but two at the moment are of major importance. The first is that a no-bid federal contract was recently (within the last two weeks) awarded to “Endeavors,” what is ironically called a welcome center on the border. Endeavors formally provided services for vets and is associated with Lutheran Social Services (I don’t know the direct link here). The head of Endeavors is the former Director of ICE whose tenure included the worse time of family separations. By contract, Endeavors is being paid $354/person/day, and it is staffed by people making big salaries – not volunteers. Hearing about it reminded me of the prison industry and its money-making capacity. Casa Alitas has received confirmation that Endeavors is receiving over 300 migrants per day. You can imagine the stories about mistreatment and conditions there. With this new contract in place and Border Patrol and ICE eating out the same pocket, arrivals to Casa Alitas during the past week have dwindled to as many as 12 a day, even though they are staffed to welcome hundreds. Very difficult and challenging situation. More to come.
The second factor of major concern to Casa Alitas staff is that, according to the Biden Administration, the Remain in Mexico is going to restart on November 1, 2021. How this will change what is actually happening at the border is difficult to guess, but it will for certain have an effect. The disappointment in the Biden administration runs deep here, not only at Casa Alitas but also among many others. One indication of this is that Justice for All signs dominant the lawns and along the highways.
I won’t go into it here, but I’ve also listened to stories from staff that are difficult to write about: people arriving at Casa Alitas with gun-shot wounds from the cartels, young mothers and babies arriving without their husbands because their husbands were “delivered” back across the border, and many who arrive with but minimal understanding or knowledge of things we take for granted. For example, I helped a little boy yesterday learn how to flush a toilet. It’s so easy to assume so much. Fortunately, Casa Alitas has medical staff available and people skilled in multiple languages, including the indigenous languages of Ecuador in particular. For me, I figure my Spanish vocabulary doubles every day by necessity with words you don’t learn in a Spanish textbook!
I’ve told folks at Casa Alitas that I’m there to do whatever needs doing. However, I think I’ll be slotted mainly at the help desk. I was trained yesterday is how to use their antiquated but functional system of tracking all kinds of necessary info. A primary responsibility of people at the help desk (usually two people at a time) is to book the airplane or bus tickets for people traveling to their sponsors. It’s also a catch all for the many other questions that people have. Major issues here are how to pay for airline or bus tickets. Some migrants have credit card numbers of their sponsors, some have cash, some have promised financing, others have pleading faces and only know that their sponsor lives at x street in Cleveland. Very complex and demanding, and also one of the most important roles at the center. Many people have never been in a major bus, let alone, major airport, so stress level is high as we explain how to get to the right place at the right time. Fortunately, Casa Alitas has volunteers that accompany people through the first steps at an airport but, needless to say, that’s just the beginning.
Also, I’m making plans for a day trip to the border with Los Samaritanos. There are few moments more memorable to me than delivering containers of water in the desert, and I look forward to a trip with a Samaritan colleague of years past.
To give you some sense of how I was welcomed here, I was actually met at the airport by a Casa Alitas site coordinator. That spoke wonders to me. We went directly to Casa Alitas. I frequently wear my Wisconsin T-shirt when I travel – it’s an automatic door-opener and even if I don’t know what’s happening with the Green Bay Packers or the Wisconsin Badgers, it’s a great conversation-started, even when I’m walking into a grocery store! When I arrived at Casa Alitas, several volunteers welcomed me with “Oh, we know about the support of people in Wisconsin – a special welcome to you.”
I’m also settling into my new digs, all arranged through the Mennonite Your Way resource. I refer to it as the Mennonite little black address book, addresses of Mennonites all over the world who welcome visitors into their homes. I’ve now been tagged a Mini-Mennie (Mennonite) and have thoroughly enjoyed meeting my Mennonite hosts. Now that I’ve found the local grocery store and NPR on the house radio, I’m feeling comfortable and relaxed in my new setting. I also got my Moderna booster today. Yeah!
Tonight I join the cousin of an ORUCC friend (Jill Westberg) for dinner, then I have arranged to attend Sunday worship at Southside Church, the first sanctuary church in the Southwest, with a Casa Alitas friend. Our ORUCC contingent visited Southside when we here as a group in 2015 (do I remember that year correctly?) and when they had a sanctuary person in residence.
Best wishes to all in Madison. It thrills me to share what we are doing in Wisconsin with friends here in Tucson.