Room in the inn: A dispatch from an Arizona center for asylum seekers

I parked my car in the dark, isolated lot on the edge of the University of Arizona campus between First United Methodist Church and a parking garage. As I walked through the alley, there were a few guys curled up with their sleeping bags and dogs. They seemed to be sharing a meal on a cool, January night in Tucson, Arizona. I looked around and found the narrow stairwell that descended to a backdoor allowing me to enter the church fellowship hall. When I opened the door, I was pushed back by a wall of light and laughter. Small children ran freely through the room, many of them pushing blocks and empty boxes as they shouted out the sounds of their imaginative choo-choo trains. Their moms gathered in clusters, telling stories and alternating between laughing and crying. A few crouched in corners, seeking a bit of privacy while they talked on cell phones. One group of young women waved me over, offering a seat on the edge of their circle. Maria said, “Hola Señor, I will translate for you while we tell our stories.”

I was overwhelmed by the story of a woman named Guadalupe. She and her nine-year-old son walked from their small, remote, Honduran village to Nogales, Arizona. This journey took them almost four months. They were running for their lives from a drug cartel that had murdered her husband, taken their house and announced that they would return for her son. When they arrived at the U.S. border, they walked up to the checkpoint, extended their hands, palms up and requested asylum.

It was my first night as a volunteer at The Inn Project. There is room each night for 50–60 asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, who cross the border from Mexico into the United States, hoping to find safety as they reconnect with family who’ve immigrated earlier. Tonight, the Inn is full.

In mid-December 2016, ICE officials contacted Bishop Robert Hoshibata asking for help. They were expecting a wave of asylum seekers from Central America, and they were looking for a housing alternative to the overcrowded ICE detention center. After an initial screening, many of these folks would be given temporary status and would travel to the home of their sponsors, usually a family member somewhere in the United States. Their sponsor family would send a bus or airplane ticket, ICE would provide a court date and a small group of United Methodist churches in Tucson would house, clothe and feed them in the interim. The churches said yes. They had no plan for funding but trusted they would be able to find folks who cared enough to provide money, in kind goods and services and volunteers. So far, The Inn Project, with the help of about 200 volunteers, has helped over 800 refugees reconnect with their families in the United States.

Last week, I walked down the stairwell to a very different scene. It was dark and quiet. Only Alphonso, his 17-year-old son and the volunteer from the earlier shift were there. There were no gathering circles of storytellers and no little ones running around the perimeter of the room. When Alphonso and his son arrived at the border a few days earlier, they were accompanied by his two grandchildren, nine and eleven. The grandchildren had been separated from them and taken to a temporary children’s shelter for processing. Alphonso doesn’t understand what’s happened to them or how they will be reunited. ICE officials are concerned about human trafficking. They must be sure they are really his grandchildren before they can be released. Where are their parents? No one is sure. I imagine walking with my granddaughter. If asked, how would I prove I’m hers, and she’s mine?

I’m an unskilled laborer, not an expert on immigration issues, and with only restaurant-quality Spanish, I have little to offer except to bear witness. These are as strong and brave as any people I have ever encountered. I want to shine a light on their suffering, so at 9.00 p.m. on Sunday night, I walk down the stairwell to see who will be there to greet me.

There were 50 people a night in December and January. These days there are more likely to be five. What happened to them? When the ICE van drops them off, I ask the driver. He’s young, courteous, polite and helpful. He gently assists people to leave the van, carries their bags for them and says, “Please. Thank you. You are welcome.” He is fluent in English and Spanish.

“Has there been a change in policy?” I asked.

“Nothing has changed, sir,” he replied.

“Then why the small numbers?”

He shrugged and said he had to go.

When I ask our guests the same question, I’m offered a variety of answers. The rhetoric of the Trump administration is intimidating, and many Central Americans are afraid to make the long journey, believing they’ll be turned away, jailed or separated from their children. Some say that when they ask for asylum, they’re told they must have a visa or that the United States no longer accepts refugees seeking asylum. They say they’re turned away and their claim isn’t processed. Having lost their property, and in many cases, their family in their countries of origin, they find themselves unwanted in Mexico and in the United States.

What is the future for this very specific group of people who are so easily lost in the immigration debate? These asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are willing to walk their way to freedom, eager to surrender themselves—and they will not be stopped by a wall. They have not been accused of terrorism, and there’s no travel ban threatening them due to their country of origin or religion. They will still stand at the gate, palms upturned, babies strapped to their backs and ask if we will let them cross.

Billy Still is a retired United Methodist pastor and volunteer at the Inn Project.