Children's artwork at Casa Alitas. Photo by Kate Wentland.

By Paula Snyder Belousek
Ohio Conference Assistant Moderator

At our last Annual Conference Assembly, Ohio Conference delegates passed an Immigration Resolution, and one of the components challenges members of the Conference to become better informed about the issues surrounding immigration. In response, I took the opportunity to travel to Tucson, Arizona, with other Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) leaders following the recent Constituency Leaders Council meetings in Phoenix in mid-October. Twenty-two people from across MC USA participated in a day and a half learning tour that focused on ministries and organizations in the Tucson area that serve immigrants.

Our first stop was Casa Alitas, a bright, colorful and welcoming shelter sponsored by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona. Many of those served at the shelter are parents, children, and pregnant women from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They have been processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay in the country legally until their asylum request is processed. At the height of the crisis, Casa Alitas was receiving about 240 migrants per day; more recently with the push to keep asylum seekers in Mexico, they have only been offering hospitality to about 30 individuals each day.

Those arriving at Casa Alitas are given a clean room to sleep in and access to showers and food as well as opportunities for relaxation and play. They also visit the clothing shop to select two sets of clothing and receive assistance with travel arrangements. Additionally, they also receive travel bags with items to sustain them as they travel to their new homes, where a family member or sponsor will meet them.  Some of the detention kits that Mennonite Central Committee has collected were sent to Casa Alitas; perhaps some of the items provided by Ohio Conference congregations were available to Casa Alitas guests.

With the aid of an interpreter, we heard the stories of some of the families who were present at the shelter. This included Orlando, his wife, Bethsaida, and their 3-year-old daughter. When they were first asked as to why they had come to the United States from Guatemala, Orlando told us it was to seek a better life. However, as the conversation unfolded, it was clear that a “better life” meant freedom from fear and violence. Orlando said he resisted paying money to the gangs to protect his business, and in retaliation was shot five times. As he was recovering in the hospital, he received a call telling him not to return home. It was then that this young family made the decision to flee for safety, particularly for the sake of their young daughter. Despite these trials, Orlando shared the goodness of God. It is their faith that has sustained them, and they trust God to care for them now. Orlando told us, “The important thing is to give yourself to God.” He went on to say that he wanted people to know that they were not here to do harm, but they only want to work and contribute. We then prayed for this young family, asking God’s blessing and protection as they prepared for life in Nebraska.

Later in the afternoon, we gathered at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson and heard a presentation by Alvaro Gonzalez of the Florence Immigrant Rights Project , the only organization in Arizona providing free legal support to those who are at risk of deportation. Currently, there are about 6,500 adults and children detained in Arizona. However, those in detention do not have the right to receive legal representation and often come to court without lawyers. Such is the case even for children. A detainee with legal representation is two times more likely to win their asylum case. Gonzalez told us the story of Elbia, who fled an abusive relationship after trying to escape for many years. When she arrived at the U.S. border, she requested asylum and was transferred to the detention center in Eloy, Arizona. This was a deeply traumatizing experience that multiplied the pain of living in an abusive situation for so many years. However, with the assistance of the Florence Project attorneys she was able to win her asylum case and was granted the right to stay in the country.

We also heard from Brian Best, a volunteer with the Tucson Samaritans, a faith-based organization that provides water and food in the desert to sustain and save the lives of those who are crossing in some of the most dangerous and desolate places. Since the Clinton Administration, the official policy of the U.S. government has been “Prevention Through Deterrence,” which attempts to make the trips across the border so difficult that people will not attempt the journey. However, this policy has not stopped desperate people fleeing difficult circumstances. Instead, they are forced to travel through some of the most dangerous desert terrain. Since 1999, more than 2,000 documented deaths have occurred in the southern Arizona borderland. Best says that rather than making the journey so difficult that people lose their lives, our government needs to look at the causes of why people are leaving home and to work with home countries to find just solutions.

The following day, we worshipped with the community at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship and heard the story of Rocio, a Bolivian woman, who came to the U.S. for a job caring for an older gentleman, only to discover the work was unpaid. After her six-month tourist visa expired, she went to the airport to use the plane ticket she had been promised, only to learn it did not exist. She went to Border and Customs to report what had happened and to request an extension on her visa while she raised the money needed to return home. Instead, she was arrested, held in a cold cell block (known as the ice box) for five days and in the course of that time unwittingly signed her own deportation order. She was then shackled and transferred to the detention center in Eloy, Arizona. She couldn’t understand why she was sent to prison when she was the victim.

Rocio eventually met someone from the Florence Immigrant Rights Project who told her that she had a good case to make for asylum. However, it would be two years before she would finally be released. During her time in detention, she heard about the Casa Mariposa Detention Visitor Program and requested a visit. Tina Schlabach, co-pastor at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, visited her, while others from the program wrote to her and accompanied her to court.

Like those we met at Casa  Alitas, Rocio gave testimony to God’s faithfulness and said that despite the challenges she faced, she grew spiritually. She said, “I was in the hands of God.” As a detainee there are no rules as to how long you stay in prison. Criminals usually know how long they must serve, but those in detention have no idea. Today, Rocio has legal status in the United States, and has found a spiritual home at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship. She has also become the volunteer coordinator the Casa Mariposa Visitor Detention Program, returning each Friday to the detention center in Eloy to visit other detainees where she was held.

Rocio offered one practical way that individuals and churches might support the Casa Mariposa Visitation Program. They have a goal of collecting 3,000 cards in time for Christmas so that each person in the detention centers in Eloy and Florence, Arizona, receive a personal greeting. If you or your congregation are interested in hosting a card party, see these instructions from Casa Mariposa:

The challenge of immigration at the southern border is complex, but as we heard first-person stories, I was touched by their deep faith in God and saw these individuals not as strangers but as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus who are suffering. As members of the same body, we share in the sufferings of one another.  As our Ohio Conference Immigration Resolution urges, we cannot turn away from the circumstances that have led so many people to leave their homes nor from the dehumanization that is happening in our taxpayer-funded detention centers and through our government policies. Those we heard from urged us to not only share these stories with our faith communities, but to also uphold them in our prayers as well as  find ways that we can respond, including contacting our government representatives and using our influence to change these policies that are leading to so much suffering, trauma and even death.