Crowded House: Casa Alitas Faces Increased Pressure As More Migrants Seek Refugee Status

Casa Alitas, the temporary shelter run by Catholic Community Services at the Pima County juvenile detention center, faces an increase in people without the capacity and the funds to shelter them.

In a memo to the Pima County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 16, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), through Border Patrol, advised officials that the number of asylum seekers could triple the amount processed during 2018 and 2019.

While CBP is unable to distinguish how many are asylum seekers, in February CBP encountered 100,441 individuals, of which 19,246 were in family units and 9,457 were unaccompanied minors, said Acting Commissioner for CBP Troy Miller in a briefing on March 10.

This is an increase of 24% from 2019 and a 164% increase in family units encountered from January to February of this year, said Miller. Miller attributes the increase to economic instability in the region, rising COVID cases in South and Central America, as well as the hurricanes, continued violence and unemployment. A CBP official also sharply criticized the previous administration.

“It’s also important to note that our immigration system was decimated over the last four years, our refugee and asylum systems were brought to a screeching halt and legal avenues for migrating were cut drastically,” the official said on background. “So we’re starting from square one here to build an orderly immigration system that treats people humanely and in a way that protects public health.”

With the new Biden administration came the end of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, or Migrant Protection Protocols, which forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while awaiting immigration court hearings. Yuma and San Diego have already started to see the effects as CBP began to process those individuals.

As of March 10, CBP processed 1,000 of 26,000 MPP eligible migrants through the San Ysidro, Brownsville, and El Paso del Norte ports of entry.

While Casa Alitas cannot confirm the number of asylum seekers currently sheltered at their facility for their protection, Casa Alitas program manager Diego Piña Lopez said the organization was helped around 18,000 people in 2019.

Casa Alitas has 68 rooms, which would mean about 120 people could be sheltered, depending on whether it is a family of two versus a family of three, as families are kept together, according to Piña.

But due to the pandemic, Casa Alitas—like many other shelters—had to decrease capacity to maintain the health and safety of those sheltered there.

The shelter’s capacity has been cut in half, to only 60 individuals, said Huckelberry in his Feb. 16 memo.

Back in 2019, when Casa Alitas was located at the Benedictine Monastery, Ward 6 Councilmember Steve Kozachik said they sometimes had north of 300 people.

“Those days are long gone,” said Kozachik.

With the onset of the pandemic, CBP and organizations like Casa Alitas have continued to work with public health officials to maintain the health and safety of individuals as well as the public.

Miller said migrants are required to go through a staging and COVID-19 testing process before entry, and without going through the process they are not admitted.

Once tested and dropped off at Casa Alitas, Piña said they are tested again. In order to provide a safer environment, Casa Alitas has created two wings to separate those that tested positive for COVID-19.

Piña said those currently sheltered at Casa Alitas have “concern for their safety, their family’s safety for COVID, but there’s also that sense of relief.”

The network of nonprofits and churches has also faced a shortage of volunteers due to the pandemic, as the majority of the volunteers were seniors, but with more people getting vaccinated, volunteers have started to return, said Piña.

While Huckelberry states Casa Alitas is prepared to provide COVID-19 rapid tests and transition and transfer those seeking asylum, they are ill-prepared to provide additional emergency housing without the proper funds and have requested an advance grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The funds from FEMA could be used to buy additional hotel space needed to house the increase of migrants, said Kozachik.

“Three years ago, it was never even conceived of us getting funding from the federal government,” said Piña. “I think it’s there. The precedent says now there that we have the opportunity, but it’s recognizing that this has to be a level of ongoing funding to support the shelters to do this work.”
Piña said the community’s help makes programs such as Casa Alitas possible.

“We’ve been really fortunate that the community has stepped up and donated to let us exist and do the work for so long, and trust us so much and volunteer their time,” said Piña. “We need our community to support us, because that’s what makes us better.”

Kozachik remembers seven years back, the days when Border Patrol would drop people off at the downtown Greyhound bus station.

“What we have is a situation where the Border Patrol is simply threatening to drop human beings off in our parks, at the bus station or out at the Alitas center and drive away,” said Kozachik. “We don’t know at that point whether they’re COVID positive or negative.”

COVID-19 aside, it’s important to remember who these people are, said Kozachik.

“In Honduras, one out of two women is raped in their lifetime,” Kozachik said. “These are the stories we’re being presented when their families show up. Young boys who have had their arms cut off if they don’t join gangs.”