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Too Vulnerable 

Casa Alitas is a temporary safe haven for migrant women, children fleeing Central America; meanwhile the feds have deported 121 asylum-seekers from the region

click to enlarge A woman and her 9-year-old son both natives of Honduras, have lived at Casa Alitas for more than two months.

María Inés Taracena

A woman and her 9-year-old son both natives of Honduras, have lived at Casa Alitas for more than two months.

It's a Thursday afternoon at Casa Alitas, a small temporary shelter for migrant women and children.

The fragrance of chicken broth and noodles greets everyone at the entrance of the house. One of the volunteers is preparing food for a Guatemalan woman and her 11-year-old daughter who arrived late the night before—their first meal in three days.

Call it luck or divine intervention, but they made it through the Sonoran Desert and into Tucson all the way from Huehuetenango, a region in Guatemala that borders the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

In a way, the hardest part is over.

They were released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement's custody, and have bus tickets to reunite with the rest of their family in Nebraska. The woman says that her husband and youngest daughter did the same journey a month prior, except they crossed into the U.S. through the Rio Grande at the Texas-Mexico border.

"We were really, really poor," she says in Spanish before bursting into tears. She wants to talk—explain the reasons for leaving Guatemala. But she is so dehydrated and hungry that she can barely move from the nausea.

Another woman and her 9-year-old son, natives to Honduras, are watching TV. They have been living at Casa Alitas on-and-off since November, waiting to get hold of a sponsor—a friend or family member who is already established in the U.S.—to move out.

For both families, returning to countries that have been corroded by extreme poverty and increasing gang and drug violence, is not an option—although many wish they didn't have to leave their native land in the first place.

"Knowing the women and hearing their stories ... thinking that there might be a possibility that they have to go back, thinking about it in terms of the adults is bad enough, and then you think about small children going back to that, where you don't really know if they have a future, it is scary. It worries me a lot," says Jamie Flynn, the head AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at Casa Alitas, a program sponsored by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona.

The small home opened its doors in response to the influx of Central American families and unaccompanied minors arriving in the summer of 2014. In November and December of last year, Casa Alitas saw nearly 200 people come through, mostly women and children from Guatemala.

During summer 2014, Customs and Border Protection arrested about 68,000 families, and close to 70,000 unaccompanied minors.

In more recent months, according to the Department of Homeland Security and CBP, the statistics decreased—about 21,000 families have been detained and 17,000 unaccompanied minors—but this doesn't mean the crises fueling the exodus from Central America have lessened.

At Casa Alitas, Flynn says most of the women and children say they are escaping violence, which includes death threats from gang members.

The Raids

The day before Christmas, the Washington Post reported on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's plans to deport hundreds of women and children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, who entered the country after May 2014. They were all denied asylum in the country, and were issued removal orders.

Sure enough, the first weekend of 2016, ICE apprehended 121 asylum-seekers at their homes, according to DHS data. An immigration court granted a stay of removal to merely four El Salvadorian mothers and their children, after filing appeals, several reports say.

In the meantime, sanctuary churches around the country, including Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church—which in the past couple of years has given sanctuary to two undocumented parents, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz and Rosa Robles Loreto, who successfully avoided deportation—have announced that they are prepared to protect migrants in the midst of the raids and beyond.

Last week, Congressman Raúl Grijalva, and fellow co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to stop the "aggressive" and "inhumane" home raids.

"We ask that your administration end these immigration raids immediately," the congressmen wrote. "This practice is immoral and does not reflect who we are as a country. We should ensure these women and children have an opportunity to present their asylum claims in court, with full access to counsel and due process protections prior to deportation."

Despite the outcries from various critics, and news that even the Peace Corps considers El Salvador and Honduras too dangerous to continue working there for now, the feds are moving forward with the removals.

Obama didn't even mention the immigration raids during his last-ever State of the Union address on Jan. 12.

In a prepared statement, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson recognized that mass deportations and increased border security do nothing to address the problems in Central America. But, "As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values."

A DHS 2014 memo says that its top priority is to deport undocumented immigrants who are felons and a threat to national security. The lowest priority listed on the memo is to remove new migrants who were apprehended on or after Jan. 1, 2014 and didn't qualify for asylum, as Tucson-based immigration attorney Mo Goldman points out. But the fact that they are at the bottom of the list doesn't mean they have immunity, Goldman says.

"I don't know how these individuals entered the country, if they came here and said they were afraid, they are not making an unlawful entry," he says.

DHS plans to expand the existing-Central American Minors Programs, which allows for children in the area to apply for asylum while in their native countries. The program has received 6,000 applications, according to DHS. But it was reported last year that none of them had been accepted. Actually, merely 90 kids were interviewed by DHS, and of that group, only 85 even qualified for refugee status, according to the New York Times.

With the raids, the feds hope Central Americans will be deterred from emigrating. But what are the consequences of going after asylum-seekers, who exhausted every option to remain in the U.S. legally?

"[The raids] could definitely have a chilling effect on others requesting asylum," Goldman says. "That's the risk in applying for any uncertain benefit in the U.S. As soon as you provide an address to the [Department] of Homeland Security, you risk the possibility of ICE coming to get you. It's definitely a risk that people should always consider."

In December, Congress approved a $750 million-aid package to address poverty, improve security, tackle gang violence and fight corruption in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In return, the so-called Northern Triangle has to present proof of how it's using the funds to improve the situation. Critics say it's difficult to set it in stone that the money will actually be invested in long-term solutions.

"[Immigrants] are really torn up about leaving their families, some people are leaving children behind, some people are leaving spouses behind, sick parents ... they don't want to be here, it is the necessity because they don't have safety in their country or any programs in place to help them feed their kids or protect their kids," Flynn says. "Instead of addressing it in a reactive way, you need to look at the root causes...so that these countries are safe places to live and people can stay in their home, stay with their families and preserve their cultures."

Casa Alitas is always in need of clothes and food donations, as well as volunteers. If you're interested in helping, email alitas@ccs-soaz.org.

More by María Inés Taracena

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