A record-setting crush of new arrivals is overwhelming migrant shelters and government detention facilities in Arizona.
TUCSON, Ariz. — Hundreds of migrant families have been transferred to motels in Arizona in recent days after being processed at the Mexican border, an unusual response to a record-setting crush of new arrivals that is overwhelming migrant shelters and government detention facilities.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers dropped off more than 140 migrants at a budget motel in southern Tucson on Tuesday and Wednesday, after coordinating with Catholic Community Services, a local organization that houses, feeds and clothes migrants who pass through the city on their way to final destinations elsewhere. More migrants are expected to arrive at the motel in the next few days.
The nonprofit organization, which relies on donations, arranged and paid for the rooms in the Tucson motel after migrant shelters and transport companies became overwhelmed. Last week, Catholic Community Services accommodated about 200 migrants at a motel in Yuma, Arizona, for several days before they were able to travel onward.
The Border Patrol apprehended 16,658 people in family units in September, a record, according to unpublished government data obtained by The New York Times. Arrests for the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, reached 107,212, exceeding the previous high of 77,857 in fiscal 2016.
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“So many people are crossing the border — for the first time ever, we’re putting them up in hotels,” said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for the nonprofit group. “I’ve not seen this in all my years working on this effort.”
Another big wave of migrants from Central America has arrived since late June, when President Donald Trump halted the practice of separating migrant families detained at the border.
Several factors are driving the increase in migrant flows, including gang activity, domestic violence and poverty in the migrants’ home countries. For all of them, heading north is a gamble for a better life. Most migrants said they were aware that jobs were plentiful in the United States, and many said they believed that having a child accompany them might help them avoid long-term detention.
Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the stepped-up migrant influx was creating a “dangerous crisis on the border.”
Among those arriving at the motel in Tucson, there appeared to be more fathers than mothers traveling with a child. Asked why they had come north, one man after another said “trabajo” — work — in construction, restaurants, landscaping or cleaning.
By law, the government cannot keep migrants in holding facilities at the border for more than 72 hours. It must either transfer them to an immigration-detention facility or release them.
Advocates for migrants in Arizona said the government has let hundreds of detained migrants go free each week because it lacks enough beds to hold them in family-detention facilities. ICE’s three residential family centers — two in southern Texas and one in Pennsylvania — can accommodate 3,326 parents and children. The largest share of migrants show up in Texas, but there appears to be a swelling number who are entering through Arizona.
Border Patrol arrests in the Yuma area were up nearly 130 percent in the first 11 months of the 2018 fiscal year, compared with the same period in fiscal 2017. Apprehensions in Tucson more than doubled.
The influx of families through Arizona became evident around the Columbus Day holiday, when ICE released some 700 people from custody.
Catholic Community Services booked 200 people into a motel in Yuma, all of whom have since moved on. Two migrant shelters in Tucson, one operated by Catholic Community Services and the other by the United Methodist Church, quickly reached capacity, prompting several churches to open their doors to stranded families, inflate air mattresses and open food pantries.
On Monday, Cavendish of Catholic Community Services learned from an ICE official that an additional 400 migrants would be released starting the next day. Within minutes, she secured dozens of rooms in a local motel and activated a network of volunteers from churches, synagogues and the larger Tucson community to assist.
Led by Diego Piña Lopez, a high-school teacher who was appointed site coordinator, the volunteers transformed the seedy motel in a dicey area of town that abuts two freeways into a functioning shelter offering a range of services to migrant families.
Room 107 was designated for “comida,” a place to grab a meal or snacks. Room 123 was labeled “ropa,” where volunteers sorted and distributed used clothing.
In room 120, marked “medico,” a doctor attended to children with runny noses and coughs, as well as a woman with a leg burn.
In room 162, the intake office, migrants gave volunteers their names, destinations and other basic information and were assigned rooms.
On Tuesday, ICE brought 117 parents and children to the motel.
On Wednesday, about a dozen of them crammed into room 162, waiting to use a cellphone to let loved ones at home know they were safe and to contact family members in America who had promised to receive them.
The new arrivals carefully unfurled crinkled pieces of paper with the name and number of a cousin in Georgia, an uncle in Florida, a sister in South Carolina, a brother in Chicago.
Marcelino and Pedro, two brothers from Guatemala, said they were bound for Atlanta, hoping to work in a restaurant alongside another brother who was already there. Each man was traveling with his oldest child, 12 and 9, and had left a wife and three more children behind.
Six families who had arrived Tuesday were due to leave on an overnight bus, opening up space for other migrants.
“At this stage, there is no telling when this will slow,” said Cavendish. “It doesn’t feel like it’s going to go down anytime soon.”