PHOENIX — Families and children arriving at the Arizona border seeking asylum are being held in Border Patrol stations where they are processed and given a hearing date before being released to U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement or into the community.
Some of those people end up in a church in Phoenix.
“I had to come with my son. It was not an easy journey, but we made it,” said Elsa, an asylum seeker from Nicaragua.
We’re not identifying Elsa’s complete name for safety reasons. Elsa says they were apprehended at the Yuma sector. “They gave us aluminum foil; they would tell us to lie on the floor.”
Elsa described being held inside freezing tents while in Border Patrol custody. “The kids get really cold, we spent two days without brushing our teeth or taking a shower. They did feed us, but we didn’t know if it was day or night.”
She says there were overcrowded rooms without any social distancing. Elsa describes rooms packed with teenagers. “They had them in groups, rooms for girls and boys. There are no beds, but I’m thankful to have made it and to soon be reunited with my family in New York,” said Elsa.
Elsa was part of 50 families arriving at a church in Phoenix today.
Pastor Angel Campos says they began accepting families last week. He says the pandemic has made their mission challenging this year, but possible. “We love it, we love to see the families,” said Campos.
The church offers only transitional housing to families. “First thing they get fed — we give them soup — and then they get some clothing and showers. We have showers for men and women. Then, we call their families to arrange transportation.”
He says their facilities have helped to shelter migrants since 2018, but sometimes asylum seekers’ relatives don’t have money to pay for their flights.
“The tickets start at $200, and sometimes we have families that need five flight tickets.”
Even though finding donations can be a struggle, he says it's worth it after hearing their experiences while in Border Patrol custody. “It feels like jail because they can’t go outside. Like, here you hear the birds, they don’t hear birds over there.”
Unaccompanied minors face a different situation than the people who end up at this church. After processing at Border Patrol facilities, they are sent to the Department of Health and Human Services to be reunited with family or sponsors.
“Most of the children are from Central America,” stated Jorge Mendoza Yescas, the Consul General of Mexico in Phoenix.
He says Border Patrol contacts the consulates first. In his case, when it comes to children from Mexico, they begin the process to locate the parents right away.
“The Mexican consulate tries to find where the parents are, if they’re in Mexican soil or the U.S. But if that’s unsuccessful, those minors are sent to other shelters contracted by immigration,” said Mendoza-Yescas.
He says there are 11 shelters contracted by immigration in Arizona, 10 of those are in Phoenix. According to Mendoza-Yescas in total, he’s been told there's a capacity of housing 3,000 children.
It’s been reported there are currently about 5,000 kids in Border Patrol custody across the United States.
New images made public today show the conditions inside a Border Patrol soft-sided facility in Texas. The images show unaccompanied children in overcrowded spaces, with no social distancing and sleeping on mats on the floor.
Arizona is supposed to start operating similar short-term facilities in Tucson and Yuma sectors by mid-April.
Speaking to newly processed asylum seekers is often the only way to find out what’s going on in those Border Patrol stations.
We have requested pictures and access to those facilities or a ride-along with border patrol agents in Arizona, but our request was denied because of COVID protocols.
Customs and Border Protection released the following statement:
Since March 2020, CBP has discouraged external visitors in CBP facilities, including media ride-alongs, due to agency COVID protocols and in order to protect the health and safety of our workforce and those in our care. We are offering and utilizing outdoor interviews or virtual operational briefings.
As we move forward, CBP will evaluate media requests for visits and embeds with components on a case-by-case basis to determine the best course of action that protects the media and our employees, ensures the requests are operationally feasible, while also promoting public transparency and accountability.
Across the federal government, certain employees are designated spokespeople for their respective agencies, and public statements are vetted to ensure accuracy. This standard process has been followed at DHS since the Department’s inception two decades ago and across administrations of both parties.
CBP continues to publicly provide data monthly on the same schedule as it has since 2014.
This article was written by Liliana Soto for KNXV.