Phoenix (CNN)Outside a former elementary school, a hurricane fence swings open and an unmarked white Immigration and Customs Enforcement van pulls up. Moments later, two Mexican families gingerly step out of the van into the bright sunlight -- four parents, all wearing ankle monitors, and six children, including a quietly watchful infant in his mother's arms.
With asylum seekers blocked from reaching safe haven in US, volunteers take help south to them
"Bienvenidos!" call out a pair of volunteers. They help the families gather their few belongings and then lead them inside the school building, where there are snacks, showers, clean clothes, phones, a nurse, toys for the children to play with and lots and lots of empty dormitories.
The International Rescue Committee and local partners opened this welcome center for asylum seekers July 27. When it was planned last winter and spring, ICE was releasing 200 or more asylum seekers a day in Phoenix, often dropping them outside the Greyhound bus station (as a courtesy and at their request, ICE said). The center was designed to offer up to 277 people at a time a safe, welcoming place to stay for a night or two while planning their travel to sponsors across the country.
But the activity in the past several months has died down significantly. On several recent days, not one asylum seeker has been here to admire the scores of colorful children's drawings lining one wall, to eat the hot meals served up by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, to receive the medical checkups offered by local non-profit One Hundred Angels.
The two families who arrive on this recent Sunday are the first asylum seekers to walk through the center's doors in three days.
Local churches helping asylum seekers say they, too, are receiving far fewer families. During September, ICE's Phoenix office said it released an average of 32 parents and children a day in Arizona -- down from 208 a day from Dec. 21 through the end of June.
Over the past year, the Trump administration has rolled out a series of policies that would all but shut down asylum claims along the US-Mexico border -- forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for a court date; narrowing who can apply for asylum; delaying work permits for those let into the United States; signing agreements to send back to Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador asylum seekers who passed through those countries on their way north; and more.
But those policies face a slew of legal challenges. The turmoil has left asylum seekers and those trying to help them groping their way forward through a fog of uncertainty.
Take, for example, the policy informally known as "Remain in Mexico," which requires those applying for asylum along the border to stay in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings.
"If any court suggests 'Remain in Mexico' is illegal on its face, we could go from 12 (asylum seekers) today to 200 tomorrow," said Mary Jo Miller, head of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Refugee Aid, which organizes food, clothing and other donated goods for asylum seekers. "If any of those court cases go against Trump, we could immediately see people coming back to Phoenix. We're afraid we'll lose all these resources, then the substantive cases will be decided, we'll see a flood again, and won't have the capacity to serve them."
Olga Byrne, the director of immigration for IRC, called the many policy changes and legal battles "a constant challenge." Still, she said, based on meetings with aid groups in Central America, "One message was clear: This Central American exodus won't end, and in some areas it's getting worse."
In Phoenix, more than 20 groups, large and small, work together as a network to help asylum seekers either through the IRC-run welcome center or through local churches. Weekly, they discuss together what to do. So now, they're getting creative -- trying at once to help those arriving or still in Phoenix, to stay ready for a possible resurgence and to get volunteers and donors to support turning their attention to asylum seekers stuck south of the border.
"Whether it's occurring at the bus station downtown, or in Mexico on the other side of the border, it still is a humanitarian crisis, and we're called upon to support strangers," said Connie Phillips, chief executive and president of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.
Roughly 3,600 asylum seekers, mostly from southern Mexico or Central America, were in Mexicali, in Mexico's Baja California state, as of October 1, waiting for months to apply for asylum or to return to the United States for immigration court hearings, according to Altagracia Tamayo, manager of the Cobina shelter for families and children there. About, 1,500 were waiting in Nogales, in Sonora state, and 1,250 in San Luis Rio Colorado, south of Yuma, Arizona, according to officials managing the wait lists in those cities.
In recent weeks, several of the grassroots Phoenix groups have crossed the border to bring supplies or aid to asylum seekers and shelters in those cities.
The IRC has begun teaming up with local aid groups in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to help them provide medical care and other assistance to asylum seekers waiting under dangerous conditions there, said spokesman Sean Piazza. The IRC last year also began providing "emergency cash relief and lifesaving information services" in El Salvador to people fleeing violence. Now it plans to expand such help to Guatemala and Honduras, Piazza said.
And in the United States, where the IRC has an extensive network of offices that help resettle refugees, "We are expanding our existing legal immigration program, which historically aided refugees, and adding lawyers who can provide direct representation to people in immigration court," said Byrne.
Many asylum seekers are desperate for such help, since legal restrictions against seeking employment in the United States make it tough for them to pay attorneys on their own.