With asylum seekers blocked from reaching safe haven in US, volunteers take help south to them

A family of Mexican asylum seekers, newly released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, are greeted by workers at a welcome center in Phoenix operated by the International Rescue Committee and local partners.

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.

"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.
    Giovanny and Cynthia, asylum seekers from Honduras, have been living since January with hosts in Arizona who expected to put them up for a few days, but who stepped up to help when their sponsors fell through.
    "You're not allowed to work -- I have no permission," said Giovanny, an asylum seeker who asked that his last name not be used in case he's sent back to Honduras. He said he originally fled to Mexico after a local gang tried to kill him for refusing to sell drugs from his fruit cart. His arms and chest bear puckered scars from when he was slashed with a broken bottle.
    After the gang tracked him down again in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, he took his family and fled north, crossing near Yuma and surrendering to the Border Patrol in early January.
    After three days in custody, he, his wife and their two children were dropped off by ICE at a small church in west Phoenix. When their expected sponsor in Iowa fell through, a local family stepped up to host them for a few days in their modest single-story home in a working-class neighborhood nearby.
    Nine months later, they are still there.
    Speaking with CNN one recent day, while his wife Cynthia gave their two youngsters baths, Giovanny said his family's asylum hearing isn't until April 22, 2020. Meanwhile, he asked, without permission to work, how is he supposed to support his wife and two children? How will he pay an attorney to represent them? How can his family afford their own place to live?
    He and Cynthia said they consider themselves lucky; they are grateful -- but desperate to be allowed to stand on their own. Their hosts, who themselves fled Honduras in 1987 and are now US citizens, have proven extraordinarily patient.
    "Their story is our story," said their hostess, who asked not to be named. "It's a stress for everyone," she said, "but they have no place to go."
    Just a year ago, ICE said it had run out of space in its Arizona detention centers and was releasing immigrants into local communities. The agency reached out to local churches to see whether they could take in and help asylum seekers get to their sponsors across the country.
    Magdalena Schwartz, a Chilean immigrant and evangelical pastor in Mesa, Arizona, who is plugged in to Spanish-speaking churches throughout Phoenix, said ICE contacted her last October.
    "They were asking for my help, saying they would have to release families with children at the bus station and they were concerned about the children," she said.
    "I sent messages to pastors. One church said bring 20, another said bring 20," said Schwartz. Then she went on a local Spanish-language TV station to beg for help.
    Angel Campos, the pastor at Monte Vista Cross Cultural Church in North Phoenix, saw her on the late-night news October 8 last year.
    "I called five minutes later, got a call back at 11:45 p.m.," he said. "We got our first lot of 75 people the next day. ... Then we were getting four or five drops every week." His parishioners hosted 1,891 asylum seekers from January through June of this year.
    At Iglesia El Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd Church), Pastor Hector Ramirez said they put up 50 people their first week in October on inflatable mattresses on the floor. "It went up to 80, then 120, then we had economic problems and said to ICE only send up to 50 at a time," he said.
    The numbers kept growing.
    From December 21, 2018, through the end of September, ICE said its Phoenix office released about 43,100 asylum seekers, nearly 20% of those released from across the southern border states this year.
    First Church United Church of Christ, which took in 120 people in its first hosting in October, was among those that reached out to the International Rescue Committee for help, said Ellie Hutchison, the church's outreach director.
    For the first time in its 86-year history, the IRC launched an emergency response within the United States -- in Phoenix. To help local partners plan and open a welcome center with temporary housing for families, the IRC brought in two of its international emergency-response field directors, pulling them from assignments tackling the civil war in Yemen and the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
    But shortly after the IRC opened the doors of its converted elementary school, the flow of asylum seekers dwindled.
    A Mexican woman and her young son, newly released from ICE custody, wait for their medical checkup at a welcome center in Phoenix run by the International Rescue Committee and local partners. They are among a shrinking number of asylum seekers being helped by a center designed to cope with hundreds of asylum seekers at a time.
    Days went by with ICE bringing no one.
    Stanford Prescott, the IRC's local spokesman, noted that even with what he characterized as a "dip" since June in asylum seekers being released by ICE, the center took in more than 400 people in its first six weeks.
    On the recent Sunday that ICE dropped two Mexican families off at the welcome center, Prescott was there to greet them. As one of the fathers asked questions about the legal process, three of the children played foosball.
      Given the uncertainty from one day to the next what policies will be in effect, Prescott said the IRC and the other charities will keep their arms -- and doors -- open.
      "We do have a commitment here," he said, "to make sure families are welcome to the US when they arrive."