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What I Saw at the Southern Border

It was nothing like the stereotype of threadbare Central Americans we hear so often.
May 4, 2023
What I Saw at the Southern Border
TUCSON, AZ - JUNE 23: Casa Alitas, a shelter for migrants who have crossed the United States/Mexico border Thursday June 23, 2022 in Tucson, AZ. (Photo by Eric Thayer for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

From the outside, Casa Alitas Drexel Center for Migrants is not the most inviting structure. Surrounded by tall metal fencing in an industrial area off Interstate 19 southwest of Tucson, the large cinderblock building sits on stark desert land with the sun beating down mercilessly even in late spring. Spacious white tents at the back of the building are filled with folding chairs and tables at the front have water dispensers for the 500 or so men who are off-loaded from Customs and Border Protection buses each day. Casa Alitas is operated as a joint program by Pima County and Catholic Community Services to give temporary shelter to those who claim asylum in the United States or are otherwise released by border patrol after being processed. Families end up at a separate Casa Alitas facility near the courthouse in Tucson, while single men stay at the Drexel location.

Danny, a volunteer who has worked with the Jesuit Volunteer Program in Tucson and the Northeast for a couple of years, was my guide the day I visited the center. He’s a fast talker who multi-tasks throughout my hour-long visit, helping men who’ve arrived that day connect with family and friends in other parts of the country, securing them bus and plane tickets to their ultimate destination. He speaks Spanish, but not a word of it is heard during my visit. Despite the common perception that most people who come across our southern border are from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, virtually all the single men present at Casa Alitas the day I visited were from South Asia or Africa, about 85 percent from India and others from Mauritania and elsewhere. Some of these men have trekked the long, dangerous walk to the border from as far away as the Darien Gap, having flown into various locations in Latin America. Danny tells me about one man he encountered at Casa Alitas who took planes, buses, trains, and a camel (not necessarily in that order) before arriving in the Tucson sector of the border.

The men seem to be mostly in their twenties or thirties. Some wear the familiar turbans of Sikhs, others sport Manchester United soccer t-shirts, still others could be computer programmers dressed in smart polos, while a few appear to be subsistence farmers or fishermen in frayed sandals. Hundreds of men spread out in the cavernous room, which looks like it might have been a call center before Casa Alitas took over earlier this year. Many sit on cots, talking, while others nap with pillows over their faces to block out the light and din of conversations. Some men hover about the front of the room near computer stations trying to book tickets or get directions or just socialize with their fellow migrants. Since they arrived, the men have all been fed, registered, and interviewed, as well as tested for COVID. About 50 of those tested positive and have already been sent off to isolate at another location. But the mood of the room is good—if not cheerful, at least hopeful. They are safe, secure from the elements, and among new friends. The men will be allowed to stay a maximum of three nights before they must move on, but many will be there only hours until they can get a ticket to take them to their new, temporary homes.

The changing demography at Casa Alitas is largely the result of changes in policy by the Biden administration, which created pathways for asylum seekers from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, for example, to apply without crossing the southern border. Under the Biden plan, some 360,000 migrants from those four countries will be given temporary status through private sponsorship by the end of 2023—a number that the New York Times recently noted is greater than the total number of immigrant visas issued to individuals from those four countries over the last 15 years. Other changes have encouraged asylum seekers from Central America and elsewhere to apply before reaching the border through an online application, though the program has been plagued by delays and glitches. On April 27, the Biden administration announced a new family reunification parole process for El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Colombia, in addition to setting up new regional processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala. What’s more, the United States has admitted more than 300,000 Ukrainians through various programs and some 76,000 Afghans—although none of these groups is being given permanent legal status yet. A bill to give permanent status to Afghans has so far failed to pass Congress, which is problematic given many of those who fled Afghanistan in August 2021 will lose their temporary protections soon.

All these measures provide new avenues to admit more people into the United States legally, even if only for a temporary period. But they won’t be much help to the men at Casa Alitas. Though most of them will be applying for asylum status, their chances of being granted that status is slim. They will enter a system already clogged with nearly 1.6 million pending applications, which can take years to adjudicate. Some—perhaps most—will try to find work even without authorization, living in immigrant enclaves across the country.

The men at Casa Alitas are young and willing and have already demonstrated the commitment, courage and endurance that would make them excellent contributors to our society. But despite our own need for workers, Congress refuses to expand legal immigration or create pathways to legal status for the approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants here now.

On May 11, the current crisis will become chaos when Title 42, the COVID health emergency measure, expires and the Department of Homeland Security can no longer simply turn back Mexicans and others seeking admission. The administration has already announced it will deploy an additional 1,500 active-duty service members to the 2,500 military personnel assisting the border patrol at the southern border. DHS is quick to assure that “DoD personnel will be performing non-law enforcement duties such as ground based detection and monitoring, data entry, and warehouse support. DoD personnel have never, and will not, perform law enforcement activities or interact with migrants or other individuals in DHS custody,” which is forbidden by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act.

But politics, not common-sense policy that would address our economic needs and our humanitarian values, prevents Congress from acting. Next week, the Republicans hope to pass an enforcement-only immigration bill that would prevent groups like Casa Alitas from easing the suffering of those who want nothing more than to contribute their skills and labor to making America prosperous.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is a senior fellow at the National Immigration Forum and served in the Reagan White House as director of public liaison. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.