Phoenix Welcome Center Opens for Asylum-Seeking Families

Hannah Critchfield
International Rescue Committee volunteers sort through clothing donations ahead of the arrival of 70 migrants. Most of the clothing was given by individual donors or church groups.

A year ago, Stanford Prescott stood at the Greyhound bus station near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement dropped off families en masse.

There were about 50 people, all asylum-seekers, and mostly from Central America. They were still wearing the clothes from their months-long journey to the border. They’d just been released from a detention facility — the first step for all individuals claiming asylum is incarceration. The next step, it was clear, was completely up to them.

ICE drop-offs like these had become common in Phoenix, with migrant families who had a sponsor in the United States being left to fend for themselves, finding their own way to the sponsors, who often lived out of state. Prescott, who works for the the International Rescue Committee (IRC), watched as overwhelmed volunteers tried to assist them on the street, offering translation, temporary housing, and phones to call sponsoring family members.

Now, community leaders are trying something different. On Monday, the Phoenix Welcome Center for Asylum-Seeking Families will open its doors to its first residents, providing immediate relief and transitional support to asylum-seekers released from detention centers.

The Phoenix Welcome Center is a collaborative effort — run by a coalition of migrant-aid organizations, including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, 100 Angels Foundation, and the IRC.

click to enlarge A play area in one of the overnight rooms. - HANNAH CRITCHFIELD
A play area in one of the overnight rooms.
Hannah Critchfield
“One of the things we’ve seen in our past work is that when families have support, they’re able to make plans, and they’re able to find hope,” Prescott said during a tour of the facility on Wednesday. “And that’s the difference between a kid outside crying and a kid inside playing with toys while his parents get travel booked to go to their new home.”

Asylum-seeking families will stay in the Welcome Center for just 24 to 48 hours before continuing on their journey to meet up with sponsors. During that time, the Center will take care of the basics — providing a change of clothes and new shoes, food, a bed to sleep on, medical screening, a backpack, and diapers for the road. New arrivals will able to call sponsors at the intake center. Classrooms will be used for teaching migrants about the United States asylum process, and for training new volunteers.

Up to seventy individuals could arrive on Monday, all members of family units, as part of the initial launch of the Phoenix Welcome Center, located at the old Ann Ott School in south Phoenix. Once renovations are complete, it will be able to house up to 277 people.

click to enlarge One of the rooms where families will stay overnight. - HANNAH CRITCHFIELD
One of the rooms where families will stay overnight.
Hannah Critchfield
Under the 1997 Flores settlement, the federal government must release asylum-seeking children from detention within 20 days, and must not separate them from a parent along the way. Thus, families can be released from detention together into the United States. They’re still required to present their case before an immigration judge, but may do so while living with a sponsor in the community.

“And it’s worth noting that most asylum-seekers do go to their court date,” said Stanford. (Published "fact check" articles back up his claim.)

The Phoenix Welcome Center will meet them in the liminal space along the way — after families have proved they have a sponsor, but before they reach that sponsor.

The Welcome Center is privately funded through a mix of individual donors and grants. Though ICE will drop families off at the Center, they will not have any oversight of the facility. The federal government does not provide grants for asylum-seekers, only for people who have already been granted asylum.

International Rescue Committee expects the Phoenix Welcome Center for Asylum-Seeking Families to be fully operational following its opening Monday.

click to enlarge The site of the new Phoenix Welcome Center for Asylum-Seeking Families, which opens Monday. - HANNAH CRITCHFIELD
The site of the new Phoenix Welcome Center for Asylum-Seeking Families, which opens Monday.
Hannah Critchfield