Tucson, Az

When a migrant’s journey passes through Casa Alitas

MCCer Katherine Smith invites us to come along

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.        

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 (NIV)


TUCSON, Arizona – A firm and familiar knock on the door alerts me that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent has arrived with the families that will begin their stay at Casa Alitas today. I thank the agent, and in Spanish I welcome the new guests, inviting them to enter the home and to have a seat in the living room.

A few mothers and their children, confused as to where they are, timidly approach the couch. Two men follow behind the women, one offering his shoulder and stability to the other man, who seems to have a limp.

Each day Casa Alitas (House of Little Wings) opens its doors to migrants seeking asylum in the United States. They already have been screened by ICE and allowed in the country; now they can rest for a few days as they figure out the next steps. Here in this house, they are safe, respected and informed.

Katherine Smith, a West Coast MCC staff member, assists a man, unnamed for his protection, who is checking in at Casa Alitas, a house in Tucson, Arizona. 
MCC photo/Katherine Smith

I begin with intake forms and call Juan’s name from the sheet, asking him to follow me to the office. He tells me that he has trouble walking, and I offer my arm to guide him toward the back room. (To protect Juan’s identity, I am not using his real name.)

I ask where he is from – Guatemala; how old he is – 26; if he has any sickness or pain we should be aware of – “Just sadness,” he says. When I ask if anyone has been separated from him and his 7-year-old daughter, who arrived with him, he answers, “Yes,” something that is always difficult to hear. Juan’s 16-year-old nephew was separated from them at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“He was my guide; he helps me to walk,” says Juan. His nephew’s shoulder provided the stability he needed during the 11-day journey.

He tells me that the last time he saw his nephew was at the port of entry (an official place to enter the U.S.) and asks me if I know where his nephew might be, if there is another shelter they could have taken him to. I explain to Juan that his nephew is an unaccompanied minor in the eyes of the U.S. government, and unfortunately will not be released from government processing and allowed to enter the country as easily as they have been.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S., the organization I serve with, supports Casa Alitas because we are committed to caring for the lives and futures of uprooted and vulnerable people. Casa Alitas is a ministry of Catholic Community Services.

“In our society, rejection of the immigrant – ‘the other’ – still runs deep, whether due to fear, ignorance, racism or selfishness,” wrote J Ron Byler, executive director of MCC U.S., in a 2017 statement decrying the U.S. government’s opposition to immigrants and refugees. “By building walls and turning away refugees, we ignore Christ’s call to care for those in need and to love the stranger among us as we love ourselves.”

At Casa Alitas, loving the stranger takes many practical forms. After the rush of intake forms, the newcomers have lunch, pick out new clothing, have showers and call loved ones. Later, I sit at the kitchen table with Juan; his daughter plays with the other children.

Children play with toys at Casa Alitas, a house in Tucson, Arizona, where asylum seekers can rest and plan for a few days between being processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and connecting with families and friends. MCC photo/Katherine Smith

He is a small man, polite and humble. He is older than I, but refers to me with the pronoun usted, a sign of respect. He tells me that his mother passed away when he was 3 years old and that his father suffered from the same condition he does, muscular dystrophy, and was immobile during Juan’s childhood until he too passed away when Juan was just 16. Juan says his daughter is showing signs of the disease too.

He tells me he did not want to leave Guatemala, but he felt he had to for reasons he didn’t fully explain. He misses his wife and other children he had to leave behind.

We find a wheelchair for Juan to use at the house and within a few days he and his daughter have plane tickets to Los Angeles, where they will reunite with his sister-in-law.

Most traveling migrants who are the head of the household, male or female, over the age of 18 arrive at Casa Alitas wearing an ankle monitor so ICE can track them. 
MCC photo/Katherine Smith

I accompany them to the airport, assisting them through security and onward to the gate. Due to their lack of identification, the Transportation Security Administration agent calls over a border patrol agent to review their official documents issued by Homeland Security.

As the border patrol agent approaches, he questions Juan in a stern tone: “Where did they catch you? Does the girl’s mother know you took her? Who gave you these papers? Why did they let you in?”

My face becomes hot and red, as I feel anger toward this agent for asking such interrogating questions, and empathy for Juan who does not know how to answer. He was not “caught;” he did not “take” his daughter. I want to interject and explain that he did not enter into the U.S. illegally but that he crossed at a port of entry and was granted entry through humanitarian parole.

My heart beats fast as if something could go wrong, even though I am fully aware there is no reason they should not let him pass through security. I can only imagine Juan’s anxiety.

We pass through security and make it to the gate. I am allowed to pass because I am their interpreter. I explain some legal information to Juan, buy a few snacks for his daughter, and then we sit in silence.

Katherine Smith helps many asylum seekers get the right transportation to their family and friends. She helped Juan get on the right airplane and this asylum seeker, unnamed for his protection, onto the right bus.Photo/Thomas Nilsson.thomasnilsson@mac.com

Finally comes the time to board the plane, and the gate agent comes toward us to escort Juan and his daughter to their seats. I say goodbye and touch Juan’s shoulder. He looks up at me and says thank you with tears in his eyes. I see his emotions and feel his fear. I reassure him with a hug and words of encouragement. I wish God’s blessings upon them. He is crying then as I signal for the gate agent to take them to their seats.

I watch him go down the jet bridge, his daughter walking by his side holding his hand, and tears swell in my eyes too, as I know this journey of living in the U.S. will be marked with difficulties and uncertainties. I do not believe that Juan was unaware that migrating to the U.S. would be difficult, but I do wish that I could have been more certain in my assurance at the airport that everything would be okay.

Months at Casa Alitas come and go quickly, with each morning beginning like the previous morning; a knock on the door and the welcoming of families who are tired and in need of a shower. I answer the door knowing that I can’t make sure their journey will turn out the way they hope it will. But for one day, two days, sometimes even a week, we at Casa Alitas can share kindness and love to strengthen them along the way.