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TUCSON — Non-profit groups in Yuma said they only had a one-day advance notice to coordinate and set up a temporary shelter to take in migrant families that Border Patrol began releasing because of capacity issues at their processing facilities.
On Thursday, Border Patrol released the first 60 migrants directly from their custody into the community, rather than hand them over to immigration officials, to help alleviate overcrowding as more families and minors arrive at Yuma to seek asylum in the United States.
But local officials warned they could release up to 200 people on a daily basis. The families are released into the custody of relatives living in the United States and given a notice to appear in immigration court at a later date.
"When the direct releases from Border Patrol started in Texas last week, we wondered when we could anticipate that happening in Arizona. But we did not think it would happen as quickly as it did," said Teresa Cavendish, the director for Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which operates an office in Yuma.
The Yuma area, with a population of about 200,000 people, does not have permanent shelter facilities for migrants, or the capacity to handle large-scale releases in the way that community groups and churches in Phoenix and Tucson have done in recent weeks.
In October, when immigration officials began mass releases of migrants in Yuma, the community struggled to accommodate them. But after some pressure from elected leaders, immigration officials decided to transport those migrants to Phoenix and Tucson instead.
How non-profits are preparing
Immediately after they were notified on Wednesday about the upcoming release of families in Yuma, several non-profit groups began coordinating their response and asking for the community’s help.
The Salvation Army converted an empty thrift store into a makeshift shelter with portable showers and toilets, while the Red Cross provided cots and blankets for the migrants to sleep in.
Nick Oza, The Republic | azcentral.com
Michelle Merkley, the director of operations for the Yuma Community Food Bank said they stocked the shelter with 15,000 pounds of food, as well as toiletries.
"It’ll be an ongoing effort, and that’s what we’re here for. We’ve got plenty of food here and that’s to make sure that we get them the supplies that they need," she said. "We’re in a humanitarian crisis right now, and that’s our goal, to make sure that people have food and shelter."
Cavendish said her office in Yuma will organize volunteers, given their experience working with migrants.
Catholic Community Services operates several permanent facilities in Tucson for migrant families recently released from government custody, and back in October, when immigration officials temporarily released migrants in Yuma, they also set up the families in a hotel while helping them make travel arrangements.
"(Organizers) are desperately trying to get other volunteers to come in and do it. Right now it’s just Catholic Community Services staff and that’s not sustainable for long, at all," Cavendish said.
"They need the full Yuma community to be supportive of this effort and really treat it as alleviate human suffering and not as a political matter, and support their community in doing this work," she said.
How community members can help
Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls said on Thursday the city would focus on providing a humanitarian response to the release of migrant families.
He asked community members interested in helping to provide donations to the Yuma Community Food Bank or the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Yuma.
MORE: ICE dropped off 300 migrants in Phoenix. Will the city help?
Merkley said one of the greatest needs at the moment are items for a "comfort kit," which migrant families will take with them on their journey to their relative’s destination after they’re released.
"They need everything, the toothpaste, the toothbrushes, baby wipes, clothing, all that stuff," she said.
Given the contentious nature of border enforcement policies, Nicholls acknowledged that the release of families might generate controversy and disapproval.
"I strongly encourage Yuma residents to not engage temporary facilities to express frustration or displeasure with the system," he warned. "Please let the (non-profits) take care of the humanitarian needs of these people."
Border Patrol officials in Yuma said only some migrant families are being released to free up space for other families agents are apprehending along southwestern Arizona.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who normally takes custody of migrants after Border Patrol processes them, said they are also continuing to take families into custody in Yuma.
But both agencies added that the sheer number of families and minors arriving here have overwhelmed their resources. Agents patrolling in Yuma are on track to detain about 60,000 migrants this year, according to Border Patrol, the vast majority being families and minors.