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Arizona Faces Needs of Migrant Children

As the immigration crisis plays out along America’s southern border, Episcopalians in Arizona are assessing how they might be helpful to thousands of children who have arrived in their state in recent months from Central America.

In early June, Arizona was among the border states that started seeing a major influx of minors, some unaccompanied and some traveling with a parent, from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in the United States since October, according to the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection.

Prior to mid-July, local clergy in border regions were barred from detention facilities housing migrant children. With access and information limited, the church will need time to assess needs and develop action plans for dealing with the crisis, said the Rt. Rev. Kirk Smith, Episcopal Bishop of Arizona.

“It’s a bit of a wait-and-see game to see what the government is going allow in terms of contact with agencies and churches,” Bishop Smith said.

Now that clergy have begun doing pastoral visits with unaccompanied minors, the church might be able to learn more about their needs from those visits and consider how congregations can help, he said.

Congregations of the Diocese of Arizona have thus far been exploring potential opportunities and doing what they can to help.

An interfaith meeting is planned for July 29 in Phoenix to discuss how churchgoers and others might be able to provide foster care for newly arrived, unaccompanied children. Representatives from the Diocese of Arizona will be attending the meeting to learn about the possibilities.

Meanwhile, people of faith are addressing basic needs of migrants. From early June through mid-July, children with a parent were turning up in droves at the Tucson bus station, where U.S. Border Patrol agents dropped them off after processing. Local Christians have reached out to provide food, clean clothing and other assistance to prepare them for the remainder of their journeys to points north, where they’ll stay with relatives and await court hearings to assess asylum claims.

At first, Episcopalians and others involved with Casa Mariposa, an intentional Christian community in Tucson, tried to meet the needs of migrant families waiting at the bus station. But soon the situation required a larger operation.

“In the early days, Casa Mariposa had a place for people to stay,” said Leah Sandwell-Weiss, a deacon at St. Philip’s In The Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson and convener of the Border and Immigration Program Group of the Diocese of Arizona. “The scale just blew up to the point that they couldn’t handle it.”

Now Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona runs a refugee center to help migrants from the bus terminal. Tucson-area Episcopal congregations have been contributing to the effort, Sandwell-Weiss said, in part by helping collecting donated items.

Arizona has been a hotspot for immigration battles in recent years as controversial legislation and border-policing militias have contributed to simmering tensions. Bishop Smith said Episcopal congregations in Arizona tend to be sympathetic to the migrants, who are reported to be fleeing life-threatening violence in their home countries.


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