A Safe House for Central Americans in Tucson

On the perilous journey to reunite with their families, Central American women and children find a temporary refuge at Casa Alitas.

Elizabeth Oglesby 12/21/2017

Cruzando Fronteras/Crossing Borders (Photo by Paula Nicho Cumes/artemaya.com)

In a plain, unmarked bungalow in midtown Tucson, women and children migrating from Central America find a hot meal and a safe place to sleep. These migrants have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody on temporary humanitarian parole. Casa Alitas, the "House of Little Wings," is a way station where young mothers can receive help continuing their journey to reunite with relatives already living in the United States.

I am one of the volunteers at Casa Alitas, where I assist women in contacting their families and arrange bus tickets, so the families can move on to the next—or maybe the last—stop on their journeys. A large whiteboard in the kitchen lists departure times and destinations: Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, Florida, Missouri, New York, Virginia.

At Casa Alitas, women talk to their families, sometimes for the first time in weeks or months. People can do laundry and take a hot shower. Children who arrive silent and clinging to their mothers soon find playmates.

As my shift starts on a typical day, Jacinta [name changed], a 30-year-old Maya-Q'anjob'al woman, makes a call to her family, who live in the cloud-covered mountains of northwestern Guatemala, to tell them she is safe. Her future is far from certain, but at least her family is aware that she and her son are alive, that they survived the dangerous month-long trek through Mexico and the treacherous Arizona desert.

Those mountains in Guatemala, where Jacinta and her family are from, were once the killing fields of a genocidal campaign in the country, as described in Guatemala’s 1999 Truth Commission report. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of refugees fled the country as the Guatemalan army massacred Mayan communities at the height of the armed conflict, beginning a decades-long northward exodus of Guatemalans to the United States. When the war officially ended with the signing of the 1996 peace accords, violence did not cease; it just changed in character. In the past two decades, drug trafficking, extortion, targeting of community activists, economic need, and family reunification have continued to impel Guatemalans and other Central Americans to make the dangerous journey north.

Most media reports on Central American immigration have deemed the situation a border security and humanitarian crisis. The conditions causing people to flee are, in many cases, dire. But inside this house another vision emerges. It’s a space of radical hospitality where ordinary life gets reconstructed, albeit temporarily and in small ways. Moreover, it's a space that serves as a reminder to move beyond the crisis rhetoric, to recognize Central Americans not simply as victims, but as people who are already part of the social fabric of the U.S.


Casa Alitas was born in 2014. That summer, Border Patrol apprehended nearly 70,000 families and a similar number of unaccompanied minors from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, a sharp increase from previous years. A few days after apprehending them, ICE would drop off mothers and children at the downtown Tucson Greyhound station each night. Rather than keep them in detention indefinitely, the mothers received humanitarian parole papers from ICE, which allowed them to travel to reunite with their families, with a stipulation that they present themselves to an immigration court at their destination. But many of these immigrants had no food, no money, and no way to contact their family members hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Community volunteers began to organize in response to the lack of resources and services being offered to these families, and Catholic Community Services donated a house that became Casa Alitas, used previously for victims of domestic violence. The first live-in coordinators at Casa Alitas were Americorps VISTA volunteers; later, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and other faith-based groups helped to fund Casa Alitas. Today, community volunteers include some of Tucson's long-time border activists, as well as college students.

Bunk beds crowd the three small bedrooms at Casa Alitas, with space for 15 to 20 people per night. For any overflow, volunteers make calls to a network of supporters in Tucson asking if they can open their houses to a Central American family for the night.

The largest percentage of the women and children who pass through Casa Alitas are from Guatemala. A smaller number come from El Salvador, Honduras, and southern Mexico. Casa Alitas also sometimes receives immigrants from other parts of the world, including India and Romania. Rarely, ICE will drop off men traveling with children. Sometimes, the people ICE releases are still wearing ankle-monitoring devices, to attempt to track people who might not show up at their immigration court appointments at their next sites.    

The intermittent ICE policy of giving out humanitarian parole papers and allowing families to move on to their next destination, informally known as “catch-and-release,” expanded under the Obama administration, even as Obama came under legal and political fire for continuing to hold many immigrant families in detention. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security declared that it would severely curtail the humanitarian parole program, instead opting to increase expedited removal or prolong detention of immigrants and asylum applicants.

In practice, here on the border, ICE agents continue to grant humanitarian parole, at least sporadically. ICE doesn't disclose why it releases some women and children on this type of parole until their immigration court date, while holding others in detention, criteria that can change from month to month and may not be monitored at all.

Since 2014, the number of migrants passing through Casa Alitas has waxed and waned. After a shelter in Yuma, Arizona closed in late 2017, the number of people brought by ICE to Casa Alitas rose sharply once again.

The Trump administration has Central Americans in its crosshairs. This past summer, the Department of Homeland Security ended Obama's in-country humanitarian parole program in Central America that had allowed eligible minors to petition to join their parents in the United States from their home countries. Though it received criticism for its limited scope and long wait times, the program had sought to find another legal remedy for children who may not be eligible for asylum status, to keep unaccompanied Central American youth from making the perilous journey through Mexico. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has escalated rhetoric against Central Americans, linking migrant youth to criminal gangs. White House chief of staff and former Homeland Security secretary and current Chief of Staff John Kelly recently complained that DHS wasn't deporting Central Americans fast enough.

Immigration advocates, in contrast, are trying to widen the window of legal relief for Central American migrants by pushing for broader asylum claims. For example, advocates argue that violence against women in Central America is so endemic that these women should be considered a protected group under U.S. asylum law.


At Casa Alitas, we don't ask women why they've left their homes. They don't have to tell their stories; it's a time for them to rest for just one night. But as I ease into a chair to take a short break from making calls, washing towels and sheets, and organizing supplies, Sabina seems like she wants to talk. She's travelling with her 10-year-old daughter, Ana Leticia, Lety for short, who is seated next to her munching on potato chips.

Sabina tells me she's tired, cansada. She's crossed before, she says. The first time, she had to walk for two days through the desert, but this time she turned herself in at the Agua Prieta border checkpoint, 120 miles southeast of Tucson. She's from an area near the Guatemala-Mexico border. Rumors swirl there that the cartels are kidnapping children, Sabina says, whispering that two of Lety's schoolmates disappeared recently.

As the afternoon wears on, the women seem less shell-shocked. Relatives have been called, and by 6 PM or so, almost everyone has determined their next step. Mothers have showered and bathed their children, done laundry and rummaged through boxes of donated clothes for items they need. Children are playing soccer or riding tricycles in the backyard, or coloring in the living room. A Mexican telenovela plays on the television with the sound muted. 

Each woman at the Casa is entitled to a bag of supplies to take on the long bus ride ahead. The bags contain bottled water, crackers and instant soup, and toiletries such as toothpaste, as well as a paper that says: “I don't speak English. Please help me find my bus transfer,” although some of the children do speak English. Some grew up in the U.S., and are returning after a deportation.

Two volunteers make spaghetti, black bean soup, and lemonade for the group of more than a dozen people. Gathering for dinner creates a tiny, temporary community within the house. The women, who earlier in the day sat clustered with their own children, now chat and laugh with each other, reaching out to pass plates across the table.

I'm heating the tortillas. I recall an expression I heard in Central America: darle vuelta a la tortilla, flip the tortilla. Turn the tables. If only we could, so that for once these women and kids would come out on top. 

On one wall at Casa Alitas are hand-drawn cards from a church in Texas. They say, in English and Spanish, “Welcome to the United States. We hope your journey gets better from now on.”

Despite these displays of solidarity, Casa Alitas volunteers are told not to reveal the shelter's address for fear of a backlash. In the summer of 2014, as news of the Central American migrants filled the local and national media, flag-waving anti-immigrant protesters amassed on a road in the town of Oracle, 40 miles north of Tucson, with chants of “Go Home!” They stopped what they thought was a bus of Central American children. The bus turned out to be carrying local kids on their way to a YMCA summer camp.

After dinner, several women get up to clear the table. For a few brief minutes, we are united by the chores of washing plates and sweeping the floor.

Alejandra tells me that she and her son were supposed to leave for the West Coast, but her brother, who accompanied her on their journey from Guatemala, is still detained and seems to have disappeared into ICE's detention archipelago, or perhaps he was deported to another Mexican border city hundreds of miles away. She wants to stay in Tucson until she finds out what happened to him. Volunteers assure her that she can stay at the Casa another night, and in the morning they will make some inquiries.

Then, one of the volunteers has to take Emilia and her kids to meet relatives who are driving down from Phoenix to retrieve her. Her two boys tumble into the back seat of a car, jostling each other like typical six and eight-year-olds, and I wonder what the future holds for them as I watch them drive away.   

Back inside the house, there are other needs to meet. Two women ask me for something to relieve menstrual cramps. As I sort through the medicine cabinet, a Honduran woman named Suti, who looks about 25, limps up to me, lifting her pant leg to show a swollen and purple ankle. She twisted it while crossing the border—migrants who scale the border wall at Agua Prieta can climb a ladder on the Mexican side, but on the U.S. side they have to shimmy down a rope, causing many to fall. She didn't receive medical care for her ankle while in ICE custody, and it looks bad. This is beyond my skill set, I realize. I signal to the lead volunteer and point to Suti's injury. The coordinator seems nonplussed; apparently, injuries like this are not uncommon. She whisks Suti away, for an ice pack, I hope, but what if she needs x-rays?

Stepping up to care for the women and children ICE drops off mitigates a festering structural crisis, preventing it from becoming a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. At the same time, moving the women and children into the shelter also removes them from the public eye and makes their plight less visible. Indeed, there is less local media coverage now than during the “crisis” summer of 2014, when Central American women and children immigrants were highly visible in Tucson's downtown public spaces like the bus station. In a sense, this humanitarian work allows the militarized border security-industrial machine to roll on inexorably.

And yet, Suti needs an ice pack. Thelma's son is thirsty. Rosa wants to find out when the next bus leaves for Richmond. Their specific predicaments may be intense or mundane, but ignoring them is not an option, as Tucson's activists know well. And so, on it goes.

At 9 PM, my shift ends. I take a final look at the whiteboard to make sure everyone's departure times and ticket confirmation numbers are noted. All the different destinations listed there are a testament that Central Americans have been in the United States for decades, for complex reasons that go far beyond the rhetoric of short-term crisis.

They're not going away, no matter how much Trump officials ratchet up the punishment against these families.

During the ten minutes it takes me to drive home from Casa Alitas, there is a bright moon in Tucson's famously clear night sky, illuminating, I imagine, the desert arroyos where another Jacinta, another Sabina, another Suti are making their way across the border. I recall the letters on the wall of Casa Alitas: “Welcome. I hope your journey gets better from now on.”

Elizabeth Oglesby is Associate Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She is co-editor of The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011) and Guatemala: The Question of Genocide (London: Routledge, forthcoming, 2018).

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