On a recent night, two women, one from China and other from México, walked into the downtown Greyhound bus terminal. They looked bewildered and tired, and each carried a clear plastic bag and a large yellow envelope, plus a few personal belongings.
They knew no one in the near-empty waiting room. Neither spoke English.
But within minutes, Vicki Kline and Jean Boucher gently greeted the two scared women.
The two women are volunteers who welcome immigrants released from the Eloy immigration detention facility. Five nights a week a government vehicle arrives at the Greyhound station, housed in a temporary building squeezed between Interstate 10 and the federal courthouse, and deposits the freed immigrants. They are released with the belongings they had with them when they were detained.
They are given nothing else but their release papers in the envelope.
That’s why a few Tucson volunteers with the Restoration Project have stepped in to offer assistance and, more important, a friendly smile.
“They’re free,” said Boucher.
Some of the immigrants require no assistance or don’t want help, said Boucher and Kline. Most do, however.
“Some people don’t know how to use a phone or don’t speak English,” said Kline.
The Restoration Project is a small, faith-based group which offers respite and hospitality to immigrants like María García. She was released from detention and looking to return to her New York City home.
García had been detained in Eloy for two months after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol for illegal entry.
Immigration officials released García on a $3,000 bond. In New York, where she has lived for 11 years, she’ll face judicial hearings to determine if she can remain in the country. García, who had been evading an abusive husband, said she is seeking asylum status as a domestic violence victim.
Each immigrant who arrives at the Greyhound station has their own story, said Boucher and Kline.
Boucher said he recently met a young woman from California, who had been detained for a month. She was at a party in Fresno. Police were called and demanded identification from partygoers. The young woman, who had lived nearly her whole life in the U.S., was not a citizen. Fresno police called Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents and she was sent to Eloy.
“More people coming here are from California,” said Boucher.
The immigrants who arrive at the bus station come from an array of countries and continents, the volunteers said. Some are detained for several weeks and some for more than a year. Some are illegal border crossers and some are victims of political torture.
“They tell us very little, but what they have told us about their experience continues to dumbfound me on how we treat them,” Boucher said.
In the 1,500-bed Eloy facility, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, every bed is filled, said Lindsay Marshall, executive director of The Florence Project, which provides free legal services to immigrants detained in Eloy and Florence. There are another 1,500 beds in four facilities in Florence. Detainees from Florence are released in Phoenix.
The day they are released, detainees spend hours waiting for their paperwork to be completed. García said she spent nearly six hours in a holding cell before leaving Eloy. When she arrived in Tucson after 9 p.m. all she had eaten since breakfast was a ham and cheese sandwich, and an orange, she said.
Boucher and Kline said they and other volunteers are moved to help the freed detainees to give them another view of America.
“People just need somebody to sit with them,” said Boucher who plans to enter graduate school.
Kline, a social worker recently transplanted from Baltimore, said the volunteers can not erase the experience that the immigrants go through, from apprehension, detention and release.
“But we can be welcoming.”