Ernesto Portillo in the Star studio, Thursday, June 5, 2014, Tucson, Ariz. Photo by 

Tucson, fortunately, is not like Murrieta, California, where residents wrapped themselves in the American flag while displaying their ignorance. Neither is our community like League City, Texas, a Houston suburb that voted for hate.

While residents in Murrieta and League City were up in arms over the arrival in their communities of Central American children and mothers, Tucson residents have rolled up their sleeves to offer food, kindness and soothing words to the tired and confused travelers who arrive daily at the downtown Greyhound bus station after days of a harrowing journey from their homelands.

“People are stepping up to the plate,” said Sabrina Lopez, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working with Catholic Community Services. “There are a lot of people with big hearts,” said Lopez, who coordinates the volunteers, who are at the station seven days a week.

At the bus station Thursday evening, a small group of volunteers welcomed the refugees who were left by the U.S. Border Patrol. At the bus station, in a small room separated from the waiting area, the weary travelers, some of them dehydrated, can eat homemade food, and take clothes, toothbrushes, hygiene products and toys for the children, all donated by generous Tucsonans.

“There’s a lot of love inside that room,” said Pat Klein, a volunteer greeter.

For several years, immigrants who entered the country without permission have been released at the Greyhound terminal and allowed to journey on to reunite with family elsewhere. But in recent months, thousands of Central Americans, many of them unaccompanied minors, have left their homes, raked by poverty, violence, and traversed Mexico, crossing into the United States.

Overwhelmed with a humanitarian crisis, the federal government has scrambled to find shelters for the Central Americans. For those who have relatives in the U.S., the refugees are permitted to travel but remain undocumented and are expected to report to the nearest immigration office.

However, in some communities, residents resisted. In Murrieta, a small community in Riverside County, flag-waving townspeople recently impeded buses carrying refugees who were being taken to a U.S. Border Patrol facility. League City, Texas, last week voted to “ban undocumented children from entering the municipality,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

In contrast, Tucson is offering care and assistance. And it’s one of the few communities along the border doing the right thing, said John Heid, who recently traveled the length of the border. Heid is a volunteer with the Restoration Project, which has been helping the sojourners at the bus station.

From Tucson, the Central Americans have long distances to travel and will have to change buses in different cities where there is no help. Volunteers here explain to the refugees what to expect along the way.

Juan Alvarado and his 15-year-old son were waiting for a bus to take them to South Carolina, where they would join a family member. They left behind in Guatemala Juan’s wife and four other children. He and his son left their home “because there is no life there,” he said.

María Baltazar had traveled for a week with her 3-year-old daughter when she was detained at the border. She didn’t know where. But in Tucson, volunteers Mike Wilson and Susan Ruff invited the Guatemalan mother and daughter to their home to eat, bathe and rest. Baltazar was headed to Orlando, Florida, to join a family member.

Sebastian Quinoc, a Tucson resident and native of Guatemala, was at the terminal to take a census of those passing through, on behalf of the Guatemalan government. He said most of the Guatemalans are fleeing violence related to the drug war.

Peg Harmon, chief executive officer for Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which is coordinating the relief effort and accepting the donations, attributes Tucson’s attitude to community leaders who set a positive tone. She said the outpouring of support reveals much about our giving community.

Tucson isn’t mean and resentful. Thankfully.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at or at 573-4187.