A hotel on Tucson’s south side is serving as a way-station for more than 160 people from Central America after federal immigration authorities ran out of room.

For the third time in recent months, a request for help from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement led local religious groups to hastily make arrangements to house migrants, mostly asylum-seekers from Guatemala, in a hotel, according to Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for Catholic Community Services.

Local groups can handle about 100 people at a time and usually receive 40 or so migrants daily from ICE, Cavendish said. But on Friday, ICE said they needed Casa Alitas, run by Catholic Community Services, to take 300.

With the “excessively high” weekend arrivals from ICE, the program now is operating at a “mega scale,” Cavendish said.

On Monday afternoon, vans with Department of Homeland Security license plates stopped by the hotel several times to drop off more families, many of whom seemed relieved to be released from custody. Most will stay a day or two at the hotel and then be on their way to meet friends and relatives elsewhere in the country while they wait for immigration hearings.

“Who wants burritos?” a man quipped in Spanish as dozens of people waited in line for a warm meal served by volunteers, after days of eating microwave burritos and crackers while in custody.

“Not even as a joke,” another man said with a rueful grin as he held an infant in the crook of his arm and waited for a plate of shredded chicken, rice, beans, tortillas, and salad, along with juice and water.

The food, hotel rooms, toys, and clothes are all donated, Cavendish said. Doctors volunteer their time to check on the migrants while volunteers from Casa Alitas, the United Church of Christ, and the Green Valley Samaritans serve food, get migrants situated in hotel rooms, help them contact family members or sponsors in the United States to pay for the migrants at the hotel to take buses or planes to their destinations.

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In recent months, Border Patrol agents in Southern Arizona regularly see groups of more than a hundred migrants traveling as families turn themselves over to agents.

The Border Patrol was apprehending nearly 200 family members daily in Southern Arizona, but ICE could process about 120 a day, which led to a backup, ICE officials told the Arizona Daily Star in October.

In order to lessen the risk of holding families longer than legally allowed, ICE decides on a case-by-case basis whether they will be detained pending their immigration proceedings, according to a statement from ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe.

“In making these determinations, ICE officers weigh a variety of factors, including the individual’s criminal record, immigration history, ties to the community, risk of flight, and whether the individual poses a potential threat to public safety,” Pitts O’Keefe said. “Aliens are fully advised of the terms and conditions of their release.”

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar