The owner of Tucson’s iconic Benedictine Monastery has offered to let asylum seekers from Central America stay at the facility while their final destinations are arranged.
Developer Ross Rulney is planning to build apartments around the monastery at 800 N. Country Club Road and has a few more months of rezoning hearings before construction can begin.
In the meantime, the monastery sits empty, and, after speaking with City Councilman Steve Kozachik and his staff about the situation, Rulney decided to put the former nunnery to use.
“I learned of the conditions that the individuals seeking asylum face and thought that the monastery might offer a safe and more hospitable alternative,” he said. “I am happy to be able to provide this shelter as I believe it is the right thing to do.”
Catholic Community Services will be the tenant, and Rulney will not be involved with the operation, nor will he charge rent.
The monastery will house about 30 people — families traveling with children.
Rulney doesn’t anticipate any protests.
“I anticipate community support for what we’re doing,” he said.
Catholic Community Services said the gesture is “truly a blessing.”
“It helps a great deal with the sustainability of our program,” said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations.
Catholic Community Services runs the Casa Alitas network of shelters, which includes homes and churches.
In the past few months, the number of families coming across the border seeking asylum and being released has been higher than in previous years, Cavendish said.
In the past three months, they have received 1,400 people compared to about 300 during the same time last year, she said.
In October, CCS rapidly converted a church gym into a shelter to house hundreds of families released by immigration officials because Border Patrol detention facilities had run out of space. They have also had to resort to hotels, which is more expensive, on three occasions so far.
Due to a lack of detention space for families — ICE has about 3,300 total beds, and none are in Arizona — the agency usually coordinates with local shelters.
“To mitigate the risk of holding family units past the time frame allotted to the government, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decides, on a case-by-case basis, whether (families) will be detained pending immigration proceedings,” ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said.
“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.”
After being processed, the parents are normally outfitted with a monitoring ankle bracelet and given an appointment to meet with an immigration official within two weeks.
The families usually need a day or two to reach family members or friends in places such as Texas, Florida and South Carolina to purchase their bus tickets. At the shelters, they get a shower, a bed and meals. Volunteers also help them understand their legal rights and responsibilities, as well as the bus system.
Like Rulney, Cavendish doesn’t anticipate protesters at the monastery.
“The Tucson community is very supportive of the work we are doing,” she said. “We are simply providing human services and support and humanitarian aid.”
Kozachik, who represents Ward 6 where the monastery is, said he has been dismayed by news of protesters at churches in the Phoenix area that are housing migrants.
“It’s key to understand that everybody who’s going to be housed at the Benedictine is here legally,” he said. “They’ve been processed by ICE and are here legally pending their asylum hearing.”
The monastery is private property with “No trespassing” signs posted, and the Tucson Police Department will be enforcing that.
“We need to make this a safe and inviting facility for the families we’re hosting,” Kozachik said. “These people have been through hell. … They don’t need more from some fringe crazies.”
He expects residents around the monastery — in the Miramonte neighborhood — to be supportive.
“Personally, I would support that,” said Sam Behrend, vice president of the Miramonte Neighborhood Association. “Not aware that our (neighborhood association) has a position on that.”
He referred the Star’s email inquiry to President Linda Dobbyn, who did not respond Tuesday night. The neighborhood association is scheduled to meet Wednesday night.
Anyone wanting to donate food or clothing should drop off items at the Ward 6 Council office, 3202 E. First St., to be delivered to the monastery.
“Based on my experience, I expect we’ll receive a significant amount of donated supplies, and nobody who lives in the area will even notice this is going on,” Kozachik said. “Ross should be applauded for being willing to let us use his facility in this humanitarian work.
“It’s taking care of the least of those among us.”