The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
When I started volunteering at the Casa Alitas migrant shelter in March at the former Benedictine monastery, one of the first questions I asked was, “Where’s all this moving in the summer?” It was well known that the developer who purchased the historic property in 2017 had loaned the building to Catholic Community Services — under which Casa Alitas operates — only through July.
The answer was quick and simple: Teresa Cavendish, Casa Alitas operations director, was scouring the city for a centralized alternative site that could serve the large numbers who’d been coming to the monastery. No one who knew Cavendish or saw the monastery operation — a miracle mix of love, inspiration and remarkable organization — doubted she’d find a solution. Like so many women in nonprofits, she’s the epitome of Get It Done.
That said, I doubt anyone would have thought the solution would be three unused wings of the Pima County juvenile detention center.
I was so stunned when I heard about it that I spit out my morning coffee.
Of course, the detention center wasn’t Cavendish’s first choice — or even her 20th. It was number 22.
“We looked at 21 other sites,” she explained in a phone interview. “But they either didn’t have everything we needed or weren’t available when we needed it. And when it became obvious this would be our only choice, we interviewed families who stayed with us at the monastery and showed them pictures (of the detention center) and they said they were happy with it as long as it was safe and clean. We were trying to find the best solution and we didn’t do it without consulting the families directly affected.”
They did, however, do it without consulting the rest of the community who does migrant work locally, albeit in much smaller numbers, and this is where the point of injury lies.
“Maybe the detention center is the only option,” Episcopal campus minister Rev. Ben Garren said. “But the tension everyone feels now is over the transparency of the conversations that happened between the county and Catholic Community Services when no one else was at the table. We weren’t invited to hear the pros and cons or offer other solutions.”
Cavendish says it was no secret that the shelter would have to move and no one in the nonprofit community came to her to talk about alternative sites. Garren and others say the onus was on Casa Alitas to seek out other opinions. Having volunteered only a handful of times at the monastery, I can attest there is barely a second to breathe while you’re doing this work, much less ask someone’s opinion, so I tend to fall in the camp of if you have something to say, come tell me, don’t wait for me to ask you.
That said, no one likes to see rifts in our community, especially among people of faith, and that’s what this move has wrought.
The biggest thing Casa Alitas needs is space, and the detention center’s empty wings offer that. Cavendish and her army of more than 400 volunteers — including 140 medical professionals who screen each asylee and care for the ill — have housed more than 10,000 guests from Central America since January because the monastery was huge. At the height of the crisis, more than 400 guests were being hosted; a light day was 75. The other shelters in town can house no more than 50 each.
Love, volunteers and renovation are transforming the institutionalized setting — which is separated from the juvenile detention center’s one active wing — into a place of comfort for asylees for the few days they will be there before making the trip to sponsors in other parts of the country. Catholic Community Services has been clear that if a migrant is uncomfortable at the new shelter, they will be moved to smaller community partners like The Inn, which is run by the Methodist Church.
But critics say murals, carpets and art supplies can only change so much in a building originally designed as a jail.
“Everyone supports the work of Casa Alitas and we are grateful for them, but we’ve also been doing the work here and we have insight and resources,” said Methodist campus minister the Rev. Hannah Bonner. “Asylum seekers are supposed to be released from ICE or Border Patrol into freedom. Moving them to a detention center doesn’t seem like their freedom is being prioritized. It feels more like a transfer of custody between governmental agencies.”
That’s not what Cavendish or the volunteers would say. Their work over the past seven months has been astounding — not to mention exhausting — in both breadth and depth, and the focus is continually on showing love and care to the asylum seekers.
As any family counselor can attest, misunderstanding is the root of many family injuries, and communication is the key to happiness. The Tucson community of faith and justice is a big family and sometimes families have issues.
But I’d hate to see continued damage over a lack of communication, so I hope someone — anyone — involved will pick up the phone and invite someone else out for coffee. Let’s start the conversation and heal the wounds because the work won’t wait.