The following editorial is the opinion and analysis of the Arizona Daily Star Editorial Board.
The United States is in one of the worst humanitarian crises along its southern border in nearly three decades. The debate nationally, especially far from the border, has focused on fear and hypotheticals and has ignored the pressing reality faced by cities like Tucson: Asylum seekers are already here, in our communities. Regardless of politics, these desperate humans need help.
All indications point to no significant slowdown of this crisis anytime soon. The logistical and political challenge ahead calls for greater community involvement and support, especially at the city and county level.
So far, Tucson nonprofits and volunteers have done Herculean work to help the women, men and children who are seeking asylum in the U.S. — and are therefore here legally — as they spend two or three days in Tucson on their way to family or friends.
The former Benedictine Monastery, located on North Country Club Road in central Tucson, has seen more than 10,000 asylum seekers, most from Central America, walk through its Spanish-revival doors.
Tucson-based developer Ross Rulney owns the monastery site, which includes dormitory-style rooms, communal areas and a large chapel, and has leased the property to Catholic Community Services free of charge. But not for much longer. Original plans called for the site to be used as a shelter until the end of May, but delays have allowed it to stay open until the end of July.
The importance of a center like the monastery is hard to overstate. Instead of the Border Patrol dropping migrants at bus stations and well-meaning but unprepared temporary shelters, the monastery offers a one-stop shop of medical screening, food, clothing and a place to sleep safely.
Greeting the migrants has been a team of 40 to 50 Tucsonans led and organized by Casa Alitas, a 5-year old program of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona. Other than CCS staff, the workers at the monastery are volunteers.
After hearing the litany of additional specifications needed, it becomes obvious why such a large space is needed to run the operation.
“You’d need security, confidentiality, somewhere for translation services, somewhere you could do legal stuff, medical and a clean place to eat and prepare food,” said Steve Kozachik, the Ward 6 Tucson City Council member and a shelter volunteer.
The ideal replacement, “would be something like the monastery, but 50 years newer,” he said.
So, Casa Alitas and its volunteers are looking for an equivalent home. Currently other, smaller, satellite shelters are operating with help from Casa Alitas , helping to shoulder the load when the monastery reaches capacity.
A pastor from one of those churches, who asked that he and his congregation not be identified due to potential public backlash against the asylum seekers and his church, said the importance of a central point like the monastery to help process migrants is invaluable.
While his church community is capable of housing between 20 to 30 migrants a night, a shelter like the one at the monastery can hold roughly 250, on top of housing needed additional services.
“We’re kind of a mom-and-pop shop, while the monastery is Costco,” the pastor said.
But there is hope. Pima County is spearheading one effort to find a space large enough to take over the operations housed at the monastery, according to County Supervisor Richard Elias.
“We are working on some stuff, but I have to be a little protective of it right now,” he said, not wanting to jeopardize any nascent plans. “But I can tell you, we’re going to make it work.”
Up to this point, the county has been involved primarily by making sure the monastery is up to the county’s health code, according to Elias.
The effort’s operational lifeblood has been and should continue to be nonprofits and volunteers, but municipalities have a crucial health-and-safety role that should include partnering on physical infrastructure.
The need for a center like the monastery is not something a county or city government would usually get involved in. However, Elias said he looks at a project like replacing the monastery as necessary due to the failure of federal immigration and border policy.
“This is a national crisis that’s come home to roost in our community. And so local government needs to step up to the plate and make sure we take care of things in the best manner possible,” he said.
We agree. And we are heartened by Tucson’s overwhelming, and characteristic, answer to the call of so many people in need. We must keep it up — because the need is so huge, and because helping is what Tucsonans do.