Tucson facility provides food, comfort, health care
Methow Valley nurses Phoebe Hershenow and Michelle Jerome are recently back from volunteer stints at an asylum shelter in Tucson, Arizona, where they provided medical care to migrants traveling across the border to escape poverty and violence in their home countries.
Hershenow is an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner at Confluence Clinic in Winthrop, and Jerome is a licensed but not currently regularly employed registered nurse who has practiced throughout central Washington. They spent two weeks and two months, respectively, volunteering at the asylum facility run by Casa Alitas, a short-term shelter run by Catholic Community Services (CCS) of Southern Arizona.
When citizens of Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti and Guatemala flee their countries in desperation, seeking safer lives for themselves and their families, they frequently get detained at the U.S.-Mexico border and are most often deported. For some seeking asylum, however, the shelter at Casa Alitas represents the interim between the rugged Sonoran desert and an asylum hearing — a lengthy and rigorous process that only 2% of border crossers are even granted access to.
Jerome was the first local nurse to connect with Casa Alitas (“House of Wings”). Seeking service work for personal reasons, Jerome reached out to a childhood friend who works with Human Borders Inc., which maintains a system of water stations for migrants crossing the desert into the United States. Jerome’s friend arranged for her to volunteer at Casa Alitas, as Jerome’s Spanish fluency and nursing experience were critical skills for shelter work.
Hershenow learned of Jerome’s work and decided to follow. “Immigration policy is so much in the news,” Hershenow said. “I’ve been interested in what happens in juvenile detention camps, but you can’t gain access to those. It’s all deep secrets; it’s not transparent. Volunteering at the asylum shelter was a way for me to learn more about what’s happening at the border.”
Spanish fluency was a requirement for the jobs the two nurses were performing at the asylum shelter. Hershenow learned to speak Spanish by traveling and working as a nurse in countries such as Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras, in addition to practicing health care in communities with Spanish-speaking populations. Jerome took Spanish classes throughout her education and has worked in migrant health clinics, which honed her fluency.
The Casa Alitas shelter itself is a leased juvenile detention facility, painted and hung with fabrics to create a more hospitable vibe. There are even some locally made glass tile mosaics created by area artists.
In the detention facilities the travelers come to the shelter from, the detainees sleep on the floor with Mylar blankets, with a food allotment of three frozen burritos per person per day. Sometimes the burritos are heated, sometimes they’re not. But the atmosphere at the Casa Alitas asylum shelter is more welcoming, with family units occupying semi-private rooms, and the food is prepared and served with dignity and care.
The shelter was established about five years ago, when Tucson residents noticed that migrants were just being dropped off at the local bus station by ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) with just the clothes on their backs. CCS volunteers began providing migrants with food and water, sometimes clothing. Eventually, they established a safe shelter, where migrants could access not only food, a change of clothing, and hygiene services, but also medical consultations and legal assistance.
“The migrants are so exhausted when they arrive,” said Hershenow. “We immediately gave them water, fruit salad, soup and a COVID test upon arrival. After that, we provided them with access to a shower and then gave them a clean change of clothing, followed by replacing the shoelaces that ICE confiscated from them in detention.”
Hershenow and Jerome spent much of their time identifying health issues in migrants: diabetes, dehydration, pregnancy. In May, there was a flurry of babies born to asylum seekers. One traveler crossed the border with a one-day-old baby, born prematurely at 35 weeks, weighing 3.5 pounds. “She was exhausted,” Hershenow said of the new mother. “They all are when they arrive at the shelter.”
What’s happening at the border is distressing to both Hershenow and Jerome. “I feel like we’re complicit,” said Hershenow. “We’re separating families. We’re detaining older minors and releasing their families. Some will never be reunited. Some arrive wearing ankle bracelet monitors. There’s no rhyme or reason to how people arrive at the shelter, and in what condition. It’s not a transparent process.”
“These migrants would rather be at home,” Jerome said. “They’re not planning extended vacations to the U.S. They fear for their lives if they remain in their home countries. They have no other options; they’re forced out. They’re so desperate that they are leaving everything behind and risking their lives, to seek asylum to the U.S.”
“The countries these migrants are trying to leave are in terrible shape,” Hershenow added. “There is widespread corruption, gang violence, and government officials who are linked to both. These people would rather remain at home, and one way [the U.S.] could facilitate this would be to somehow make their lives better at home, but we’re not doing that and they’re not safe in their home countries. So they leave everything to try to make a fresh start here.
Helping where needed
Hershenow noted how inspired she was by Jerome’s work, not only at Casa Alitas but throughout the Okanogan region.
“I call her FN, for ‘Feral Nurse,’” Hershenow said of Jerome. “She shows up wherever she is needed and makes significant service contributions to Methow At Home, the Lookout Coalition, Guardian Angels, and health care services in the migrant communities of Brewster and Bridgeport.”
Jerome deflects the attention. She is a health care provider; she provides it to those in need, she said, and she was glad that Hershenow chose to join her at Casa Alitas. The time spent at the shelter was educational and meaningful to both nurses.
Across the U.S.-Mexico border, only 2% of those who venture north in unimaginably hostile environmental conditions and psychological circumstances will eventually get the chance to request asylum.
Of those, less than 1% gain access to an asylum hearing that might eventually lead to protection in the U.S. — a process that takes, on average, 2.5 years. The odds are dismal, but the potential peace of mind and sense of safety is still worth the risk for hundreds of thousands of migrants each year.
Despite the uncertainty, despite the danger, despite the wait, these people remain hopeful. And in the face of despair, volunteer nurses like Hershenow and Jerome are at the asylum shelter to provide some sense of relief. As Hershenow said, “We’re there to counteract the negative.”