By Gabriela Harrod / El Inde
Finding the building is not easy. Upon arriving at the Pima County Juvenile Court Center in Tucson, Arizona, there is a fairly empty parking lot with aggressive, yellow speed bumps. They will make you wince and swear that you were only going five miles per hour. Looping around the court building, at last there is a small red sign. It reads, “Casa Alitas” and depicts a white arrow, directing visitors to keep going. A large construction site comes into view on the left — watch out for nails. Another red Casa Alitas sign comes into view, and then another. Eventually, a smooth, red brick building comes into view.
It’s not much at first glance, but the grand tile mosaic, gifted to Alitas from the Las Artes Youth Art Program, greets visitors and guests as they approach the front entrance of the building. Las Artes Youth Art Program is a program that combines classroom study and community art projects allowing students to prepare for the General Education Development test and learn valuable job-readiness skills.
Change is a constant at Casa Alitas. Its staff and volunteers are always on their toes, eager to help everyone who walks through their doors. From facility relocations to direct impacts of presidential administrations to the global health crises, this shelter for migrants seeking asylum has weathered it all.
Christy Voelkel, a longtime volunteer and now site lead staff member at Alitas says she’s been there from the very beginning, “when they went from serving five people to hundreds of people,” Voelkel said. The people they serve — migrants seeking asylum — rely on Casa Alitas to help transport them to their sponsors, U.S. citizens who assume legal responsibility for migrants, address their medical needs, and provide them with necessities.
It all began in the sanctuary at Saint Pius X Catholic Church in Tucson in 2014. This shelter was created after Tucsonans noticed that migrants were being dropped off by Border Patrol at parks or the Greyhound bus station without any assistance. From there, Voelkel recalls moving to a hotel, then to a monastery, and finally to their present location, a three-wing building that went from a home of desperation to a place that cultivates hope — the old Pima County Juvenile Detention Center.
Now, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new Biden administration, Voelkel says, “We’re constantly updating and readjusting to keep things safe.” The changes that Casa Alitas has had to make in the past year due to the pandemic are evident: The building’s wings have been rearranged for guests and volunteer and staff safety. Contact is minimized between volunteers and guests, and only staff with proper training and safety protocols are permitted into the Covid-19 wing.
As visitors and migrants (whom Alitas refers to as their guests) walk into the building, they step into the front office where Sarah Reed, the program coordinator at Alitas, spends a lot of her time. Guests and visitors immediately have their temperature taken and are checked into their computer system. Once guests are assured that they are safe and welcome, they receive their first rapid Covid-19 test. Guests are led outside where a mesh canopy hangs over the area to provide shade. Rows of plastic chairs line the floor and portable hand washing stations are set up. This is where they are welcomed, receive the results of their rapid tests and are promised help.
The three wings, complete with bathrooms, bedrooms, and common areas have been separated into Covid-19 negative or positive areas. The third wing has been converted into a space that is exclusive to staff and volunteers. This is where clothing and travel preparation bags are made for guests. The clothing bags are necessary for migrants to access clean clothes during their stay which they can then take with them on their trip to their sponsor. Before guests are taken to the airport, they are also given a travel bag filled with hygienic products and snacks.
Though numbers of migrants had been low throughout 2020 due to the pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s strict immigration enforcement, Casa Alitas has already seen growth as a result of the incoming Biden administration. The numbers have been steadily increasing as hundreds of migrants who are seeking asylum in the United States are again being released from detention centers and are granted a chance at having their asylum cases heard by a judge.
However, in true Casa Alitas fashion, things can change quickly. Voelkel said that one day they were expecting 46 guests to arrive, so they had made preparations and meals for those people, and then were informed with slim notice that there would actually be 12 guests. On site, Reed, the program coordinator of Casa Alitas, mentioned that sometimes there can be more guests than Border Patrol informs them about or it could be less.
A woman of average height with short brown hair and the kindest voice, Reed has been with Casa Alitas for two years. She is a mother of two with a degree in counseling psychology who has spent years as a mental health therapist for refugee youth and families. She took a break from her work when she had her children. When her second child was nine months old, the Trump administration began their child separation policy. Reed recalls watching the news and seeing that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had taken a four month old baby from their parents. “Just a few months younger than my child, my baby. It just broke my heart,” she said.
The grief and heartbreak she felt for the child and their parents drove Reed to become involved in this issue and to be someone to offer help and support. She heard that call to be part of the change, and she listened.
In 2019, she started as a manager, and during her time in this position, served about 5,000 people. In November of that year, she began working in her current position.
Though she loves what she does and feels so rewarded and fulfilled with her work, Reed experiences grief and heartbreak when she listens to the stories of Alitas’ guests. The racism, prejudices, and lies that have been spread about immigrants have only added to the horrific treatment of immigrants. “And yet there’s something in all of that challenge, and something in all of these horrible stories and experiences, and that’s the fact that the people are here and they’re still strong and they’re resilient and they have hope for something better for themselves and for their families and to be able to walk alongside them, you know, even for a little bit of their journey, it’s such a privilege, really, to kind of be a part of at least making those few steps that you get to walk with them a little bit better,” she said. The success stories of those who have gone on to permanently live in the U.S. and the knowledge that she and Alitas were able to be a part of those stories helped soothe the pain she feels from hearing about their struggle.
Looking around at the facility, it is obvious that love and care have been invested to make the old juvenile detention center feel like a welcoming home to Casa Alitas’ guests. The walls are painted a warm beige and a cool purple, the vaulted ceilings with skylights let the Tucson sunlight shine through, and the chapel sits conveniently in the center of the complex, as if it is the heart of the guests’ temporary home.
When Reed has been asked how she’s able to do what she does, her response is simply, “How can I not?”
Helping refugees and people in need is Reed’s calling. It wasn’t a hard decision to make when she chose to work at Casa Alitas.
“I think it’s one of those things when you see something so grave of a need, you can let it overwhelm you and just depress you about the state of the world and the country or you can do something about it. You can be a part of trying to fix it,” she said.