Free to Go; Free to Make Choices –Getting One Step Closer to a Humane Asylum System | The Center for Victims of Torture

Free to Go; Free to Make Choices –Getting One Step Closer to a Humane Asylum System

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Alison Beckman, MSW, LICSW, is senior clinician for external relations.

In late May, my colleague Leora Hudak and I had the opportunity to visit Casa Alitas, a migrant shelter in Tucson, Arizona, as CVT prepares to launch a partnership program with them to serve asylum seekers. On the day we were there, more than 50 asylum seekers arrived at Alitas, and I was later informed  that this number will likely increase significantly by the end of the summer. Our partnership with the Alitas team consists of providing resilience groups and other mental health interventions to families with significant trauma histories.  This includes providing virtual destination case management services to facilitate asylum seekers’ access to needed resources once they arrive in their destinations in the U.S., as well as developing electronic and printed mental health tools.

During our visit, Leora, who is a CVT staff wellbeing and mental health specialist, and I volunteered to assist arriving migrants to better understand the steps taken by the largely volunteer-based Casa Alitas team as they welcome new arrivals. We supported three groups of migrants who were just released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) custody. Although we did not ask directly, we presume arriving migrants had taken their initial first step in the asylum process, the Credible Fear Interview, while in custody, or were paroled for humanitarian reasons. There simply aren’t many other ways to arrive right now: even though the “Remain in Mexico” policy has ended, restrictions to cross still keep people out, especially the policy using an old public health law, Title 42, used to justify keeping people out during the COVID pandemic on unfounded public health grounds.

The process for welcoming new arrivals to Casa Alitas includes meeting people at the door as ICE and CBP vans drop them off. On this day, the number of people arriving together ranged from a smaller group of around ten to a larger group of around 25. Most people arrived as families, including parents and children. All of the men and many of the women wore large black electronic monitoring devices on their ankles. People also had plastic ID bracelets on their wrists much like you would have when you go to the hospital. Pregnant women had an additional colored bracelet that said “PREGNANT.”

When people arrive at Casa Alitas, they are invited to sit in a large, open welcoming area and are provided with introductory information. Volunteers and staff offer a series of things, in a specific order, mindful that people may arrive dehydrated and without having had adequate food. We first distributed cups of water, followed by a brothy soup and a cup of fresh fruit. Volunteers and staff did rapid COVID tests on all arrivals (all were negative the day we were there). As families’ belongings had been removed while in ICE and CBP custody, Casa Alitas returned them sealed in plastic bags.  These included belts, cell phones, shoe laces and other personal belongings.

Many people’s first priority was to quickly plug in their phones to reach out to relatives back home.  We observed many tearful and seemingly relieved folks connecting to loved ones. They had many questions, which included: “Where am I?” “Am I close to Boston where my relatives live?” “Are we free to leave?” “Can I throw my garbage in that garbage can?” “How do I charge my ankle monitor?” On the day we were there, migrants were offered a free COVID vaccine, and many opted to get one. Children were offered kits including coloring books, a book in Spanish and a stuffed animal.

All arrivals had relatives willing to sponsor them in the United States and most migrants were focused on figuring out how to get to them. Casa Alitas helps arrange plane tickets (a switch from pre-COVID times where most people took long bus rides) and people are invited to be housed at Casa Alitas until they can make those travel arrangements. Some folks appeared to make arrangements to leave immediately or within several hours, while others settled in for a night or two.

I left Casa Alitas with a sense that the policies that detain people (which often include subjecting them to stays in cold holding rooms called “hieleras”), take away their choices by taking their belongings, ability to communicate with others, and keep them in holding facilities for various amounts of time, are unnecessary and dehumanizing. Everyone we met had entered into a legal asylum process and just wanted to reunite with family living in the United States. I observed a distinct change in individuals over the first hour after arriving at Casa Alitas, a visible relief in people’s faces which came about as they realized they were free to go, free to connect with their families and free to make choices.




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