Phoenix Aid Groups Look To The Fall As Migrant Releases Decline

By Matthew Casey
Published: Friday, August 2, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, August 2, 2019 - 9:29am

Audio icon Download mp3 (4.92 MB)

Barbara Lewkowitz
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Barbara Lewkowitz (right) puts grapes into a colander to wash and serve with other fruit. Lewkowitz and Anna Keating (left) volunteered to prepare food for 19 migrants dropped off Monday at Monte Vista Baptist Church.

A 3-year-old boy from Central America told Barbara Lewkowitz how to say grape in Spanish. Then she told him how to say it in English and he repeated the word.

“That was excellent — high five,” she said.

The boy, who has been watching Lewkowitz set out plates filled with fresh fruit, slapped her open hand.

The boy and his family were headed for South Carolina. But first they’d get food and help at Monte Vista Baptist Church. Lewkowitz has been cooking and gathering food donations for migrants since last fall, when federal authorities started releasing mostly asylum seekers in metro Phoenix by the busload.

“There [are] two of us. There could probably just be one of us here today,” she said.

Lewkowitz founded the group Interfaith Refugee Asylum Volunteers, a project under Arizona Jews for Justice. She’s organized efforts to feed up to 150 migrants at a time at Monte Vista alone. On Monday, there were only 19 migrants there.

“The other churches that I’m normally in contact with, they didn’t even get any asylum refugees today,” she said.

Arizona aid groups that once struggled to keep pace with the number of migrants dropped off by federal authorities have seen major slowdown. Some groups said they expected a summertime drop in traffic, and advocates now have their eye on the next season when migrants have typically headed north.

Angel Campos
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Angel Campos

Government data show migration across the U.S.-Mexico border has slowed since the spring, when groups struggled to keep up with the number of releases in metro Phoenix.

Such a drop is typical of summer time, and the ripples have reached local churches like Monte Vista, where Angel Campos is senior pastor. 

“My perspective is that only the more needy people are going to continue to try to come. The ones that have no escape. The ones that have no option,” he said. 

A naturalized United States citizen, Campos opened his church to migrants in October 2018. Moving from bad conditions to good ones is part of nature, he said. And people will always come to the U.S.

"[Coming here] was being looked at like [a] very easy thing to do,” he said.

Deadly heat and Mexico’s crackdown on migrants are why Campos thinks he’s getting fewer drop-offs. His church is not the only one with less people to help.

Aid groups took a major step this week by opening an overnight shelter. But it’s mostly been empty. The International Rescue Committee in Phoenix (IRC) said they expected a decline in migrants. The IRC opened the shelter early to prepare for the fall. It wants to prevent asylum seekers from being dropped at the Greyhound bus station. 

If numbers don’t pick up at Campos’ church in the fall, then he’ll think the “crisis” is over.

“After September, the weather starts changing, and I will know the truth,” he said.

Migration patterns have swung rapidly under President Donald Trump, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Changing U.S. policies, plus pressure on Mexico and Guatemala, make it very hard to predict what will happen in the fall, he said.   

Randy Capps
Migration Policy Institute
Randy Capps

“It’s quite possible, in fact highly likely, the numbers will fall somewhere in between. They won’t be as high as this rush we had to get in the door this spring. But they’ll still be higher than last year and the year before,” Capps said.

What happens in Customs and Border Protection's so-called Yuma Sector is a clue of whether migrant releases pick back up, Capps said. The area saw one of the biggest declines in traffic from May to June.  

“And it was almost a 50% drop in Yuma Sector,” Capps said. 

People crossing near Yuma have been mainly Guatemalan, Capps said. Instability in Guatemala is mostly economic. There is also a presidential runoff this month. Guatemalans seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach right now on whether to leave. 

“So it’s really what are the conditions that affect Guatemala, in particular, and the policies that might deter Guatemalans from coming, that are probably the most important considerations right now for Yuma Sector and for Phoenix,” he said.

Back in the kitchen at Monte Vista Baptist Church, Barbara Lewkowitz added to milk and cinnamon to a rice pudding she made for the 19 migrants about to have lunch.

For months, food has connected Lewkowitz with migrants. But if drops-offs don’t pick up again in the fall, meals and donations for large groups of people may no longer be needed.

“I’ll find another place to volunteer. But this is kind of my heart. I’d like to continue to do it as long as I can,” Lewkowitz said.

One Source, My Connection!