Child Migrant Crisis Prompts Some To Open Their Homes
PHOENIX — The recent wave of Central American families and children coming across the border has prompted outrage from some Arizonans, while it’s tugged at the heart strings of others.
Volunteers in both Phoenix and Tucson have worked shifts at Greyhound bus stations in recent months to help migrant women with children once they are released from Border Patrol custody. Throughout the state, people sent clothing donations to migrant children when they were housed in a Nogales facility.
And a handful are even responding to the crisis of arriving unaccompanied children by opening up their homes.
Judy and Bernie Armstrong did just that last fall, and are preparing to do it again. The couple are in their early 60s. They moved from Kansas a few years ago to a quiet neighborhood surrounded by desert north of Phoenix.
“We don’t need a house this big, there are two of us, but we need a place where our kids come to visit, and our grandkids,” Judy Armstrong said while walking up the stairs. “So it is plenty of room to house people here.”
They used that extra space to welcome a teenage orphan who migrated alone from Honduras. It wasn’t a formal arrangement like foster care, just something they did.
“He was with us for six months,” Bernie Armstrong said. “And you know, he was very respectful of us, he was just a really nice young guy and we enjoyed having him.”
Their spare bedroom where their young guest stayed has a four-poster bed and a flowered quilt.
“It was really a little girly for Carlos, but he was OK with it,” Judy Armstrong said.
Carlos isn’t the young man’s real name. He doesn’t want any media attention, so the Armstrongs are respecting his privacy by using a pseudonym to refer to him.
The Armstrongs heard about Carlos’ situation last year at their church, West Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Their congregation has a history of doing humanitarian work around immigration issues.
At the time, Carlos had been held at a migrant youth shelter. Young people from Central America who are caught crossing the border without parents are held in these shelters until they can be released to sponsors or relatives. They typically are living with relatives as they go through immigration court proceedings.
But Carlos is an orphan who didn’t have anyone here. With the help of lawyers from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, Carlos won his immigration case last year and was about to get his green card.
But that happened just as he was also about to turn 18, which meant he couldn’t stay at the migrant youth shelter.
“The option would be going to an adult detention facility, usually they are down in Florence or Eloy, if there wasn’t someone who could provide the secure housing,” Judy Armstrong said.
The Armstrongs were willing to help, and have some experience hosting newcomers. They began hosting refugees from Vietnam in their home in the early 1980s.
They picked up Carlos on his 18th birthday. Judy Armstrong realized he must have been terrified.
“All of a sudden he is being given to an English-speaking elderly American, who is going to take him away from the little that was familiar,” she said.
The Armstrongs didn’t know much about Carlos, either, that first day.
“We knew he was from Honduras, we knew the he had gone through the court system and he had applied for a green card and he hadn’t received it yet but it was on its way,” Bernie Armstrong said. “Other than that, we didn’t really know a lot about him. It was taking a bit of a leap.”
The attorney who worked on Carlos’ case declined to specify what kind of relief he won because of attorney-client privilege. But many of the Florence Project's juvenile clients are granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which is a program for foreign children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected.
The Armstrongs did have to overcome a language barrier with Carlos. Judy could only remember a little of her high school Spanish. And Bernie didn’t speak any.
“[Carlos] had an English dictionary and I had a Spanish dictionary,” Judy Armstrong said. “Sometimes we just had to point.”
They also relied on Google translate on a laptop.
Carlos soon became like a member of the family, though Judy said he was better behaved than she remember her own children ever being as teenagers. It impressed her that every night at 10 p.m. Carlos turned down his music or the television without needing a reminder.
Carlos went on trips with the couple to visit relatives and shared meals with them. After some time together, he opened up about why he fled Honduras.
“He was knifed, he was left on the street bleeding, assumed dead,” Judy Armstrong said. “He came to in the hospital, spent three months there. And when he was discharged, he no longer had a job, and he no longer had a place to stay, and he was afraid, he knew it could happen again. So he and a friend decided to make their way to this country.”
The couple helped Carlos navigate the bureaucracy of getting a Social Security card, a state ID, and a food handler’s license.
They each have their own reasons for wanting to host newly arriving immigrants in their home. When Bernie Armstrong wasn’t much older than Carlos, he went abroad too, to serve in Vietnam. There he depended on the kindness of locals.
“Sometimes nightfall would come and we would be, you know, at some village some place with no place to stay and people would take us in,” he said.
For Judy Armstrong, it has to do with her own family history.
“I know I had a great-grandmother who came from Ireland in steerage at the age 17,” she said. “Not that different than the young man who stayed with us.”
Carlos was able to move out of the Armstrongs' home this spring when he got off a waiting list for a housing program for young adults. He has a job now.
The three still get together every month.
“We are friends on Facebook,” Judy said. “And calls me every once in a while. And he made a deal. He said 'when I call you I am only going to speak English.'”
In the coming weeks, more teenage migrants held in Phoenix-area shelters are set to turn 18, or could win their immigration cases.
Those without relatives here will need a place to go. Phoenix Restoration Project, a local group, is recruiting more volunteer hosts.
“Anyone who has a little extra space in their home that could take a guest for a few weeks up to a couple of months, we would like to get them into one of our trainings,” said Restoration Project volunteer Cyndi Whitmore. “It doesn’t have to be fancy, you don’t have to speak Spanish.”
The Armstrongs are preparing for their next young house guest in September.