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Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour

Inside Casa Alitas, the Arizona safe house for Central American families seeking asylum

Casa Alitas has all the hallmarks of a daycare.

The four-bedroom house in Tucson, Arizona, is stocked with stuffed animals, spare car seats and a small shelf of children’s books. Pantries are meticulously labeled in English and Spanish — latas de comida for canned food and leche en polvo for dry milk. A closet holds all the diapers and towels. Toys are scattered in the backyard.

Artwork drawn and colored by children hang in almost every room of the house, thanking Casa Alitas (Spanish for “wings”) for its charity.

Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour

But this isn’t a daycare; there are no children.

Instead, it’s a safe house, set up 2014 by Catholic Community Services to help address the record waves of Central Americans seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. An array of flags hang above the dining room, representing the many homelands of the families, largely mothers and their children, that are dropped off — many of them from Guatemala and Nicaragua, fleeing violence and poverty in their countries.

The latest family to come through this Tucson safe house left the day before I arrived last month. Co-coordinator Maritza Black, 19, said Casa Alitas has received only five families in the weeks since then. The slowdown is unusual for a safe house that used to host, on average, four families a day.

Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour

Black, along with co-coordinator Dora Haydee Lopez, 66, pointed to the Trump administration’s rhetoric and overall conversation around immigration as a direct factor in the noticeable dip they’ve seen in the number of families Immigration and Customs Enforcement drops off at their doorstep.

In January, when Trump signed an executive order to step up deportations, the program coordinator contacted ICE to ask whether policy changes were going to directly affect the agency’s arrangement with Casa Alitas. According to coordinators, the agency said it was not doing anything different in regards to its policy. Later, when coordinators started to see a decline in the number of families sent their way, they checked in again. The agency maintained its position.

ICE didn’t immediately respond to PBS NewsHour’s request for comment on whether it is changing its policy for asylum-seekers.

But numbers appear to be down. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of immigrants apprehended at the Southwest border as well as the number of those considered “inadmissibles,” immigrants who present themselves to agents at ports of entry, have been down for the past few months. In March 2017, CPB reported that 16,600 immigrants were apprehended or classified as inadmissible. The agency said this is a 64 percent drop from the same month in the fiscal year 2016.

But it’s hard to say whether the drop in numbers so far in 2017 can be attributed to the strong rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration or to the wait-and-see approach families may be adopting, said Doris Meissner, who heads the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Families may be waiting to see whether the communicated plans about stepped up deportations and enforcement actually take place, she said.

During his tour of the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday in Arizona, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited a drop in border apprehensions this year, linking the decline to President Donald Trump.

“This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Sessions said, before outlining new plans to enforce the country’s immigration laws.

But while Sessions spent a large amount of his time on immigration prosecutions, there was no mention of any policy changes on how to address Central American asylum seekers, who are processed differently from Mexican nationals. As described in this Council for Foreign Relations explainer, asylum seekers are granted a hearing before being possibly deported to their home country.

Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour

“There’s so much uncertainty, a fear of not knowing,” co-coordinator Dora Haydee Lopez told the NewsHour in March, nodding to the broad but strongly worded immigration plans signaled by the Trump administration.

Last month, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said he doesn’t intend to separate mothers and children at the border, though he eventually walked back that statement.

Casa Alitas, too, is in a wait-and-see position.

Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour

Before the house existed, border officials dropped off families at a Greyhound bus depot in the city after they were processed and had a scheduled court date. Black said CSS began to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement after Greyhound complained to the agency about people being left at the depot overnight.

With families now being redirected to the safe house, volunteers offer immediate assistance. Among their first tasks is to help families arrange phone calls and bus rides to their relatives in the U.S, until their court date. Volunteers also make sure a homecooked meal is waiting for the families when they arrive, along with a shower, clothes and a bed, should they need to rest or stay the night.

Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour

There was a time when volunteers were in short supply for the safe house. Two shelters opened up elsewhere in the city to help with overflow at Casa Alitas.

With fewer families being dropped off at Casa Alitas, that’s no longer the case. Volunteers haven’t been as needed; the two shelters are still open, but sometimes on a shorter schedule, depending on demand.

Despite the lack of families seen this year, though, the coordinators said Casa Alitas will remain flexible as a program.

It has also expanded its operation to taking in people with special needs, like a man with a feeding tube, and providing long-term shelter to those with complicated cases.

Photo by Joshua Barajas/PBS NewsHour

A woman from Cameroon, who has 3-month-old twins, has been at the house for about four weeks now. She and her husband presented themselves to Border Patrol agents and requested political asylum at the port of entry in Nogales, Arizona. The woman was granted a deportation hearing and dropped off at Casa Alitas with her twins. Her husband, however, was taken to a detention center in Eloy, Arizona, a city approximately halfway between Tucson and Phoenix.

Even if numbers continue to drop, Black said, Casa Alitas’ organizers want the safe house to remain open.

“We believe that no matter how much the numbers are down, there will always be a handful of people entering [the U.S.] on political asylum,” Black said.

See more of the PBS NewsHour’s dispatches from Arizona:

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