On the first week of the month, white Homeland Security buses pull into the parking lot of the Grove Church in Chandler, unloading dozens of migrant families.
They had surrendered to Border Patrol agents after traveling thousands of miles from disadvantaged, often violent situations in Central America.
Some arrive carrying children as young as a year old.
When the families arrive at the Grove, they see a cluster of gray buildings, topped with wooden panels that form the shape of a triangle at every entrance, making the scene resemble a village of cabins.
The buildings are surrounded by fences made out of stacked rocks, packed together and bound by wire. The fences part in the center, revealing a coffee shop that sells locally baked goods and coffee sourced from Guatemala.
To the migrants, who have by then spent days in the custody of immigration authorities without a shower or clean clothes, the place may well seem like a piece of heaven.
The Grove in Chandler is one of the 15 Arizona churches receiving migrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Those churches — and the volunteers who help feed and clothe the migrants — have been subjected to harassment by anti-immigration groups that were sued in federal court last week by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Although The Grove is not mentioned in the suit, the center cited the Alliance of Christian Leaders of the East Valley — which organized the efforts at The Grove and at least one other East Valley Church in the aid effort — as victims of the harassment.
“Through a megaphone,” the lawsuit alleges, the demonstrators “yelled insults and accusations including ‘You’re not really a house of God; you’re a cash machine;’ ‘You’re not providing aid; you’re making bank;’ and ‘I guess you don’t get $1,800 per head for conservatives, huh? Americans just don’t pay as much as illegal aliens.’”
They also are accused of videotaping the women and children and posting the videos on social media, calling the churches part of a “federal funded human-trafficking ring,” the suit charges.
A monthly visit
One afternoon, a group of volunteers formed two lines at the entrance to the complex, holding donated stuffed animals in their hands as they waited to welcome a fresh group of migrants.
It’s what these volunteers do every month.
But this drop-off doesn’t go smoothly like it has before. Two protesters followed the buses to the church and were attempting to film the families as they got off the buses.
The drivers tried to avoid them, steering the buses to a back entrance as church members scrambled to create a makeshift barrier out of posters and blankets to protect the families’ identities.
Although this wasn’t the first time The Grove has received push back, this was the first time protesters stepped foot on the church grounds over this issue.
The Grove’s mission pastor, Paul Gunther Jr., is undeterred, though.
“My belief is a church is called to love people and keep politics out of it,” Gunther said.
To the volunteers, this is nothing more than doing God’s work. Feeding and clothing those in need, they say, is the Christian way.
“We believe that Jesus has called his believers to go out into the community and serve others, whether that is locally or globally,” said Gina Nasta, ministry coordinator of The Grove.
Valley churches first decided to open their doors to migrants last October as the number of Central American migrants fleeing poverty, corruption and violence in their home countries began to skyrocket.
Since then, thousands have traveled through Mexico to the border, where they turn themselves in to federal agents. From there, they are transferred into the custody of ICE, where their asylum case begins.
Agents review the families’ plans, ensuring that they have a place to stay in the United States while they await a resolution on their petitions.
ICE will contact relatives who are already in the U.S. and confirm the family’s bus routes.
This is a time- and resource-intensive process that may take several weeks. ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
Migrants can be held in the detention facilities for up to 40 days while their cases are being resolved, ICE Executive Associate Director Matthew T. Albence.
However, ICE can’t hold minors in their facilities for more than 20 days because of limitations that are part of a settlement to a lawsuit. In 2015, this requirement was extended to include minors and their parents.
ICE sought churches’ help
Because of the large number of immigrant families arriving at the border, the system is stretched to its limit.
In early October, the agency began reaching out to nongovernmental organizations, asking for their assistance with housing, transporting and providing other services for the families.
Magdalena Schwartz, a Mesa pastor and member of the Alliance of Christian Leaders, said that she was first contacted by ICE on Oct. 12 and asked if she could find a church that could house 11 migrants.
Schwartz and other Alliance leaders began calling churches in Arizona, in hopes of finding the help they needed. In the end, 15 churches agreed to open their doors.
Thus began Schwartz’s rigorous schedule of coordinating the drop-offs with each church. Some churches open their doors once a month, others every other week.
Schwartz is identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center in its lawsuit as one of the victims of harassment by anti-immigration demonstrators, who call themselves part of Patriot Movement AZ, identified by the center as a hate group.
“The claims of sex and human trafficking were completely unsubstantiated,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants made these claims specifically because they were highly offensive and would further their anti-immigrant social and political agenda. Defendants had no proof to support these allegations but persisted in spreading these falsehoods deliberately or recklessly.”
Personal experiences drive pastors
Schwartz knows what it’s like to be forced out of your homeland. Thirty years ago, she left Chile for the United States, fleeing economic hardships. She had two young children and worried they would have no future there.
Her family arrived here with nothing, she said, and relied on the goodwill of her sister, Elizabeth, who opened a room in her home for Schwartz’s family to stay.
“I’m doing this because I’m grateful,” Schwartz said. “If somebody did (this) for me, I like to do for others.”
This issue is close to home for Gunther as well, who has lived in Guatemala and adopted two children from there.
“Just seeing how they’re sometimes treated obviously makes it a little personal,” Gunther said.
When Gunther heard about churches stepping up to help house migrant families, he wanted The Grove to be involved.
Days of preparation
To prepare for the families, volunteers work together to transform a multi-use room that usually hosts Bible study groups and basketball practice into a sanctuary for the families.
The preparation begins days before they’re expected to arrive. The drop-offs are always planned for the first week of the month, however, church staff and volunteers don’t know what time the migrants will arrive or how many families to expect.
Schwartz will contact the church by texting them days, sometimes the night before the scheduled drop-off.
The Grove relies heavily on their church’s community to ensure everything goes smoothly.
Nasta will send out an email to community and church members about a week before the drop-off, asking for volunteers.
When additional donations are needed, church staff will reach out to the congregation through social media, asking for help. They receive supplies such as backpacks and toiletries.
When the first migrants came, community members were so eager to help that some of them brought catering-sized portions of beans and rice to feed them.
The migrants, who up until this point hadn’t eaten much food besides the peanut butter sandwiches supplied by ICE, would sometimes get sick from overeating, Gunther said.
These days, the meals are cooked by Gunther or Grove staff members in the church’s kitchen, which has a small fridge, a microwave and a four-burner stove. The meals consist of beans, rice, tortillas and some kind of protein, commonly chicken.
Once the families step off the bus, volunteers greet them with “bienvenidos” and “welcome” and hand the children stuffed elephants and teddy bears. Gunther said that the families often break into singing, seemingly relieved to have found a welcoming place.
“The church is called to be a light to the community, we’re called to be a safe haven, we’re...called to be that foundation for people to come to and just feel okay and to feel safe,” Nasta said.
The families filter into the multi-purpose room and sit down at the dozen round tables.
Schwartz stands on a small platform at the front of the room and starts talking to the immigrant families.
The first thing she asks is if anyone is sick, knowing well that some won’t admit to it because they’re afraid they will be separated from those who traveled with them. Three volunteer nurses are in a nearby room, waiting to assist the migrants.
She then asks the migrants where they are from. “Raise your hand if you’re from Guatemala. What about El Salvador?” she asks. The majority of the families raise their hands.
Then, she leads everyone in a prayer, and the migrants thank Jesus for a new life.
Meals are served from a small circular table in the back corner of the room, by volunteers with large plastic gloves on their hands.
Schwartz continues to talk with the migrant families and asks where their final destination is. Some of the families will travel as far as Virginia and Vermont, and Schwartz tells them to grab winter jackets from the pile of donated clothes.
The families are called one by one to speak with an Alliance Leader to buy bus or plane tickets. Relatives who are already in the United States pay for the new arrivals’ tickets, according to Schwartz. If they need a place to stay before they depart, they will be matched with hosts who have volunteered to house them for a night or two.
As the donation process begins, each family receives a backpack with reusable water bottles, a comb, pen, a towel, toiletries and a wad of note cards for the kids to draw on.
Each family takes a turn with the donation tables, wading through the piles for clean clothes and new shoes.
At this point the host families begin to arrive, some with their own young children.
The families who finished sorting through donations, with their new backpacks overstuffed with the donations, wait to be paired with a host family.
As the migrant families leave with their hosts, everyone in the room gives them a round of applause — a Grove tradition that signals the end of their difficult journey and the beginning of their lives in the U.S.
Denise is one of the sponsor families who opened her home to five families on three different occasions. She asked to be identified by her first name because of the push back from the protesters.
The families have rooms of their own at her home, with clean bed sheets and some granola bars, fruits and water bottles.
She always makes sure to supply them with extra toiletries in their bedroom.
“You know, just normal things you do when any house guests are coming,” Denise said.
Denise does not speak any Spanish, so she relies heavily on Google Translate. Sometimes, she’ll call one of her husband’s coworkers, who is bilingual, and ask for help.
The migrants normally stay for a night or two where they sleep for the most of their stay after their exhausting journey, according to Denise.
It’s when the families leave the homes of hosts like Denise that their new life in a new country truly begins to take shape.
Denise said that she has kept in touch with some of the families she has hosted. She will help them find churches in their new communities, get their children signed up for school and figure out how and where to get their vaccinations.
She knows that more migrants will come. And when they do, she will be ready to receive them.
“We just have a heart for people in this situation and so when our church shared with us that we were going to start hosting families through here, we immediately signed up,” Denise said. “We are always looking for ways that we can meet people...and share the love of Jesus with them.”