Hector Rivas

Hector Rivas, pastor of the church’s Spanish ministry, welcomes migrants as they are dropped off by ICE at the First Southern Baptist Church of Avondale. (West Valley View photo by Pablo Robles)

Glendy Aguilar had a difficult decision to make in her hometown of Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

Aguilar had a small business selling shoes, but she faced poverty and extortion at the hands of gangs. Viewing the environment as too dangerous for her child, the single mother sought to protect 6-year-old Ashley.

So, Aguilar made the difficult decision to leave her family and friends behind, she told the West Valley View through a translator after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dropped off a busload of migrants at First Southern Baptist Church of Avondale just days before the New Year.

Aguilar’s story is one of many.

Griselda Cuc Chocoj, of Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, told the West Valley View through a translator she comes from an impoverished area, where there isn’t a school or social services.

She and her 2-year-old daughter, Adriana, plan to stay with a friend’s family in Tampa, Florida, where Cuc Chocoj intends to work to help support her family back home, who owns land. They have no close relatives in the country.

In total, ICE released 136 migrants – many of whom were women and children from Central American countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras – to the Avondale church on December 26, December 27 and January 2.

Although a hot-button subject in the recent political climate, Pastor Jack Marslender clarified the church’s actions aren’t political.

“I’ve gotten a little bit of political blowback from people, because there’s all kinds of political opinions even within the church over whether they should be here or not, and I just tell people we’re not making a political statement,” he explained. “They’re already here. They’ve been vetted and approved by ICE to be here, so they need help.”

According to reports, ICE has been releasing a large number of migrant families in recent months, many to Valley churches, because children can only be detained for a maximum of 20 days. The West Valley View was unable to reach a spokesperson for ICE due to the government shutdown.

Marslender said nonprofit organization Gathering Humanity reached out to his church about lending a helping hand, telling him ICE would be releasing 4,000 people into the Phoenix area during Christmas week alone, and other Valley churches’ resources were strained.

Much of the community, Marslender noted, has been helpful. On December 27, the second day of the migrants’ arrival, Marslender said he was impressed with the community support, which included community members of all ages and backgrounds. Marslender estimated knowing less than half of those who were present that day.

The effort was thrown together quickly in mere days. Cots and tables were set up, cooks took to the church kitchen and community members stopped by to offer help and donate food and other items while the Central Americans temporarily holed up in the church gymnasium in preparation for the next step of their journeys.

There were translators, including Spanish teachers from Millennium High School, and the church helped contact the migrants’ host families and take them to the Phoenix Greyhound Station to send them on their way.

Reps. Diego Espinoza and Lorenzo Sierra, who was an Avondale councilman, as well as Avondale councilwoman Veronica Malone and representatives from Hickman’s Family Farms and Duncan Family Farms also helped out in various ways.

Among donations were car seats provided by the local fire department, a shower trailer and money courtesy of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention’s AZ Disaster Relief team, blankets from a Phoenix synagogue, dinner from Old Pueblo Café and Pub, and various donations by Gathering Humanity.

“They were very cooperative, very grateful, very pleased,” Marslender said of the first day’s arrivals. “They were amazed that we had cots. I guess a lot of them had been sleeping on the floor. Some of them hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. And the fact that we had a cot for each and every one of them was amazing to them because for the most part moms and two or three kids had been sleeping on the same cot at ICE.

“They just don’t have the facilities for the large number of people who are coming,” he continued. “I’m not putting ICE down, it’s just they’re overwhelmed. Actually, the individuals I worked with at ICE had been very helpful.”

Marslender called helping out “part of what we do,” and said if the church had not offered its support, ICE would have been forced to drop the migrants off directly at the bus station.

Hector Rivas, pastor of the church’s Spanish ministry, added the effort is in the name of God.

“God said to us in His word, in the Bible – that is His word – that we have to show to everybody His love,” Rivas said carefully in his heavy Spanish accent. “We are trying to show everyone God’s love.”

After hearing about the efforts, Carol Klein, a first grade teacher at Litchfield Elementary School, sought to get involved. Inspired by similar outreach elsewhere, she and a diverse cast of community members gained permission from Citrus Road Community Church of the Nazarene’s Pastor Paul Martinez to pack lunches for incoming migrants at the Goodyear church on New Year’s Day.

“I was amazed at all the people that said that they would help. It was incredible,” enthused Klein, who said she helps people in crisis through Andy’s Pantry. “People said they would donate bread and people said they would donate chips and things like that, and juices and everything.”

Malone and fellow Avondale councilwoman Tina Conde donated items and helped pack lunches, while then-Rep. Mark Cardenas helped make deliveries. Fifty sack lunches went to First Southern Baptist Church of Avondale and 100 others went downtown to City Square Church. Leftover items were donated, too.

“That’s my thing. I have a pantry in my house, I try to help people, so anytime I can help provide food and use the food that I have in the food pantry to help the people that are in need, I do it,” Klein said, noting the migrants would need food for the road ahead.

Aguilar told the West Valley View it hasn’t been an easy journey thus far. Under ICE’s care, she said her daughter was sick and they weren’t given substantial food. However, she has a sister in Florida and said she wants to raise her daughter the right way and get her an education.

In a blog post on the church’s website, a 22-year-old Guatemalan woman identified only as Juana echoed similar sentiments to Aguilar.

“I came to the United States because there is a lot of violence in my town right now,” said the mother of 6-month-old Liliana, according to a post on the church’s blog. “The gangs are fighting with each other and innocent people are often hurt and killed.”

According to the blog post, Juana was, in exchange for safety, extorted for 1,000 Guatemalan quetzals, which is reportedly considered a large sum in her home country, and equates to around $130.

“The police were powerless to help me,” she said in the post. “I decided to try and come to the United States where I hope to work and be safe.”

Most of the migrants stayed only temporarily at the church, with some leaving just hours after their arrival and others spending one or more nights in the gymnasium.

Now, however, with the West Valley church’s ability to accommodate decreasing and many migrants still seeking asylum in the country, it’s calling for other churches to step in and lend a hand.