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Casa Alitas: Creating a Home Away From Home for Central American Teens

AmeriCorps VISTA Jamie Flynn discusses the challenges unaccompanied minors that cross the border face and the great work that Catholic Community Services is doing to help them.

At the time I accepted my position as an AmeriCorps VISTA at the Alitas Program of Catholic Community Service, my project was focused on providing humanitarian aid to migrant women and children who were released on temporary parole by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Shortly before I was due to arrive in Tucson, changes in policy were initiated, requiring nearly all women and children to be sent to Phoenix and fitted with ankle tracking devices, before moving on to be with their families throughout the country. This meant that while the capacity of the project had increased greatly through the work of the previous VISTA, the need had decreased significantly, or to be more accurate, had been transplanted to Phoenix.

However, there is an amazing and inspiring network of passionate people and organizations dedicated to immigration issues in Tucson, and it did not take long for another need to be brought to the attention of Alitas. On my first day of VISTA service, I was informed that the Alitas Program had teamed up with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project to provide temporary housing to teens who had crossed the border as unaccompanied minors. The specific teens we are working with were placed in shelters, but on their 18th birthday, they aged out of the shelters and were normally sent to detention centers. A detention center is a very harsh and scary place for a young person who has no prior record aside from illegally crossing the border in hopes of escaping a difficult situation in their home country. The Florence Project advocates for these youth who are about to age out, in hopes that they will be released, instead, to Alitas. Whether or not this is successful is dependent upon multiple factors, but so far we have two young men staying with us at Alitas. One who spent roughly two months in Eloy Detention Center before the Florence Project was able to get him released to us, and another who was dropped at our door on his 18th birthday after an anxious, sleepless night wondering whether he would be sent to detention.

Alitas, in Spanish means “little wings.” In the past, volunteers were able to offer guidance and support to the young mothers who came through our doors, and were able to offer love and nurturing to the babies and children they brought with them. For some, working with teenagers (mainly boys) can seem a little intimidating. But in the past few weeks, I have seen how these young people are trying to find their alitas and spread them. The boy who came to us from detention, looked like a deer in the headlights when he first walked into the house. He kept telling us how weird it felt not to be “locked up” anymore. The first night that he was with us, we were sitting around the kitchen table eating chips and salsa, excited to have a new guest with us. It looked as if he almost felt like he was dreaming, it had been so long since he had been in a place that felt like a home. As the days went by, you could see the tension leaving him. He started to be able to relax a bit more, he began to make friends in the community, he practiced all the new English phrases he was learning, and began to feel a sense of control come back into his life. When our second guest arrived, he took him under his own wing for the first few days, helping him get accustomed to Casa Alitas.

But learning to be independent does not come easy, and the boys still have a long way to go. We depend on our volunteers to step up to this new challenge and to guide our youth along their journey. We need people who can help them with English, so they can move beyond the phrases they picked up in detention or at the shelter (Wassup, homie?, What’s happening?, etc.) We need people to help them learn to cook so that they don’t blow up a Cup-o-Soup in the microwave (again). We need people to take them out to have fun and see all the great things Tucson has to offer. We need people to be a support system, because having a border between yourself and everyone and everything you once knew is more than any kid can handle on their own.

If you would like to be one of those people, please contact me at alitas@ccs-soaz.org.

Published on August 24, 2015 by Spencer Brown.

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