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Arizona Jews for Justice Campaign Organizer Eddie Chavez Calderon prepares for a day of helping asylum seekers with other volunteers.     

Every day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, drops off dozens, if not hundreds, of migrant families at churches across the Valley. After the asylum seekers are dropped off, having been transported from ICE detention centers, the volunteers get busy, people of all faiths working to help the visitors on the next step of their journey. 

The volunteers provide food, water and travel arrangements, and they assist petitioners to prepare for immigration court. These volunteers, many of whom are Jewish, come from all different walks of life. 

But even with the help of dedicated volunteers, says Eddie Chavez Calderon, campaign organizer for Arizona Jews for Justice, the asylum seekers will need more help.  

“The situation is getting more dire by the week for those seeking asylum,” said Chavez Calderon, whose organization is part of Valley Beit Midrash. “With communication with ICE becoming harder, AJJ is there to meet the challenges and organize with our partners to ensure that basic humanitarian needs are met. As summer approaches, we have the imminent threat of extreme heat and the inherent hazards that these conditions bring.”

When ICE drops people off in the Valley, that means they’ve gotten through the asylum process and are eligible for immigration. But drop-off locations for asylum seekers only get five or six hours’ notice from ICE, which means volunteers have very little time to prepare for them.  

Arizona Jews for Justice have worked with several interfaith organizations on this issue. Chavez Calderon, who has been with Arizona Jews for Justice since December, has been leading AJJ’s charge to ensure that migrant families have enough provisions and are cared for. 

Recently, at an undisclosed church that acted as a drop-off point, Chavez Calderon worked with half a dozen volunteers to help more than 100 asylum seekers figure out their next steps during the course of a day. 

Volunteers who could speak Spanish worked to find out where the asylum seekers were planning to go. Those who couldn’t speak Spanish worked to make the facilities as comfortable as possible. There were teams of volunteers that drove asylum seekers to bus stops and airports. 

“It is important that everyone steps up and helps save lives,” Chavez Calderon said. “We are amazed by the local Jewish community’s participation in our efforts.”

Karen Nagle, a managing partner at the Nagle Law Group, has been volunteering her time as an attorney at several drop-off points. Seeing that many asylum seekers didn’t have any food or money, she reached out to the Jewish community to create the Tzeda L’Derech - Provisions for the Road program earlier this year. 

“We noticed that people did not have food for the very long bus rides or plane trips, and that without money, language or assistance, they and their children would be hungry,” Nagle said. “We have coordinated with several synagogues such that their members are donating the non-perishable food and they are bagging them in brown paper bags and closing them with a sticker which bears the logo of a Star of David with hands and a heart — so the people should know they are being helped along their journey by Jews.”

Nagle said that the synagogues and Jewish organizations supporting this initiative so far are New Shul, Congregation Beth Tefillah, Temple Kol Ami, Temple Chai, Temple Solel and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Several other organizations have reached out to help, and she personally believes that every single shul and organization in the Valley will want to participate in some way. 

Individuals can help by donating used clothing, non-perishable food and their time. She and her daughter have volunteered at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, one of the drop-off points.

“I feel that sometimes we choose to not see something,” Nagle said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not there. So these people are here and we shouldn’t pretend they aren’t.  If we see them and help them, they will go to their next destination knowing that Jews did not ignore them.”

Jessica Berg, chief program officer for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said that each day is a lot of logistics. Part of Berg’s job is to manage the hospitality for the St. Vincent de Paul Day Relief Center. Since they started accepting asylum seekers at the end of March, they have taken in 1,725 individuals and helped them on their way.

Berg, who is the only Jewish employee at the Catholic nonprofit, said that the most important aspect she looks for in a volunteer is flexibility. The nature of their work is reactive and it’s always hard to know what is coming. But she believes everybody is doing the best they can with limited information. 

“Even my contacts at ICE don’t know what’s coming to them,” Berg said. “I know there are different opinions out there, but I really appreciate my communication with them and I believe they give me the best information they can as soon as they have it.” JN

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