ABHMS Immigration and Refugee Grant recipient Monte Vista Cross Cultural Church improves conditions for asylum seekers

VALLEY FORGE, PA (02/22/2024)—“When a crisis comes, it requires your attention, and it doesn’t let you know beforehand that it’s coming” said Ángel Campos, senior pastor at Monte Vista Cross Cultural Church in Phoenix, when asked in December 2023 to describe the church’s Good Samaritan Project. His church has been helping migrants released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody since 2018. The spike in border crossings and the advent of the Trump administration, widely perceived as hostile to immigration, created an immense logistical challenge for border states.

Under the “safe release” policy in place during the Obama administration, individuals seeking asylum were first processed by immigration officials. If they were found to have a “credible fear” of going back to their home country, they were then released to relatives, friends or nonprofit organizations in the United States to await their asylum hearings. In response to a high number of asylum seekers, the Trump administration stopped the safe release policy in October of last year and started merely releasing refugees without any assistance. This new policy became known as “catch and release.” The Biden administration did not retract it, and so churches and other nonprofits are now asked by ICE to help the asylum seekers who are on their way to their destinations across the United States.

The political reality of Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix, has been troubled for much longer. In 2005 the county became infamous worldwide due to its then-sheriff Joe Arpaio’s cruel treatment of immigrants coming across the U.S.-Mexican border. Arpaio harassed Latino neighborhoods and illegally detained people. He was also known for a harsh racial profiling system and inhumane treatment of prisoners in county jails.

In 2016, Arpaio lost his reelection bid, and the following year he was convicted of criminal contempt for deliberately violating a 2011 federal court order that directed his department to end its practice of illegally detaining people based only on suspicions about their immigration status.

Arpaio’s successor, Paul Penzone, promised to reverse the inhumane policies and practices. This included tearing down the infamous outdoor jail dubbed “The Tent City.” However, it was difficult to battle Arpaio’s legacy. Penzone’s office has a long backlog of misconduct cases; in 2019, it initially failed to conduct a criminal review of incidents in which children at a migrant shelter were abused by employees. Penzone left office in January 2024. The issue of immigration is one that certainly can break political careers in Maricopa County.

“In 2018, in Phoenix, we started seeing a lot of these immigrants stranded in the bus station,” said Campos. “They were being released right there on the streets.” Today, Monte Vista Cross Cultural Church’s Good Samaritan Project employs four full-time staff and serves approximately 650 people weekly. In addition to providing food and shelter, Campos and staff help immigrants connect with their families throughout the U.S. The majority of these immigrants are awaiting a court date as asylum seekers.

In 2022, Monte Vista was requested to increase its capacity from assisting 200 to 400 individuals per week. Welcoming large groups into the church requires substantial resources, including food, clothing, water, electricity and transportation. When the church’s old shower trailer—essential for hygiene and sanitation—required repairs, the Immigration and Refugee Grant from American Baptist Home Mission Societies paid for plumbing and electrical work. It also covered repairs on another trailer on loan to the church.

Typically, three buses full of people arrive at the church Monday to Thursday. “Two-thirds leave on the same day,” assessed Campos, “and one-third stay for the night.” They sleep on cots in classrooms in the church building.

“We only have two showers in our church, and now that the trailers are running, we have 10 showers available. Since the shower trailers were fixed, they benefitted 25,000 people!” wrote Campos in the grant report. People’s joy at the prospect of their basic needs being fulfilled is immense. “When immigrants first enter sanctuary, we pray with them. When we tell them we have hot meals, showers and clothing, many cry. Because they haven’t had a hot meal, clean clothing or a shower since they left Mexico to cross the border, and that is sometimes weeks,” added Campos.

Monte Vista’s mission is to aid asylum seekers by recognizing their basic spiritual and material needs. It is guided by profound faith. Campos pointed to Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel of Matthew: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, host the homeless, help the helpless. Every day, crisis or not, Monte Vista Cross Cultural Church rises to the challenge.