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They descended silently from the unmarked immigration van that had pulled up outside the iconic Benedictine monastery in Tucson, which has been converted temporarily into a shelter for migrant families released from border detention. Bedraggled parents with bedraggled children, in their arms and by their sides, filed into the sanctuary and occupied several rows of pews. A volunteer named Delle McCormick warmly welcomed them.
The monastery was my first stop in a project to chronicle the journey of migrant families traveling each day, by the thousands, from the southwestern border to destinations across the United States on Greyhound buses.
The families would receive hot meals, clean clothes, toiletries, medical care and access to phones to call their relatives. “By the time you leave here, you’ll be relaxed, refreshed and looking good,” Ms. McCormick, 68, assured them, as other volunteers wove through rows distributing water, oranges and bananas and snipping off bands that had been affixed to the migrants’ wrists by the Border Patrol.
Central American families fleeing poverty and violence have been arriving in record numbers despite a series of deterrent measures introduced by the Trump administration to stanch the flow.
Most of them board a bus run by Greyhound. The company has not allowed volunteer groups to operate at its depot in Houston or Dallas, home to its headquarters. But it allows them in a few stations, like the one in San Antonio, and the terminal in Memphis is owned by the transit authority, which does not object.
I was following the Lopez family from Tucson to Nashville. Like many of the migrants on the Greyhound bus they took, they had started their trip after a couple of nights at the monastery.
Since February, the Benedictine Sanctuary and Covenant of Perpetual Adoration monastery has received about 8,000 migrants, who typically remain there two days, or until relatives who have committed to receiving them have bought them bus tickets to their final destinations. All along the border, immigration enforcement agencies have come to rely on nonprofits and their army of volunteers to help send migrants on their way.
At the monastery, there were volunteers wearing hearing aids, some who appeared to have suffered strokes and others who had endured hip replacements. Most did not speak Spanish. But nothing had held them back from pitching in. Among them were nurses, physicians, scientists and teachers, using their training or not, to assist the 300 or so migrants accommodated at the monastery each night.
“You can’t get into the rhetoric; it’s about humanity,” said a volunteer named Frank Sagona, 64.
Mr. Sagona, a retired environmental scientist, and his wife, Dale, a retired computer technician, volunteer together. They do what Mr. Sagona described as “not a very sexy job of providing clean sheets and linens to the guests.”
During my visit, I saw volunteers preparing and serving chicken soup (easy on the stomach if you have not eaten much for days); sorting mountains of donated clothing; treating cuts and infections; loading sheets into washers; and assembling care packages for migrants about to take long bus rides, to name just a few of their tasks.
As Stephen Thompson, 72, put it: “It’s a wonderful common-cause effort. Everyone is just willing to do whatever needs to be done. There’s no top-down structure; nobody bossing anyone around.”
He and his wife, Susan, both retired physicians, have been screening newly arrived families and seeing patients in a room that functions as a walk-in clinic.
One evening, I witnessed a procession of townspeople deliver trays of rice and beans, roasted chickens, boxes of fruit and eggs to kitchen volunteers. Others arrived with clothes, toys, diapers and toilet paper.
“We have a certain idea about what this country stands for. It is gratifying to exhibit that kindness and spirit,” said Francis Wheeler-Berta, 65, coordinator of the Tienda de Ropas, the large “clothing shop” where migrants fingered through racks of pants, shirts and jackets and tried on shoes and baseball caps while music played in the background.
Down the hall Margie Brooks, 63, formerly of the National Park Service, separated garments into piles by size, and recorded what might be missing, like shoes in small sizes. “It feels right to be here,” Ms. Brooks said when asked why she chose to spend her days doing what she did.
Upstairs in a large room with a wide, white table once used by nuns to cut cloth for robes, a pair of volunteers offered art activities. “‘Draw what you love’ is the only directive I give them,” said Valerie Lee James, who was working alongside another volunteer, Myra Lesser.
Ellen Shenkarow, 70, a retired English teacher who speaks Spanish fluently, has lent a hand with intake, cooking, cleaning and other jobs. “I couldn’t stand idly by,” she said. “I have heard their stories. They are all escaping something.”
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