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Much Of The Relief Along The U.S.-Mexico Border Is Coming From Volunteer Aid Groups

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To Arizona now, where aid groups warn of a growing humanitarian crisis along the border. The number of unauthorized migrants apprehended is on pace to hit a 20-year high. The Biden administration has pledged 110 million to border towns to help deal with the impact of that surge. NPR's Kirk Siegler spoke with aid groups who say that's a fraction of what's needed.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At a migrant shelter run by nonprofits near the Phoenix Airport, a woman cries softly while her partner talks to a relative on his phone. There are snacks and donated toys laid out on a folding table outside. The couple was just released from detention.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Babbling).

SIEGLER: Inside, a scene of controlled chaos and a few looks of relief.

STANFORD PRESCOTT: We are oftentimes some of the first friendly faces that they'll see here on the U.S. side of the border because prior to...

SIEGLER: Stanford Prescott is one of just a few paid staff here. This International Rescue Committee shelter relies on up to 300 volunteers a week. They do everything from cook meals, make beds, book plane tickets. Most of these migrants are trying to get asylum, so they're being allowed to stay in the U.S. while they await court dates.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Babbling).

SIEGLER: Across the busy room, volunteers in PPE are even administering COVID tests.

PRESCOTT: Our work here is primarily funded by private donors, not by government donors. And there is a need for government funding to help make this work.

SIEGLER: What's happening here in Phoenix is not unique. Ev Meade is an immigration expert at the University of San Diego.

EV MEADE: It's volunteer civil society groups who are providing most of the humanitarian aid and all the related triage. And that's true on the U.S. side of the border, and it's also true on the Mexican side of the border.

SIEGLER: And there's a very specific reason for this on the U.S. side, Meade says. It goes back 20 years to 9/11.

MEADE: When people enter the United States and they're not, on the face of it, authorized to be here, the system is really built to detain, prosecute and deport them. And the service side of that has really diminished and degraded over the years.

SIEGLER: Now NGOs and local leaders want help providing things like transportation and basic food and shelter. And they say there's an existing template the feds could follow. Unaccompanied minors caught on this side of the border are usually released into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, with its federally funded support system. Tucson Mayor Regina Romero says there have been surges like the one going on right now during the past four presidential administrations and still no reform.

REGINA ROMERO: And the refusal of fixing our immigration system continues to lay heavy on communities that live day to day on our borderlands.

SIEGLER: People along this part of the borderlands, anyway, will tell you there's a need for more federal aid but also just more compassion.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS RINGING)

SIEGLER: In rural Ajo, Ariz., 82-year-old Jose Castillo echoes this. The retired miner was born and raised here and has family on both sides of the border. He says his Catholic faith drives him to help people in need.

JOSE CASTILLO: I grew up - I hate to say it - but when America was great. It wasn't great - not for me. It wasn't great for me.

SIEGLER: Before his legs got bad, he used to trek into the Sonoran Desert to drop off water and emergency supplies along the well-traveled migrant routes. Today he volunteers as an interpreter when the Border Patrol drops asylum-seekers off in this plaza, usually twice a day.

CASTILLO: A lot of help, a lot of dedication and a lot of volunteers. And the community seems to be pulled together.

SIEGLER: Without us, what would they do, Castillo says. The migrants usually arrive lost with nowhere to sleep. And the nearest public transportation is in Phoenix, 120 miles to the north.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE COMET IS COMING'S "THE SEVEN PLANETARY HEAVENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.