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Phoenix Sky Harbor workers left with few options as hundreds of migrants enter airport

Up to 400 refugees and migrants have arrived every day for the last few months at Sky Harbor, many of them without a paid plane ticket.

PHOENIX — The number of people coming to the southern border to seek asylum is putting a strain on Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport after hundreds of migrants have shown up with no booked tickets, forcing its staff to provide assistance outside of their normal duties, the airport said.

Approximately 300 to 400 refugees and migrants have arrived by bus every day for the past few months “unprepared to travel," Heather Shelbrack, a spokesperson for the airport said in a statement. “We don’t have an exact number.”

The airport said many of the migrants don’t have money or necessities like food or diapers. When they arrive, many need assistance purchasing a flight or calling someone to purchase a flight for them. Sky Harbor’s customer service and operations teams have provided use of phones and translating services, the statement said.

If someone arrives and can’t book a flight for that day, the airport said staff contacts the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a Phoenix non-profit. When they can do so, the IRC sends a bus to pick up refugees and migrants who need to stay overnight or need additional services or support, the statement said.

“We understand that they are often at capacity, and we appreciate the services they are able to provide,” Shelbrack said. 

“We appreciate efforts to establish a system which ensures that everyone who arrives at the airport has a flight reservation and is prepared to travel.”

Why are migrants arriving at Sky Harbor?

Most of the migrants have been dropped off by Regional Center for Border Health (RCBH), a non-profit in Yuma, that said has aided over 16,700 migrants that were released by immigration authorities in the last 12 months.

“We’re serving 300 people a day more or less,” said Amanda Aguirre, the non-profit’s President, and CEO. “We actually pick up a lot of families at the detention center.”

When migrants are picked up, the non-profit tests them for COVID-19. If positive, they are quarantined in provided hotel rooms. The agency offers those people with food and clothing if needed, and on average, are in a bus headed to Phoenix within an hour, because of the high volumes of people the center sees.

RCBH has six buses that can transport 50 people at a time. The first bust leaves at 10 a.m. and the last one around 2-3 p.m.

“One challenge we had is that in the bus, we didn’t have any Wi-Fi [for migrants] to get the confirmations of their flights while on the bus,” Aguirre said. “Many were saying ‘I contacted my family, they are going to send me my confirmation, some of them got it before they got on the bus or between here and Phoenix.”

The non-profit installed the Wi-Fi on the buses in an effort to help refugees and migrants connect with their families, but not all are able to do so before they reach Phoenix, where people have the option to go to a shelter, a bus station, or the airport.

“For those that don’t have plans to travel or can’t get a hold of their sponsors we encourage them to let us know so we can… make arrangements for them,” Aguirre said. “But a lot of the migrants don’t want to stay in a shelter.”

Aguirre said in some cases, migrants that haven’t made solidified travel plans, still ask to be taken to the airport and since they are not law enforcement, can’t legally detain anybody or tell them what they can and cannot do, they drop them off at Sky Harbor.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement told 12 News they also do drop-offs at the airport.

With farming season almost over, and a lower number of migrants needing to quarantine, Aguirre said they will be able to have more hotel rooms at their disposal to be able to house any migrant that hasn’t booked a plane ticket.

“It’s a collective humanitarian response,” she said. “We’re doing this as a humanitarian reason, and we are going to support the families whatever their wishes are.”

Effects of migrants arriving at Sky Harbor

The constant flow of migrants “unprepared to travel” has not only changed how airport staff operate but also forced the IRC to change its operation after hours when it’s getting called by airport staff.

“We have been seeing anywhere from a dozen to 60, 70, 80 individuals being referred to us from the airport or other partners at night,” said Alex Miller, Director of asylum seekers and families at the Phoenix’s non-profit. “We are less staffed at night.”

Miller said they usually plan for a certain capacity, but when we receive individuals late at night it makes it harder for them to be able to provide the necessary services.

IRC said it doesn’t always meet the demand and some migrants have to spend the night at the airport.

“Current flow is unsustainable,” said Senator Kyrsten Sinema, after a roundtable event with border officials and leaders on Wednesday. “Airport staffers are not trained or skilled in the area of providing short-term humanitarian or physical support to migrants.”

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