Utah immigrant advocacy group aiding more and more new arrivals

Recent arrivals to the United States at a border processing facility near Tucson, Arizona, sometime in May. The faces of minors have been covered.

Recent arrivals to the United States at a border processing facility near Tucson, Arizona, sometime in May. The faces of minors have been covered. (Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon)


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SALT LAKE CITY — With the surge of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border dating at least to late last year, the numbers seeking help from Catholic Community Services of Utah have similarly increased.

The Salt Lake City-based organization, which aids immigrants, refugees, the homeless and others in need, started offering weekly information sessions in early 2023 for asylum-seekers and other new arrivals needing information on the immigration process. It has long offered such assistance on an individual basis but launched the group sessions to better accommodate the growing demand for information, another indicator of the simmering immigration issue.

"Sometimes we get 10 people, sometimes 20, sometimes 30. It depends on who arrived that week," said Aden Batar, the Catholic Community Services migration and refugee services director. Those taking part in the meetings — recent arrivals to the United States, by and large, including asylum-seekers — are "a very mixed group," he said. They come from Venezuela, Central America, Somalia and other regions and nations.

The increase in numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border has prompted alarm among many about the entry of undocumented immigrants and heightened debate about better securing the frontier. In response, President Joe Biden last week inked an executive order restricting asylum eligibility, among other things, in a bid to get a handle on the situation.

A cross on the gate outside the downtown Salt Lake City offices of Catholic Community Services of Utah, photographed Wednesday.
A cross on the gate outside the downtown Salt Lake City offices of Catholic Community Services of Utah, photographed Wednesday. (Photo: Tim Vandenack, KSL.com)

The alarm of many notwithstanding, Batar emphasized the importance of offering humanitarian assistance to those in need. Catholic Community Services of Utah is affiliated with the Catholic Church and, per church teachings, it serves to aid "the vulnerable in our midst," according to its website.

"This is a commitment that we have to the people who are in need in our community regardless of their status or religion or anything like that. Anyone who comes through our doors, we will provide whatever services they need," he said. Once in the community, he went on, "they need that support."

The information sessions, more specifically, provide guidance about U.S. immigration law and procedures and aid immigrant newcomers in navigating the complex system. "So we guide them through ... this process and make sure they understand," he said, offering help in multiple languages and, to the extent resources allow, the expertise of immigration attorneys.

One of the big questions for Utah lawmakers, law enforcement officials and others is the number of immigrants making their way from the U.S. border to the state. Aside from the numbers at the meetings — 10 to 30 each week, approximately — Batar doesn't have any solid data. Not all immigrant newcomers to Utah seek help from Catholic Community Services, he noted.

However, Batar offered insight into the process that typically leads immigrants to their destinations, whether Utah or some other state, at least before implementation last week by Biden of the stricter border guidelines.

Immigrants crossing the border and turning themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials will be processed by U.S. officials. Depending on specifics of their circumstances — if they express a "credible fear" of persecution in their home country, for instance — they may be given a date to appear in immigration court to plead their case and allowed entry. If allowed into the United States, representatives from nonprofit organizations at the border, including other groups affiliated with the Catholic church, will offer assistance with food and other basic needs. They will also help in securing transportation to their destinations.

"But there's no coordinated effort where, 'Oh, you know, it's a group of people — let's send them to Utah.' No, it doesn't exist like that," Batar said. Typically, immigrants entering the country go where they already have friends, family or acquaintances, he said, though that's not always the case.

300 'noncitizens' to the Salt Lake area

Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon, who traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border last month, said the officials he consulted estimate that some 500 newly processed migrants fly out of Tucson, Arizona, each day to their destinations around the country. "Their destination is usually determined by their stated 'sponsor.' Asylum-seekers usually provide the address of their sponsor, who is often declared as a family member," Arbon wrote in a Facebook post on the trip.

He said local law enforcement officials in Utah have a hard time getting reliable data from federal officials on the numbers of immigrants making their way to Utah from the border zone. That dearth of information, in part, prompted his trip to the border.

"We've asked (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials) for updates, and they've refused to give us any information," Arbon said.

However, the Utah Sheriffs' Association received a letter earlier this year from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which Arbon supplied, that offers some insights. For the week ending March 9, according to the document, 300 "noncitizens" who were processed by U.S. immigration officials told authorities that they planned to travel to the Salt Lake City area. Rounded to the nearest hundred, 100 came from Colombia, 100 came from Peru and 100 came from Venezuela, according to the document.

A statement from the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said her office has reached out to federal officials and Utah's delegation to Congress on the matter. "The message conveyed is that Utah's emergency shelters and services lack the capacity to provide for migrants," reads the statement.

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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