By David Schwartz and Andrew Hay
PHOENIX/TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) - Members of an Arizona evangelical church are for the first time taking Central American asylum seekers into their homes, responding to record arrivals of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The predominantly white Central Christian Church, a Phoenix area "megachurch" had in the past assisted Muslim refugees. Church leaders wanted to help another group that lacked support and were portrayed as a threat in areas of the media and politics - asylum seekers.
Central Christian is among a group of around 10 churches, most of them Hispanic, taking in up to 500 migrants a week from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in greater Phoenix.
The migrants, mostly families, have been released into the United States to pursue their immigration cases in court. That flow could dwindle if the Trump administration is successful in its plans to make non-Mexican asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their claims are processed.
"It’s the first time we have been engaged with asylum seekers,” said Matt Nutter, director of global outreach at Central Christian. "It’s an issue of humanity, we look at this beyond the politics of it.”
'THEY'RE NOT CRIMINALS'
President Donald Trump has said many migrants who left their countries for economic reasons are applying for asylum in the United States even though they may not have legitimate claims for protection from persecution.
Central Christian members Stephanie and Peter Apostol said they put aside politics and labels put on asylum seekers to host six families in the last two months. They ranged from a Mexican mother and infant to a Guatemalan father and teenage son, with families staying up to three nights.
The Apostols have received criticism and praise on social media for giving shelter to asylees. They said their faith compelled them to show compassion for this "vulnerable" group.
"These are just very wonderful people, they’re not criminals," said Stephanie Apostol, 48, who has given away the family's luggage to help asylum seekers travel on to relatives and other sponsors after staying at their home in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb.
Her 9-year-old son gives up his bedroom if they host two families at once. A Mexican-American neighbour translates for the Apostols, who only speak a few words in Spanish.
"It's very easy to put yourself in their shoes when you're with them in your home," said Apostol, a market research analyst. "What would we do if we were facing hunger and violence and the safety of our kids?"
'NEVER SEEN THIS BEFORE'Illegal crossings at the southern border have dropped dramatically since the late 1970s, but in recent years applications for asylum have ballooned and more Central American families and unaccompanied children are heading to the United States.
Facing high numbers of migrant families, and to avoid holding them beyond legal time limits on how long children can be detained, ICE began releasing large groups to Arizona charities and churches in October, ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen O'Keefe said.
With Hispanic churches running out of beds, coordinator Magdalena Schwartz reached out to dozens of churches in the Phoenix area. Two Anglo-American churches stepped up, one of them Central Christian.
"They have opened their churches and homes, I've never seen this before," Schwartz, pastor of evangelical church Nueva Esperanza in Mesa, said of the Anglo congregations.
LAW AND ORDER
Using high school Spanish and Google Translate, Ericka Henry, 27, and her husband Blake, 30, hosted two Guatemalan families at their two-bedroom home in Phoenix suburb Mesa.
"We have more than enough, more than we need, so we try to help people as much as we can,” said Blake, a pastor at Central Christian.
The church's initiative is growing, with members of other congregations asking to host families. But reactions to the programme have not all been positive.
When the Apostols spoke on a radio show in Phoenix, the capital of a state that backed Trump in 2016, posts on social media said they were endangering their children, breaking the law and helping criminals by letting asylum seekers into their home. Others came to their support, however.
"These folks that are housing asylees are, in some ways, I think very brave, because they are swimming against the tide of public opinion and trends in their own religious community," said Janelle Wong, professor of American Studies at Maryland University and author of "Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change."
Polls show most white U.S. evangelicals back President Donald Trump and his immigration policies, even though their churches often support refugees and immigrants, said Ed Stetzer, a dean at Illinois evangelical school Wheaton College.
A November poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found white evangelicals were the only major religious group in the United States in which a majority said immigrants represented a threat to America's customs and values. (https://bit.ly/2qiRTlE)
Central Christian families declined to comment on their political affiliations, but said they had a politically diverse congregation.
For the Henrys, hosting asylum seekers was a commitment to "love the other," regardless of their politics, religion or race.
"Once you get a taste of it, then you realise that this is kind of what being a human is about,” said Ericka, also a pastor at Central Christian.
(Reporting by David Schwartz and Andrew Hay; editing by Dan Wallis, Mica Rosenberg and Tom Brown)