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Huckelberry: County plans to seek Stonegarden funding to care for asylum-seekers

Two weeks before the Pima County Board of Supervisors considers accepting a controversial federal grant for border enforcement, a top official said the county intends to apply for additional funding under the Homeland Security-led grant to cover care and transport for asylum-seekers who have been released here by U.S. immigration officials. 

In a four-page memo to the supervisors on Tuesday, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry said that over the Easter weekend, the county joined the city of Tucson by opening up a public space to house and feed dozens of Central American asylum-seekers after they were released from custody by either U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Border Patrol.

The DHS grant program, known as Operation Stonegarden, provides funding to local law enforcement agencies for patrols and related equipment to promote cooperation with federal immigration and border enforcement efforts.

Huckleberry said that on Friday, county officials opened up a temporary shelter because a monastery maintained by Catholic Community Services and a shelter opened by the City of Tucson earlier in the week were both at capacity. And, to help the situation, county officials "intend to apply for an Operation Stonegarden Grant for Unaccompanied Children and Families on the Southwest Border," Huckleberry wrote.

The additional funding was added to the Stonegarden grant application last November following new appropriations by Congress, and allows previous grantees to to apply for funding to cover costs including "food, water, hygiene products, medicine, medical supplies and temporary housing, as well as costs for transportation to and from temporary housing or to permanent housing." 

In the last eight months, large groups of families with children, and children traveling without parents or guardians — fleeing violence and poverty in three Central American countries and Mexico — have sought asylum in the United States, either by requesting asylum at U.S. ports of entry, or increasingly by crossing the border in the southwestern deserts and immediately turning themselves in to Border Patrol and requesting some kind of protection. 

Just last week, nearly 400 people crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Lukeville, Ariz., about 110 miles southwest of Tucson, and sought asylum in the United States. The number of people, including nearly 230 children, strained Border Patrol resources throughout the Tucson Sector, as part of what officials called "an alarming trend." 

The rising numbers of Central America asylum-seekers presaged the sudden firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other DHS officials this spring, as the Trump administration continues to struggle to mitigate rising apprehensions despite increasingly hard-nosed tactics against people trying to seek protection in the U.S. 

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In recent weeks, Trump administration officials have said they are facing "unprecedented" numbers of migrants along the southwestern border, and the number of people taken into custody by agents has jumped 35 percent from February to March, following a rising trend over the last six months. 

Of those, nearly 65 percent were either families with children, or children traveling without a parent or guardian. Most hail from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. However, even the number of single adults, who are more easily detained and ultimately deported, increased 29 percent from February to March, officials said.

In February, the agency reported that total apprehensions jumped 38 percent from January, after 76,537 people were taken into custody by CBP, and in March, apprehensions jumped again to 104,212 people. 

Once people are taken into custody by Border Patrol, the agency records their fingerprints and other data, checks their information against criminal databases, and then hands them over to ICE. Then, they are released on “Orders of Release on Recognizance” with a requirement to appear in courts across the nation.

An agreement between CCS and ICE has meant that people are released directly to the nonprofit, however, as increasing numbers of families have arrived on the southwestern border, Border Patrol has been releasing people directly in Tucson, sometimes by simply dropping people off at the Greyhound bus terminal on Broadway. 

Overall, about 7,000 to 7,500 people have come through Tucson this year, Huckleberry said, the first estimate in his memo to the supervisors, and the second in a letter to U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema. 

“The monastery has been pretty much stuffed to the gills,” said City Councilman Steve Kozachik, “And, it’s important for people to understand, especially for city and county officials to understand, that this burden has been carried by volunteers, who have given time and donations.” 

“Tucson has been stepping up and locking arms, and making sure this gets handled,” he said. “It’s not about politics, but rather making sure we get this done—honestly, both parties have punted on this issue. So, we need to work to make sure this is addressed in a humanitarian fashion.” 

Kozachik said the monastery is more than a place to eat and sleep, it also provides vital services, including medical evaluations and translators who can deal with indigenous languages.

Last Sunday, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said that it became clear that city officials needed to help Catholic Community Services after Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus and his officers received a call that immigration officials had dropped off migrant families at the Greyhound station. Concerned about “overflow,” Rothschild said he worked with the faith-based community, with help from U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s office, to get people “fed and transported.”

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On Tuesday, it became clear that more people, including the group from Lukeville, would create another overflow, and so city officials began working to find a city location that would work. Rothschild said that city and county officials were working to create an office that could organize the larger effort, and assign a public employee to manage logistics as part of a longer-term strategy. 

“We have a long history and tradition focused on helping people,” Rothschild said. “It’s incumbent upon us to help people.”

Huckleberry said that county officials, including the Pima County Sheriff's Department, officials with the Juvenile and Superior courts, along with Parks and Recreation, county Health Department, and the Office of Emergency Management, were involved in "this temporary response." 

He noted that the monastery is "an old facility not built to serve as a long-term transitional shelter for this population." 

"Most notably, its bathroom facilities are beginning to fail, causing backups that limit the use of some parts of the building," he said. "Long-term use was not envisioned when the facility was offered as a temporary shelter site," Huckleberry said, noting that the owner of the former Benedictine Monastery "has been enormously generous in allowing the large complex to be used as a shelter," and that he has "development plans for the property." 

"Our efforts are primarily related to preventing the spread of infectious diseases and preventing abandoned asylum-seekers from becoming involved in our criminal justice system," Huckleberry said. 

This will require a new facility before the end of the summer, he said. "A new process center and shelter will be needed soon." 

"Additionally, the relentless flow of refugees through the monastery has exhausted many of the volunteers providing aid," he said. "A sudden surge in the number of refugees being brought to Tucson has pushed the volunteers to their limits," Huckleberry said.

In his memo, Huckleberry praised the efforts of CCS. 

"In processing these asylum seekers, most of whom are women and children," immigration officials take "most of their belongings, clothing, medications, and even their shoelaces," Huckleberry said. If not for Catholic Community Services, other nonprofits, and a "host of volunteers, it is likely that we would have had a significant humanitarian issue that would have required some kind of County response before today," Huckleberry said. 

In his memo, the county administrator said that in the next 10 days, county staff will assess the monastery to determine what "temporary repairs" can be made, while other staff members will seek a "full list" of the logistical and administrative needs for CCS. 

County officials will also work with the City of Tucson's Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security to find a new shelter to replace the monastery "if it physically fails or after it is no longer available for use." 

At the same time, the county's Faith-based Initiatives staff will begin "earnestly" recruiting faith-based organizations "not already involved to assist in the aid effort." 

Finally, Huckleberry said that county's Office of Emergency Management to contact state officials to "determine if state assistance will be forthcoming to border counties dealing with this problem." 

Huckleberry also sent a letter to Sinema asking her to help Pima County receive the Stonegarden grant, writing that the county has received more than 7,500 people. 

"We believe the present system that has already processed over 7,500 asylum seekers is the most appropriate recipient of grant funding for this purpose," Huckleberry wrote. "We will follow grant application process to receive an appropriate grant to ensure our effective community faith-based nonprofits are able to sustain their humanitarian aid for this asylum seeker population." 

"Since this is fairly new program," Huckleberry wrote, "we would request your assistance in providing appropriate guidance in applying for such a grant." 

On April 12, DHS announced that three homeland security programs, including Operation Stonegarden, had more than $1 billion available for states and “urban areas” to protect and recover from “acts of terrorism and other threats,” including $90 million slated for Stonegarden.

This is despite an audit from DHS's Office of Inspector General that said FEMA and CBP "did not meet their oversight responsibilities to monitor Stonegarden grantees, issue guidance and approve costs, and demonstrate program performance," and that FEMA was "not meeting its monitoring responsibilities because it does not have accurate financial data to identify grantees that require additional monitoring." 

And, as part of the bill that ended the partial shutdown of the federal government that began in December, the White House agreed to spend $415 million for humanitarian relief along the southwestern border, including medical care, transportation and food for migrants, as well as a significant increase in the number of trained medical personnel who could evaluate people while they are in BP custody.

Huckleberry’s memo comes at a complex time for the Board of Supervisors who have to consider whether to vote for nearly $1.8 million in Operation Stonegarden funding. This includes nearly $1.2 million in overtime, mileage and travel spending, and $595,600 in equipment, including license-plate readers that tie into a wider database available to federal agencies, including ICE, and an infrared camera for the department’s airplane.

In September, after a series of contentious meetings, the Board voted 3-1 to terminate the Stonegarden grant. 

Months later, in February, the city of Nogales accepted its own Stonegarden subgrant, accepting $817,000 from Homeland Security for overtime and mileage reimbursements from DHS. 

The approval came despite an increasingly strained-relationship between the city of Nogales and DHS over the installation that week of concertina or “razor” wire along the port of entry and border fencing in downtown Nogales. 

Meanwhile, in Marana, the city council accepted $308,800 for overtime and reimbursements, including nearly $54,000 slated to purchase a single license plate reader, six thermal cameras for vehicles, and two density meters—handheld devices that can help detect hidden objects in vehicles and other items. 

And, while Pima County effectively gave up on around $900,000 in funding, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office accepted Stonegarden grant money and the agency’s use of a helicopter on Stonegarden operations were highlighted repeatedly by Border Patrol following the board’s decision. 

Overall, five agencies in Pima County have sought grants this year, including police departments in Marana, Oro Valley, Sahuarita, and Tucson, as well as the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. 

Huckleberry said that the county would seek a grant from Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that allows border counties in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, to cover "any costs associated with the immediate care or transportation of unaccompanied children and families." This includes "costs for food, water, hygiene products, medicine, medical supplies and temporary housing, as well as costs for transportation to and from temporary housing or to permanent housing," according to grant documents from FEMA.

The county's move to use the Kino Event Center required the relocation of the Southern Arizona Procurement Fair—a networking event for businesses and local governments that begins Friday—from the event center to a pavilion by the north soccer stadium. In a news release, county officials said it was "due to unforeseen circumstances." 

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Early last week, Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls asked for a "FEMA-like response" to help his city manage the needs of roughly 1,300 migrants who have been released there. During a press conference, Nicholls said that federal government should pay for the "disaster" and that the release of migrants directly into the city of 93,000 had become an "imminent threat" to life and property in Yuma. 

"So it is with a heavy heart that I declare we are at this point, but it is something that I believe we need to do to make sure our community is maintained. And that the human rights of all the migrants are also maintained. And that we have a path that respects both,” Nicholls said. 

Similarly, officials in New Mexico's Otero County—a small boxy county north of El Paso, Texas—declared a state of emergency and called on the state's governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham to deploy National Guard troops at CBP checkpoints, which have been closed while Border Patrol agents are shifted to the border to deal with the "humanitarian crisis." 

If Grisham does not send troops to the checkpoints, officials in Otero said they would "take action" to provide "security and safety" and would consider litigation, reported the Alamogordo Daily News.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported the date of the next scheduled Pima BOS meeting. It also reflected Huckelberry’s memo in reporting that the grant would cover two license-plate readers; other county sources indicate that the number is six.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Two boys, identified only as 18-year-old males from Guatemala, unpack their bags after they turned themselves to a Border Patrol agent near Lukeville, Ariz., on Tuesday.

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