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Pima County rejects Stonegarden border enforcement grant on 3-2 vote

On a party-line vote, Pima County supervisors nixed federal immigration enforcement funding for the Sheriff's Department, following a renewed debate in which they could not agree on conditions for the Stonegarden grant.

The supervisors split 3-2 on a motion to accept the $1.8 million at a meeting Tuesday morning. The grant would have included $1.2 million in overtime and mileage for the Pima County Sheriff's Department, and around $596,000 earmarked for equipment. The county's vote follows a decision made in January by the city of Tucson to also reject Stonegarden funding because of concerns over the program.

Supervisor Sharon Bronson, a Democrat, was the key vote as she joined Chairman Richard Elias and Supervisor Ramon Valadez in voting against accepting the controversial funding.

Bronson offered an amendment to the motion proffered by Supervisor Steve Christy, a Republican, that would have set certain conditions on the grant.

Christy, whose motion was seconded by fellow GOP Supervisor Ally Miller, wouldn't accept the amendment.

A stipulation made last May as part of the last vote for Stonegarden helped provide its undoing this time. Along with complaints that the federal government does not fully reimburse the county for pension costs created by deputies' overtime hours, the Board also asked that some of the Stonegarden grant help cover the the costs of aiding migrants coming through Pima County after their release by federal authorities. 

Bronson conditioned her support on setting aside around $200,000 for "humanitarian costs" to be used to fund local "faith-based nonprofits" to assist migrants released in the Tucson area by either Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, federal officials rejected a request to spend some of Stonegarden's funding on the county's effort to aid migrants, including the county's use of an unused wing of the county's juvenile detention center, which has been transformed into a "welcome center" managed by Casa Alitas. 

However, Trump administration officials rejected the plan to spend about $200,000 of last year's $1.8 million grant. 

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Along with the grant, the supervisors considered, but decided against a plan to create a new Rural Law Enforcement Unit which was proposed by Sheriff Mark Napier.

Bronson, who said Tuesday that her District 3 is where the remains of migrant border-crossers are found in the desert, said she wouldn't vote to approve the Stonegarden money "unless we are reimbursed to the maximum extent possible for indirect expenses."

Under the Trump administration's "Migrant Protection Protocols, things have changed," Bronson said. The "Remain in Mexico" policy will "force legal asylum-seekers to return to the old dangerous smuggling routes" in the Arizona desert, and "history tells us the outcome of this activity means more deaths in the desert," she said.

"The implementation of Migrant Protection Protocols now makes it even more imperative that there is more law-enforcement in western Pima County" to provide "life-saving aid," but "I won't accept Operation Stonegarden without conditions," she said.

"Should this grant not be accepted, we will see many more migrant deaths," she said. "I just don't think this is a way to do business."

"I think everybody loses no matter how this vote goes down today," said Bronson, who's facing a Democratic primary opponent this year. A right-wing Republican challenger announced two weeks ago that he was withdrawing from the race.

Christy refused to accept Bronson's amendments, saying "We've tried to massage these grant requests with all sorts of different variables."

Elias, who has opposed Stonegarden at every turn over the past two years, said that "nothing has changed about the '18 grant, and that's the motion we have before us."

"There's a lack of transparency regarding the true costs behind it," he said, noting "pensions costs, indirect costs, lack of humanitarian aid."

"DHS is a rogue agency, that really doesn't serve the intersts of everyone in this country," Elias said.

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Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, a Republican, urged the supervisors to approve the grant prior to the vote.

"The Sheriff's Department has been very diligent in trying to address community concerns," he said. "I've been very clear in my vocal support, that the federal government needs to provide Pima County with humanitarian aid."

Napier said he was "offended by accusations that Stonegarden turns deputies into racists."

Elias later responded to that criticism, saying during the board's discussion: "This is not an attack on our officers, and saying that they're racist. That's absurd. You know that the truth is that our policy as a nation is one that is extremely problematic and has not been fixed," he said.

Grant became controversial

For the last 12 years, the county has accepted Stonegarden grants, receiving around $16 million in funding, however, in 2018, a grant that was once part of the supervisors' consent agenda became part of a long-running fight over how the Sheriff's Department spends the federal money under the direction of Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

After rejecting the grant in 2018, the board decided to accept the grant package in May 2019, with a number of conditions, including a requirement that the county receive funding for the "maximum indirect personnel costs" of the program, as well as around $200,000 to be used to fund "local faith-based nonprofits" assisting migrants—largely Central American families who sought asylum in the United States and were processed and released by either Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

To gain her approval this time, Bronson renewed her request for the county to receive funding to "fully reimburse tax payers," adding that unless the county is reimbursed, the sheriff's department should not incur overtime, and she asked the board to seek an "overhaul" of the grant. 

Bronson said that she had assumed that her Republican colleagues – Christy and Miller — would approve the grant without conditions, but paused after remembering that Miller had asked several pointed questions of Napier regarding his plan to use up to $2.4 million on a rural enforcement unit, and said that while she would approve the grant only if several conditions were put in place. 

This included a limiting the amount that could be spent to $500,000 by July 1; allow the sheriff to spend around $596,000 on equipment, but with a prohibition on license-plate readers, which were rejected during the last Stonegarden go-around; review and limits on the use of overtime, and the county's pension liability, and an assurance that the county would "receive indirect expense reimbursements" from Stonegarden to the "maximum extent possible." She also asked that the county push to get Operation Stonegarden overhauled by Congressional representatives because the grant is "outdated," noting that the only published report about Stonegarden comes from a sharply-critical report written by DHS's own watchdog.

"We need some of that presence, so I find it unfortunate and I think the community loses," she said. "With the turning down of Stonegarden and the Migrant Protection Protocols, we're going to see more deaths in the desert," Bronson warned, echoing the statement she made during the discussion period. Bronson also said that if Pima County doesn't take the money, other departments will, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety and other agencies. 

After the vote Napier said that he was disappointed by the decision. "I wouldn't advocate for this grant if I didn't feel it's fundamentally important to public safety and Pima County, which I do. That's why I've advocated for it for two years and why at every juncture I've sought to compromise and address the community's concerns."

"I do feel makes Pima County less safe. It makes migrants less safe, and this is bad public policy," Napier said. 

Napier argued that Stonegarden funds allow the sheriff to intercept drugs, including the recent seizure of nearly 13,000 fentanyl pills, which he also cited during his discussion to the board. "We know these aren't going to be consumed in Pima County, and when we don't interdict them here, as I've explained to other Sheriff's, if I don't stop it in my backyard people die in your front yard, and that's in Ohio or Indiana, or across the country." 

"Yeah, there are costs," because of Operation Stonegarden, but "as I pointed out to the board, what's the cost of not doing this? What is the cost of not interdicting methamphetamine? What's the cost of not rescuing a migrant? What's the cost of another 13,000 fentanyl bills being introduced into society. These are real costs, and to deny that they exist is really intellectually dishonest." 

During the board's discussion, Napier told the board that Stonegarden funding could provide a bridge to get help the county separate from what he called a "dependency" on the grant. 

The county has worked furiously to recoup money spent over the last year to aid migrants, including the creation of the Casa Alitas Welcome Center. 

In a Powerpoint created by Regina Kelly, the director for grants management for the county, data showed that 12,445 migrant were served in migrant shelters in Pima County from January to June 2019, including a former Benedictine Monastery in mid-town Tucson. After the county established the new shelter, 6,239 people stayed at migrant shelters in the county, from June till December. 

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Overall, the county spent about $698,000 during the two periods, spending around $120,000 during the first six months, and then spending another $578,000 during the second half of the year, including about $390,000 on "on-time" building modifications. In December, the county provided shelter for 2,954 migrants. 

All told, the county spent around $698,000 during the two phases, and the county has received about $166,000 in grant funding, including $26,734 and $88,500 for humanitarian assistance from FEMA, as well as around $51,000 earmarked for ebola response by the Center for Disease Control. This leaves the county seeking $531,470 in funding from FEMA. 

A few people spoke in favor of the Stonegarden grant, but they were outnumbered 4-to-1 by those asking the board to agent reject the grant funding, including several comments that were aimed directly at Bronson. 

Zaira Livier, the executive director of the People's Defense Initiative, a group that attempted to pass a sanctuary initiative in Tucson, offered a pointed critique at Bronson. "I’ve been here so many hours, I’m almost have PTSD to be honest with you," Livier said. "How many times do we have to have the same discussion?" 

Livier was also a member of the Community Law Enforcement Partnership Commission, which was created in February 2018 as one of stipulations during the last battle over Stonegarden. After months of controversy about the commission, including complaints that  CLEPC was a "platform to attack law enforcement," and its struggles to get a quorum because five of its 15 seat were vacant, the committee was disbanded by the board in October. 

"You told us you were on a certain side," Livier said, adding that Bronson eventually "threw us all under the bus," when she approved Stonegarden in May 2019.

"We’ve been here for years, talking," said Marion Chubon, adding that the county's use of Stonegarden funds would mean "collaborating" with DHS, an agency she argued was "riddled with human rights abuses." 

"I’m really exasperated, I really can’t believe we’re have this conversation again," she said. "Why are we talking about public safety, we don’t need this money. We’re not getting creative about how to make our community safety, instead we keep accepting this blood money. It’s intolerable." 

Matt McGuire, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force, said that the "primary concern for the acceptance of this money is the safety of the public," and he said that Napier had "adequately and in detail" given county authorities what they needed to make their decision. 

Similarly, David Eppihimer, the chairman of the Pima County Republican Party, said that it was a "matter of public safety" and the board should be "getting on with it," and approve Operation Stonegarden funding.

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1 comment on this story

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54 comments
Feb 5, 2020, 8:46 am
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Law enforcement in Pima County should apprehend foreign nationls found in the U.S. illegally and turn them over to I.C.E.  If that is not the countiy’s policy, we need to change Supervisors until it is our policy.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Supervisor Sharon Bronson at Tuesday's meeting.