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'Crisis' looms at Pima migrant shelter; Feds are 'ill-prepared' to help county with COVID issues

Local officials prepared to test asylum-seekers, other migrants for coronavirus, but lack funding from federal gov't

Pima County may be facing another shelter crisis for migrants, and officials are pushing for federal funding to help deal with COVID-19 issues. According to a letter from Arizona's senators, the Border Patrol's capacity in Arizona is already strained.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry warned the Board of Supervisors in a memo last week that the ability to shelter asylum-seekers and other who are released by the federal government here is strained by the requirements of COVID-19 public health measures, including greatly reduced capacity at the Casa Alitas shelter set up by the county.

"In addition to the current pandemic and public health crisis, we potentially face another emergency shelter and housing crisis" if the number of immigrants seeking asylum increases, he said. "We have been advised by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, through the Border Patrol, that the number of individuals being received for asylum could be triple what was formerly processed during 2018 and 2019. If so, this will put a substantial, additional burden on Pima County and the community." 

The ability of the Border Patrol and other federal agencies to handle an increase in migrants is already under pressure.

Sens. Krysten Sinema and Mark Kelly said that on Jan. 29 detention capacity was just over 50 percent in the Tucson Sector, and approximately 80 percent in the Yuma Sector, prompting questions about how the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—would handle migrants who had COVID-19 and may be released from custody. 

Facing an influx of Central American families coming to the U.S. to seek asylum in late 2018 and early 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — later followed by the Border Patrol — began releasing people directly to the streets of border communities. As the situation accelerated, the county made a controversial move to renovate an unused portion of the Juvenile Detention Center, as part of a deal with the nonprofit Catholic Community Services.

By the end of 2019, the shelter now dubbed the Casa Alitas Welcoming Center had provided refuge for about 5,000 out of roughly 20,000 people released by federal officials in the Tucson area that year. 

Overall, ICE released about 41,600 people in Arizona, and 222,200 people across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. 

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By December 2019, Huckelberry was attempting to get more federal support, and sought reimbursements for the county's efforts in 2019, predicting that the county would shelter another 12,000 people. However, by the end of 2020, the shelter supported just 1,086 people as the Trump administration clamped down harder along the border, and a CDC order allowed Border Patrol agents to immediately expel people from the United States. 

This along with the highly controversial program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which required Central Americans to wait for months in Mexico while their asylum status remained in limbo, kept thousands from entering the U.S. to seek asylum.

On January 28, Huckelberry wrote a memo to the board, warning that while the Casa Alitas shelter had been sheltering about nine people per week on average, "in the last few weeks we have been experiencing an uptick." And, he told the board he was "reactivating" the shelter.

"However, we have been alerted and working with U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs in the anticipation of a significant increase of individuals being processed and essentially reactivating Casa Alitas and preparing it to provide maximum capacity and temporary shelter services," Huckelberry wrote. "The purpose of this communication is to alert you to the pending matter and our preparation with federal authorities to significantly accept and process asylum seekers," he wrote. 

Last week, U.S. Border Patrol agents released some asylum-seeking families into the U.S. after Mexican authorities began refusing to take some people back in January, prompting worries of a new crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19, which drastically limits how many people can be held in CBP's holding facilities.

The agency instead released the families — legally seeking asylum in the U.S. — with documents requiring a court appearance for future immigration hearings, and CBP said that the Biden administration officials will continue using what legal authorities it has to avoid crowded facilities during the pandemic. 

CBP said border agents have faced a "growing number" of people attempting to cross the U.S. border, averaging about 3,000 arrests per day in January. Troy Miller, the senior official performing the duties of the agency's commissioner, called the shift an "uptick" across a "small faction of locations," along the southwest border, and said that about 38 percent of those arrests were people caught multiple times. 

"While CBP continues to experience an increase in attempted monthly border crossings as seen since last April, the uptick seems to be occurring in a small fraction of locations across the southwest border, which is consistent with trends in years past," Miller said. 

"As we have said, there have been incredibly narrow and limited circumstances where individuals have come into the country awaiting for their hearing, but for now the vast majority have been turned away. This is not the time to come," Miller said.

'Transferring a federal problem to local communities'

On Friday, Huckelberry increased his warnings, telling the board: "We have been advised by US Customs and Border Protection, through the Border Patrol, that the number of individuals being received for asylum could be triple what was formerly processed during 2018 and 2019. If so, this will put a substantial, additional burden on Pima County and the community." 

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In a dense memo to the board regarding COVID-19, including shortages in vaccines from the state, Huckelberry also outlined the issues at Casa Alitas. 

While the shelter normally could support about 180 people, COVID-19 precautions diminish the shelter's capacity to just 60 people, Huckelberry warned. He also said that the county was "prepared" to provide rapid COVID-19 testing for all individuals released to the custody of Catholic Community Services, and "prepared contingency plans" for sheltering those who test positive for COVID-19, but that the county would need financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

In the past, FEMA would reimburse the county for expenses related to Casa Alitas, but this "problematic since we have not been reimbursed any costs from the state, through the federal government, for COVID-19 testing and vaccination," he said. "We have nothing to advance for reimbursement," Huckelberry said. 

"Hence, we cannot operate an emergency housing/shelter program on a federal grant reimbursement basis," he said. He added that during a phone call he asked Congress to get "a rapid response from the federal agency most appropriate to fund emergency shelter, FEMA, for an advance grant program to pay for this pending housing emergency." 

In his memo, Huckelberry also told the board that a lack reimbursement for our COVID-19 continuing expenses without an increasing number of people at Casa Alitas has "significantly deteriorated" the county's finances, and said that he would move to get FEMA to cover some expenses from COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

Huckelberry told that board that Sinema and Kelly sent their letter to DHS, and said he welcomed their letter, and said that the agency is "ill-prepared to handle the issue," of migrants released to humanitarian groups. 

FEMA should be "closely working" with CBP to "ensure there is sufficient emergency housing or shelters within communities to accept asylum seekers," he said.  

"This includes those within Pima County, including our faith-based organizations and public shelters operated for this purpose, such as the county's Casa Alitas Welcome Center facility," he said."To date there has been no contact or development of any emergency shelter plan" by either CBP or FEMA," Huckelberry said. 

He also said that the mayor of Yuma was told on February 11 that Border Patrol "began street releases within" Yuma.

"It is unfortunate these units within this federal agency do not communicate with themselves to prepare and avoid transferring a federal problem to local communities," he said.

In their letter, Sinema and Kelly wrote to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and said that "recent reports indicate Arizona faces a looming challenge at the border due to the combination of increasing numbers of migrants and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic." 

Sinema and Kelly asked Mayorkas to take" immediate steps" to ensure DHS "has sufficient resources in Arizona to keep our communities safe and ensure migrants are treated fairly and humanely. These resources should include COVID-19 testing capability so that DHS and Arizona communities can take appropriate measures to manage the ongoing pandemic." 

Sinema and Kelly wrote that according to according to information they received from CBP, Border Patrol detention capacity was just over 50 percent in the Tucson Sector and approximately 80 percent in the Yuma Sector as of January 29. "We are also aware of the situation in Texas, where CBP recently began to direct releases of migrants. It is important to act now to prevent the type of crisis we saw at the border in the spring of 2019." 

DHS should plan for and provide COVID-19 testing capability as part of this effort, the senators wrote. 

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Asylum-seeking families at the Kino Border Initiative in December 2019.

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