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Pima County plans transport for asylum-seekers from remote Border Patrol stations

Huckelberry warns of 'perfect storm' & says shelter costs could exceed $4M

As Pima County continues to host asylum-seekers after their release from Border Patrol stations in Southern Arizona — including the release of 35 people over the weekend in Ajo — Administrator Chuck Huckelberry proposed a contract to transport migrants from outlying areas to shelters in Tucson.

Huckelberry said that the county faces a "perfect storm" after U.S. Customs and Border Protection — Border Patrol's parent agency — begun releasing migrants in Yuma and Ajo over the last two weeks, forcing humanitarian groups to scramble to find ways to transport people to shelters in Tucson. And, he warned that the county's costs could exceed $4 million to shelter migrants. 

Huckelberry, the county's top appointed official, is also seeking assistance from federal officials to reimburse the county for the costs of the effort, and for help testing migrant families for COVID-19. 

The request is one of three major items that will be the focus of an emergency Board of Supervisors meeting on Wednesday, March 24, at 10 a.m. 

"We now face a perfect storm regarding this potential public emergency that we will be expected to handle," Huckelberry wrote, adding that the county faced several factors adding to the emergency. This includes a limit on the number of people that can be hosted at the Casa Alitas shelter because of COVID-19, bringing the shelter's capacity down from around 300 people to just 65, he said. Meanwhile, COVID-19 means a "number of" faith-based organizations have "declined participation in asylum seeker transitioning" because of the age of their volunteers, he said. 

Huckelberry also said that the "potential end" to the eviction moratorium on March 31 will mean fewer hotel or motel rooms that could be used for emergency housing, and previous emergency shelters at El Pueblo Community Center and the Kino Event Center are "now engaged in COVID-19 testing and will be converted into vaccination centers." 

The migrants are largely families from a range of countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, as well as Venezuela and Cuba, advocates have said. 

Beginning in mid-February, CBP began reporting increasing numbers of migrant families coming to the U.S. along with an influx of children traveling without parents or guardians, otherwise known as unaccompanied minors. The rising number of families and unaccompanied minors has forced CBP to open shelters in Texas, and driven increasingly strident comments from Congressional leaders who have declared the situation a "crisis" that was created by the policies of the Biden administration. 

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"It's a complex issue, for those of us who have studied migration for many years, we understand the episodic surges that can occur. We used to think it was seasonal, but now we're thinking it is a bit different," said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to the House Committee on Homeland Security. 

Troy Miller, the acting commissioner for CBP, said that in February while more than 100,000 people were apprehended, this represented about 75,000 "unique individuals." 

Unlike in 2019 when the agency transported migrants to Tucson and then released them, either directly to the county, or through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CBP has said that it cannot transport people after their release this year. While in 2019, migrants were shuttled to Tucson by CBP while they were still in custody where they would be processed and released, COVID-19 restrictions has forced the agency to keep migrants families at the sector's nine remote stations, said John Mennell, a spokesman for the agency. 

Huckelberry said that in 2019 the county "stood up" emergency shelters to help aid migrant families, and that during this time period, Border Patrol and ICE transported people to the Kino Event Center and the El Pueblo Community Center. "I asked what changed between 2019 and now and was told it would violate the Anti-Deficiency Act and that Border Patrol no longer had the resources available to transport these individuals." 

Huckelberry said that Pima County's lobbyist would "investigate the issue," and determine if "transport issues can be clairified through either policy direction" from DHS or through an executive order from the President. 

"It would be much more efficient if the Border Patrol would contract for transportation services with the same individuals who we are contracting with now to transport these individuals to NGOs," Huckleberry said. 

"Border Patrol stations are not places for children, and we do everything in our power to move them through as fast as we can," said Miller. "Everyone's focus is moving them through as fast as we can." 

Diego Javier Piña Lopez, program manager for Casa Alitas, said that it was "beyond stressful" to send people quickly to Ajo to respond to asylum-seekers. "When we found about this, we had less than 24-hours to respond," he said, adding that setting up a shelter, or place to receive people is "not an easy task." 

Lopez added that Casa Alitas needs testing and help with quarantine, and that the space remains limited because of CDC guidelines. 

Gretchen Lopez, the shelter director for the INN Project, said that her organization began receiving families on Feb. 16, largely from San Luis Rio Colorado and has been using a hotel in central Tucson to host people.

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"People need to be helping, shelters are non-profits that are doing this work, and it's even harder during the time of COVID," she said. 

Huckelberry warns of 'fourfold' increase

Huckelberry warned that the county could face a "fourfold" increase over the 2019 surge in Pima County from the 2019 "surge," and that this could last six months, if the White House decided to lift Title 42—a public health moratorium issued by the CDC last year that allows CBP to immediately expel people from the U.S. if they've traveled through a country with COVID-19 cases. 

"Based on a potential fourfold increase, the estimated cost of housing, food and shelter would probably exceed $4 million over a six-month period," he said. 

Huckelberry warned in February that the ability to shelter asylum-seekers 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."  

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.

While previous expenses at Casa Alitas have been defrayed by federal funding, Huckelberry pushed to have new expenses covered by the Biden administration. 

While Republicans and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey have blamed the Biden administration for the increasing influx of people coming to the U.S., Gretchen Lopez said Trump-era policies, including Title 42 and the long-controversial Migrant Protection Protocols "created this major backlog." 

"Many many families who have fled danger and are stuck in dangerous situations, and haven't had access to seek asylum," she said. "They're still waiting to be processed, and given access to asylum," she said. "It's like a dam that's been filling for years." 

"MPP and Title 42 should have never been in place, but I am anxious about how it's going to go because of the number of people who have been waiting for so long," she said. "We want to get people through in a timely fashion, and I hope that all of us shelters on this side of the border can manage it and safely care for everyone so they can get to the next point." 

"It's crazy to think about it, but look at what the last administration has done, just the dismemberment of migration entirely," said Diego Lopez. "We're doing what's necessary, and there's a need for people from these counties to claim asylum and get some kind of safety and refuge." 

From October 2020 to February 2021, CBP has expelled 317,741 people. This includes 70,200 specifically expelled by the Biden administration, according to CBP figures. 

Mayorkas said in a statement that the majority of people apprehended and expelled are single adults, however, families apprehended at the southwestern border are also being expelled under Title 42.  "Families from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries are expelled to Mexico unless Mexico does not have the capacity to receive the families, he said. "Families from countries other than Mexico or the Northern Triangle are expelled by plane to their countries of origin. Exceptions can be made when a family member has an acute vulnerability." 

He added that Mexico's "limited capacity has strained our resources, including in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas," Mayorkas said. 

The agency previously deported unaccompanied minors under Title 42, however, in November a federal judge ordered the agency to halt the process. Similarly, MPP has been repeatedly and successfully challenged by immigration rights advocates. 

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CBP's poor communication 'compounding' problems

In his memo to the board, Huckelberry also criticized the Border Patrol, and its handling of the release in families in Ajo on Saturday. 

"Compounding this problem is extremely poor communication from the Border Patrol regarding the number of individual to be released in Ajo," Huckelberry said. 

Huckelberry said that on Thursday, March 18, county officials were told that 28 asylum-seekers would be released on Friday at 9 a.m. 

County officials, along with volunteers from Catholic Community Services—which operates Casa Alitas in Tucson, and the International Sonoran Desert Alliance based in Ajo—asked Border Patrol to hold the releases until 9:30 a.m., but that this request was initially refused. Then, Border Patrol released only 21 people. Over the weekend,  Ajo station agents released 11 more people on Saturday,  despite telling advocates that "there would be no releases over the weekend." 

County officials were told that on Sunday, 60 more people would be released in Ajo, and the agency only released three people, Huckelberry said. 

"This  erratic and inconsistent communication causes confusion and a waste of resources," Huckelberry said. "While the Border Patrol may believe that they are communicating effectively with the NGOs associated with  asylum-seekers, what actually occures is they may communicate with a nonprofit such as Catholic Community Services or ISDA in Ajo, but these NGOs ask the County for assistance, which we are happy to provide." 

Huckleberry said that the head of the county's  Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Shane Clark, told Tucson Sector Border Patrol  about their frustration, and that Huckleberry called the agency to "receive clarity on the Ajo releases on Saturday." 

"This  poor communication cannot continue," he said. 

County coverage for COVID-19 testing

In his memo, Huckelberry said that Border Patrol does not test all asylum-seekers for COVID-19 before turning them over to groups like Casa Alitas. 

"It appears that Border Patrol only provides COVID-19 testing for symptomatic individuals," he said. 

Huckelberry said that he was asking the non-governmental organizations to provide the COVID-19 BinaxNOW Rapid Test for everyone coming into shelter spaces. The rapid antigen test allows shelters to test people for COVID-19 using nasal swabs and delivers results in about 15 minutes, and has been used previously by schools and congregate-care settings. This week, the Defense Logistics Agency said it has awarded Abbott Laboratories a $255 million contract to supply the HHS with BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 antigen tests.

Mayorkas told the House members that it was policy to test people who arrive into the U.S., but that DHS did not have the "capacity" to test at Border Patrol stations. "We have since been trying to build that capacity," he said, adding that DHS was working with non-governmental organizations and local governments to test people, and was reimbursing for those tests. Additionally, he said that DHS was working with states to test and quarantine people, and "retaining a vendor" to test people while they were in CBP custody. For those who test positive, they will be transferred to ICE facilities for quarantine before their release, he said. 

Diego Lopez said that it is important for his organization to have COVID-19 testing, and that a "public health standard" should guide COVID-19 responses. "We're really fortunate to do testing and medical screenings, and follow up with guests when we need to," he said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Asylum-seekers at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora in December 2019.

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