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As Title 42 winds down, Gov. Hobbs sets up new bus routes for migrants in Southern Az

As Title 42 winds down, Gov. Hobbs sets up new bus routes for migrants in Southern Az

Officials prepare for potential increase in border crossings; Biden admin restricts asylum applications

  • Ariz. Gov. Katie Hobbs during a press conference at the Casa Alitas Drexel Center.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comAriz. Gov. Katie Hobbs during a press conference at the Casa Alitas Drexel Center.
  • Tucson Sector Chief Patrol Agent in Charge John Modlin on Monday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comTucson Sector Chief Patrol Agent in Charge John Modlin on Monday.
  • Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher on Tuesday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comPima County Administrator Jan Lesher on Tuesday.
  • A migrant child in Nogales, Sonora, in March 2023.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA migrant child in Nogales, Sonora, in March 2023.

With Title 42's pandemic restrictions ending, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs laid out new steps to manage the influx of people coming across the U.S.-Mexico border this week, including five bus routes to transport migrants from Southern Arizona, as well as $7 million in state funding to back municipalities to back municipalities sheltering migrants.

During a press conference Tuesday at the Casa Alitas Drexel Center — a Tucson shelter managed by Catholic Community Services in a partnership with Pima County and the city — Hobbs said the state established the new routes on Monday to transport migrants from Douglas, Naco and Nogales to Tucson after they are released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

The move was made to avoid releasing migrants directly onto the streets by border officials in Southern Arizona, said Allen Clark, director of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.

As the Biden administration lifts many COVID-19 pandemic policies, the public health justification for enforcing Title 42 rules at the border goes with them. But, the federal government is adding new restrictions to those migrants attempting to make asylum claims under U.S. and international law, that will result in many be blocked from doing so.

State officials "stood up" the new bus routes to transport migrants "out of smaller communities without the scale and capacity to handle the additional migrants," Hobbs said. "These activities will happen on a rolling basis throughout the state to ensure we have a safe, humane and orderly lifting," Hobbs said.

"Already today, we have heard reports from border communities that are hitting their capacity," she said, adding local governments already "feel overwhelmed." 

The Democratic governor stood in front of a tent full of migrants waiting to be processed in the shelter, and sharply criticized the Biden administration, beginning her remarks by telling reporters "It doesn't appear that the federal government is prepared."

"As a result, Arizona communities will face incredible challenges trying to deal with the influx of people entering the country," she said. 

A shorthand for expansive powers under U.S. law, Title 42 was first enacted by the Trump administration during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. For the last three years, Title 42 was used to quickly expel thousands of people from the U.S., including asylum seekers who have traveled through countries with high number of COVID-19 cases. The policy was implemented to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 into historically cramped, and often unsanitary border facilities, allowing agents to process people in the field, and then expel them back to "their country of last transit," which was almost invariably Mexico.

During the policy's first year, Customs and Border Protection officials expelled people from the U.S. over 197,000 times. The following year, CBP officials used Title 42 to expel people from the U.S. over one million times. However, with the policy in place, the number of encounters between border officials and migrants rapidly rose as people made multiple attempts to enter the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of other migrants waited in northern Mexico for months for a chance to seek asylum until earlier this year.

Critics, including the National Immigration Forum, argued the program "failed to treat migrants with dignity, or create a secure border," and rather it "put vulnerable migrants in danger and benefited smugglers and the cartels."

The Biden administration sought to wind down Title 42, and after a series of false starts announced in January the policy would end just before midnight on May 11.

In the meantime, DHS officials have warned border officials could face more than 10,000 daily crossings along the southwestern border daily after Title 42 expires, prompting some local officials to warn about a potential "humanitarian disaster" without federal help, including continued funding for shelter space, transportation, health care and food.

Hobbs complained about a lack of communication from Border Patrol officials about when they would drop migrants in small communities as the state strains to avoid street releases. In 2021, Border Patrol suddenly released families in the tiny communities of Gila Bend and Ajo leaving people stranded in the desert towns after they were processed by the agency.

"We cannot continue to allow nonprofits, tribal, and border communities in Arizona to shoulder the responsibility of processing and transporting migrants. We need a robust federal response to this crisis that ensures a secure, humane, and organized process at Arizona’s southern border," Hobbs said in a letter to the White House." Over the past three months, my administration has met with NGOs, federal agencies, law enforcement, and border communities to develop Arizona’s plan of action, but we need your help."

She asked the White House to get DHS to coordinate with aid groups and local governments "to reduce the strain on border communities and reduce the fragmentation of critical updates and information. Currently, this work is being done on an ad-hoc basis between these organizations, which takes considerable manpower and resources to coordinate."

'We're more prepared'

On Monday, John Modlin, the chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said his agency was "more prepared" for a surge of people coming across the border.

"It's hard to understand what's coming, but what I can tell you is that we have dealt with surges before," he said. "This will be a surge, but I think the difference this time is we're more prepared for it because we've been on the edge of this happening for a while."

"The important thing is that over the last 18 months to two years, there's probably been six or seven times that we thought Title 42 was going to go away. And every time that happened, we prepared more. We tabletop extensively," he said.

Modlin noted last week, the Biden administration prepared to send 1,500 troops to support Border Patrol across the U.S.-Mexico border. Homeland Security officials said last week, they requested more troops to "augment the 2,500 military personnel currently providing support at the Southwest border with an additional 1,500 personnel for a period of 90 days."

Military personnel "have never, and will not, perform law enforcement activities or interact with migrants or other individuals in DHS custody," DHS officials said. "This support will free up DHS law enforcement personnel to perform their critical law enforcement missions," DHS officials said, adding that Defense Department personnel have supported DHS on the border since 2006.

Other agencies are "lending a hand as well" Modlin said. He also noted the agency has added dozens of Border Patrol processing coordinators, who are civilians tasked with quickly completing paperwork for migrants so he can "put more agents back out in the field."

"So, I think we're as prepared as we can be for it," he said.

Modlin said that without Title 42, the agency will rely on its authorities under Title 8 to process migrants and those intercepted as they attempt to cross through Arizona's deserts. Those who request asylum, especially at the nation's ports, will be processed under Title 8 and released. Those who have entered the country illegally and cannot seek asylum may face prosecution, including charges for illegal entry or  illegal reentry under Title 8.

He noted the agency has a "soft-sided facility" or tent set up for families and unaccompanied minors near the Tucson airport.

Biden tightens asylum rules

While Title 42 winds down, the Biden administration laid the ground work for far tougher limits on asylum. On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced a controversial rule requiring migrants to apply asylum in Mexico, or the first "safe" county they passed through.

Mexican asylum seekers may still be eligible to seek asylum in the U.S. Some migrants will be able to seek protection in the U.S., if they manage to secure a slot through the CBPOne app. The new rule had been in the works for weeks, and on Wednesday morning, the rule was published.

The measure would be a major pivot for President Joe Biden, who came to the White House by bashing Trump-era limits on asylum.

"President Biden just ushered in a new period of immense suffering for people already enduring violence and persecution," said Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies for the American Civil Liberties Union. "He has closed off the possibility of asylum in the United States to the majority of people seeking safety – in contradiction with our nation's laws and values. In doing so, he is finishing Trump’s job rather than fulfilling his own campaign promises. This is a somber day for our country and for refugees in desperate search of safety, but the fight is far from over."

On Wednesday morning, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the agency was buying up digital media in South and Central America to "counter the lies" from smugglers that after May 11 the border will be open.

"As you can see with by the images of removal flights and encounters with our border patrol agents, we are making it clear that the border is not open, crossing irregularly is against the law, and that those not eligible for relief will be quickly returned," Mayorkas said. "Do not listen to the lies, you will be returned."

He noted people who cross illegally could face a five-year bar on legally being able to enter the U.S., and could also face prosecution.

Mayorkas said the new rule would "encourage" people to use the "available safe and orderly pathways" and those who attempted to enter the U.S. between the nation's ports were assumed to be ineligible. 

He added the agency was "surging" people to the border, including nearly 1,400 DHS employees and 1,000 processing coordinators.

'It's like an accordion' 

In the tent near where Hobbs spoke to reporters Tuesday, small families huddled together and ate a small meal. Many of the adults wore blue paper shirt and shoes without shoelaces flopped over their feet. Their belongings were stuffed in plastic sacks, similar to those used for produce. A few small children huddled close, though one small girl peaked out around the tent wall to spy on the press conference.

Around the corner, a few men tried to make phone call. One man wandered by and asked a few reporters—"Where am I? Tucson? Arizona, right?"

Over the past few weeks, there's been increase in the number of migrants who have arrived at the Drexel Center, said Teresa Cavendish, executive director of Casa Alitas. She said that since Monday, the shelter received about 300 migrants from rural parts of the state,  and that figure adds to those already received from the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.

"That's a substantial increase," Cavendish said. "We know that on a national level, all of the ports and between the ports are going to be experiencing an unprecedented surge of folks seeking safety within the United States. We're not going to see anything unique here in Tucson—except that Tucson has been hosting increased numbers of folks for a longer period of time than some of our other partners on the rest of the border."

Cavendish said Casa Alitas had about 1,200 people in their care on Tuesday spread across six sites, including people transported from the buses from southern Arizona, and about 40 to 60 people released by CBP after they finished their appointments to seek asylum under CBPOne.

The Casa Alitas shelter was near capacity, with roughly 600 to 650 migrants passing through the facility, she said. In previous years, Casa Alitas managed about 350 to 400 people,  but now "that's you know, before breakfast."

While at capacity, the organization has able to "nudge up" shelter space at the moment, Cavendish said. "It's kind of like an accordion, but it's like an accordion that has a definite limit on how far it can expand." 

However, street releases may still be on the horizon, she said.

"It really depends on what the initial swells of folks look like as they're coming through," she said. "We could have releases as early as later this week. Or we could be able to to push them off for a little bit longer."

"But, you know, in truth, it seems that the resources that have been developed—and there are enormous resources that have been developed to meet these folks—are going to not be sufficient for the actual number of people who are coming in needing our assistance," she said.

Diego Piña Lopez, the program manager for Casa Alitas, noted that while in previous years most asylum seekers were from Central America, now they're seeing immigrants from the north African country Mauritania as well as people from India.

Lopez said people from up to 45 countries traveled through Casa Alitas, largely single men. This demographic shift has brought its own challenges, including new requirements for needs like foot washing for Muslim guests and proper food, as well as requirements for translators in a wide-range of languages.

"So making sure we're meeting people where they're at when they're coming through our door, and these guys are doing amazing job doing it," Lopez said, praising the Casa Alitas staff.

Most people stay just a few days in Pima County before leaving to traveling to sponsors across the United States.

'These numbers will saturate the current operation'

In a memo, Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher told the Pima County Board of Supervisors that border officials released 2,943 people—an average of 420 per day—to Casa Alitas last week. This includes 1,179 single adults, and 1,764 people traveling as families.

In her memo, Lesher said the end of Title 42 "will have a significant impact." She noted that from October 2022 to March 2023, officials in the Tucson Sector—which runs from the Yuma County line to the New Mexico border—used Title 42 to expel people 71,621 times, including nearly 18,000 expulsions in March alone.

She estimated that by May 11, Casa Alitas and other partners will receive 1,000 people per day. "Such unprecedented numbers present a tremendous challenge. For all the organizational achievements, these numbers will saturate the current operation and in all likelihood lead to street releases," she said.

Currently, the county has five sites that can shelter people after they are released by Border Patrol. This includes the Casa Alitas Drexel Center, the Casa Alitas Welcome Center, as well as three hotels managed by in a partnership between Pima County and the City of Tucson.

Last week, the Casa Alitas Welcome Center was at 60 percent capacity, the Drexel Center at 50 percent, while the hotels ranged between 66 to 88 percent capacity, Lesher wrote. The hotels have been used to aid COVID-19 isolation, and Lesher told the Board that since testing began in July 2021, the positivity rate has ranged from 2 to 14 percent.

In March, the county tested 9,801 migrants and about 8 percent tested positive for COVID-19.

Since the county began managing asylum seekers in a partnership with Catholic Community Services in April 2021 to May 5, 2023 , the agency has sheltered 138,173 people, Lesher wrote.

It remains unclear how long the surge will last. Immigration rights groups have argued that Title 42 may have increased encounters overall, as migrants made multiple attempts to come to the U.S., while others have said a surge is expected this week as people attempt to come under Title 42, and then try again later this week under Title 8. Moreover, advocates have said criminal groups will likely continue to ply on desperate and confused migrants playing up their chances to get asylum in the U.S. even as the window closes as the Biden administration clamps down on asylum claims.

Arizona gov't 'cannot handle this situation alone'

Tuesday during the press conference, Hobbs added the state would spend $7 million—originally earmarked for the Arizona Border Strike Force under former Gov. Doug Ducey—for aiding the transportation and care of migrants throughout the state. And, she said her team is "diligently" seeking additional sources of funding, including about $15 million negotiated from the state budget for transportation.

"But, we know the state government cannot handle this situation alone," she said, adding she pushed the Biden administration finalize the Emergency Shelter Program.

On Friday, U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema said Arizona would receive over $45.4 million through that program to help nonprofits and communities on "the front lines of the border and immigration crisis provide critical assistance to migrants – avoiding street releases, keeping families safe, and ensuring migrants are treated fairly and humanely."

"This funding we secured will provide much-needed resources for our border communities at a critical time to help manage an influx of migrants. We'll keep working with the administration and border communities to ensure a secure, orderly, humane process," Kelly said. 

Pima County will receive about $19 million to support around 600 to 800 people per day, Lesher wrote, adding the county can seek another round of funding in September.

Overall, the county has received nearly $29.5 million in federal funds under the federal FEMA grants to support asylum seekers.

Hobbs praised the efforts by Casa Alitas and county staff for their dedication and care to ensure "a safe, humane, and orderly process," and she warned the organization already faces a serious strain on capacity that will only get "more strained when Title 42 is ended."

"We want to make sure there's orderly and humane treatment of folks," Hobbs said.

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