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Pima County to lease juvenile center for stop-over for asylum-seekers

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Pima County to lease juvenile center for stop-over for asylum-seekers

Catholic agency asks to move monastery 'respite' shelter to vacant facility

  • An interior view of the Pima County Juvenile Justice facility that is slated to become a waypoint for migrants released by federal officials in Tucson.
    Pima CountyAn interior view of the Pima County Juvenile Justice facility that is slated to become a waypoint for migrants released by federal officials in Tucson.
  • Pima County
  • Pima County
  • Pima County
  • Pima County

Asylum seekers freshly released from federal custody may have a new place for respite in Tucson as Pima County is set to lease an unused section of the juvenile detention center to Catholic Community Services.

Under the plan, the county will fund some remodeling work and cover utility and upkeep costs while the nonprofit social service group manages the center as a temporary stop for migrants. Backers of the proposal emphasized that the center is "a vacant dorm" and that "this is not a jail" to detain families seeking asylum. The county will seek repayment of some project costs from the federal government.

Update: County stops work after clash over migrant shelter at vacant Pima juvenile center

For the last several months, Catholic Community Services, supported by an army of volunteers with help from city and county officials, has used the former Benedictine Monastery in Midtown as a waypoint for nearly 10,000 people. Most have been traveling as families —nearly all from three Central American countries — who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum, and were then traveling to sponsors in cities across the United States. 

However, the owner of the monastery plans to develop the historic building on North Country Club Road, and has asked CCS to vacate the center by July 26. With that deadline approaching, city and county officials began seeking out a new shelter for the agency to process migrant families, offering medical triage, food, travel arrangements, and a place to sleep before they travel further.

In recent weeks, the agency and local officials settled on the juvenile detention facility, part of the Pima County Juvenile Court Center complex, 2225 E. Ajo Way, which has three units that are vacant and can accommodate up to 300 people, said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. Officials released details about the project on Monday.

Monday: Pima County to lease juvenile center for stop-over for asylum-seekers

Huckelberry also said that the county would seek reimbursement from federal officials to renovate and operate the former detention facility. He sent a letter to local Border Patrol officials, saying that a recent Homeland Security grant for the Pima County Sheriff's Department was approved in part because of an expectation that DHS would give money to the county for humanitarian aid. 

While city and county officials have defended the plan, advocates worry that a former holding facility is the wrong place to temporarily house asylum seekers, many of them freshly released from federal detention facility where detainees, lawyers, advocates and even the Inspector General's office with DHS, have said include harrowing conditions. 

In a July 3 letter to county officials, Rev. Edward J. Weisenburger, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, asked Huckelberry to lease the facility to Catholic Community Services as a "respite and travel processing center."

Weisenburger praised owner of the monastery, who he said has been "extremely gracious and generous" for allowing the community to use the former Benedictine Monastery before scheduled reconstruction. 

"Our local community has been responding to this humanitarian challenge since 2014," Weisenburger wrote, noting that "there is no sign that DHS drop-offs of asylum seekers, primarily from Central America, is going to abate." 

Since October 1, 2018, Border Patrol agents said they have taken into custody around 594,000 people, and nearly three-fourths of those apprehended where either families traveling with children, or children traveling without parents or guardians. In May alone, nearly 133,000 people were met by Border Patrol agents, the largest number since March 2006. 

In Arizona, people have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in remote areas and immediately turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents, sometimes in groups as large as 400. While every sector has seen vast increases compared to May 2018, the number of asylum-seeking families has nearly quadrupled in the Yumas Sector, which straddles the Colorado River, while the number of families coming into the Tucson Sector has nearly tripled,  increasing 258 percent. 

The El Paso Sector has faced the largest increase in the country, rising from a mere 4,733 people to more than 104,000 in May, an increase of 2,100 percent, according to statistics from the agency.

While Tucson Sector officials have defended their detention facilities, with the sector's chief appearing in a professionally produced video "tour" of the facility, officials in El Paso face a congressional hearing about conditions in their facilities after immigration lawyers, and the Inspector General for DHS said that conditions at one facility included "dangerous" overcrowding and "prolonged detention."

In the last four months, these apprehensions have accelerated, prompting officials with Border Patrol's parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and DHS to sound the alarm, warning that the U.S. was facing a "humanitarian crisis" along the border. At the same time, the rapid monthly increases of apprehensions by Border Patrol presaged a massive reshuffling of leadership at the agency, beginning with the ousting of the Secretary of DHS in April and continuing through mid-June when the acting commissioner of CBP resigned leading to the head of ICE to take the reins.

Two weeks ago, DHS officials said that the number of asylum seekers had decreased, crediting recent moves by the Mexican government, however, some analysts questioned whether the shift was simply seasonal. 

Less clear is a parallel policy at the nation's ports of entry, known as "metering" which has intentionally kept asylum seekers from entering the U.S. resulting in an almost flat number of what CBP officials call "inadmissibles" coming through. 

Once asylum seekers enter the U.S., they are processed by Border Patrol officials, who take "biometrics" including fingerprints, and in some cases, DNA samples, and then they are either turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or in the case of children traveling "unaccompanied," handed over to Health and Human Services. 

From December 21, 2018 to July 1, 2019, officials with ICE have released 213,000 people, including around 40,000 in the Phoenix Area of Responsibility, which includes Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, said Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, a spokeswoman with ICE.

However, in recent months, as the number of asylum seekers "overwhelmed" the system, Border Patrol began doing its own releases, and unlike ICE which had a long-term arrangement with CCS the agency released people directly to "the street," often leaving mothers and fathers with their children, at the Greyhound bus terminal near Downtown Tucson with little but the clothes on their backs, and sometimes with incomplete paperwork. 

Through the winter and spring, volunteers worked to take people to the monastery or one of a half-dozen "satellite" shelters across town, while dozens of volunteers helped, offering translation services, travel arrangements, and medical evaluations. 

"If the Tucson and Pima County community do not respond and provide aid to these desperate people they will be left on the streets of Tucson to fend for themselves," the bishop wrote. "We have no choice but to provide the much-needed aid, which is a moral imperative of our faith."

Weisenburger wrote that officials considered a range of criteria, and after looking at "dozens of potential sites," a team working on the relocation decided that "unused sections" of the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex near East Ajo and South Kino Parkway "meets every criterion above and is by far our best option." 

Weisenburger asked the county to lease the facility to Catholic Community Services for "a nominal fee."

Deal needs supervisors' OK

County Administrator Huckelberry recommended that the Board of Supervisors approve the use of the vacant buildings — near Ajo Way and South Kino Parkway, adjacent to Interstate 10 — and agree to charge CCS an annual rent of $100 during the next meeting, scheduled for August 6. 

"We have reviewed these facilities and believe that with minimal improvement they can provide the shelter, food and other services required for asylum seekers," Huckelberry wrote in a letter the board. "The county will pay for building, operating and maintenance cost[s] which will include utilities, food service through the juvenile kitchen and laundry service through the juvenile laundry." 

Jan Lesher, chief deputy county administrator, said that her staff was currently working on estimating capital and operation costs to shift the vacant "pods" at the juvenile facility into a place for asylum seekers.

To recoup these costs, Huckelberry said that the county would seek reimbursement based on humanitarian aid funding attached to the controversial Operation Stonegarden grant, a DHS grant that pays for overtime and equipment costs for local law enforcement to engage in joint operations with DHS officials, including Border Patrol and ICE agents. 

"The county will seek reimbursement for these costs as well as repayment for initial capital costs to make these facilities safe and efficient for the processing requirements of Catholic Community Services," wrote  Huckelberry. 

Huckelberry also pushed Tucson Sector Border Patrol officials for "support and approval" of a request from the county to secure funding from the Department of Homeland Security under a new grant policy 

"It should be noted that the county's approval," of the Stonegarden grant in May was "conditioned on the approval of at least $200,000 in humanitarian aid." 

"The sheriff cannot utilize any of the OPSG overtime allocation until this aid request has been fully approved," Huckelberry wrote. "Hence, I ask for your review and approval of this humanitarian aid request at your earliest convenience," he wrote.

Supervisor Ramon Valadez, who was invited to tour the juvenile facility on Friday, said he supports the move.

The revamped center will be "the best place for our visiting families to be safely and comfortably housed for 1-3 days in our community," he posted on Facebook. requested comment from Tucson Sector Border Patrol officials, but did not receive a response. In an email, Huckelberry wrote that he hadn't received a response yet, and that he would reach out to ICE officials by Thursday.

'The facility is not a jail'

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik outlined the changes the county would make to the facility, which would include removing the doors on detention cells, painting the facility with murals and other artwork, as well as new furniture. He also said that the gym yards will have added sunshades so kids could play outside. 

In an emailed newsletter, Kozachik highlighted this difference: "First, let's dispel some myths," he wrote. "The facility is not jail. We are not incarcerating the refugees." 

"What will change is the walls and location – the TLC offered by the volunteers will be the same at the Alitas Center as it is at the monastery," Kozachik said. "In fact, volunteers and guests will enjoy more modern amenities. If you served at the Benedictine you know we had to resort to porta-johns and outdoor showers in the past month. The strain on the old building was significant," he said. 

"It will take several weeks to make the needed changes, but by the end of July, or thereabouts, we should be ready to move operations over to the new site," Kozachik said. "We will still have the art, will still offer contact with next of kin, will still provide transport to the bus station, will still interact and show compassion for our guests. New walls – same heart and services."

While Pima County has used the facility since 1967, it has been repeatedly updated and expanded, and each expansion "built on the original dormitory-style living quarters that still exists there today," Kozachik said. "Due to positive changes in how we address juvenile offenders, through programs such as restorative justice and others, the facility is no longer in use. It hasn’t been for several years."

County staff said that successful programs that offer alternatives to detaining youth offenders have led to the center holding a daily population far less than capacity. The design of the facility means that those youth who are being held — an average of 30-50 at one time — will be kept entirely separate from the portion of the center set to be used by migrant families.

Backers of the proposal pointed out that the move will enable much more privacy for families, who will be able to use separate rooms rather than, as has been the case at the monastery, all of the migrants sleeping in one large hall.

"We’ve been looking since this January," Kozachik said, and while a team reviewed several different potential facilities, including a vacant school owned by the Tucson Unified School District, they found that the juvenile detention facility met a "pretty rigid" set of requirements. 

"We need to be able to house 150 to 200 people at a time," Kozachik said, adding that this also included a place with an Internet connection to make travel arrangements and schedules, an area for medical triage, a kitchen and a serving area as well as a place for laundry. At the monastery, volunteers have been taking laundry home, he said. 

"This is not an institution with three hots and cot," he said. Kozachik said the renovation would remove locking doors, and dismantle the surveillance systems, along with adding new furniture, and perhaps murals on the walls. "It’s not insurmountable, and it’s not going to happen overnight," he  said. "We know we have to probably squeeze a few weeks out, but we’re going to do what we need to do." 

Kozachik also hoped for buy-in from federal officials, noting that the new facility is closer to the Tucson Sector Border Patrol headquarters on South Swan Road. 

Kozachik said that he wants to call the new facility the Alitas Center, or something similar to "rebrand" what the facility is meant for. "We don't want people to feel that they're moving from a CBP facility to a county one," he said. "It needs to be rebranded. And, we need to let people know, that just because people are staying in a monastery,  it doesn’t make them nuns, so people staying here aren't detainees," he said.  

"We’ll treat them the same way that we’re treating them at the Benedictine Monastery," Kozachik said. 

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