Now Reading
County stops work after clash over migrant shelter at vacant Pima juvenile center

Note: This story is more than 3 years old.

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

Opponents call move 'non-starter'; Supporters assail 'second-guessing, undermining'; Huckelberry orders work stopped

  • 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

Plans to turn an unused section of the juvenile detention center as a Catholic Community Services shelter for hundreds of released migrants have prompted debate, with activists calling the move a "non-starter," and supporters assailing "second-guessing that undermines the work."

Friday night, county officials ordered that all work on the project be stopped. "We have no alternate plan," the head of CCS's shelter said.

The nonprofit social service agency, which must leave its current site, would operate the Casa Alitas temporary stop-over for asylum-seekers who have been released from federal custody.

Some immigration activists, and Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías and TUSD Governing Board member Adelita Grijalva, have objected to the plan. Some opponents argued that idea was "poorly conceived," and would prop up a "dying detention center." The migrants should perhaps instead be sheltered at a vacant school, they said.

City and county officials pushed back, saying that the facility was a "vacant dorm," and that instead continuing to look at two schools in the Tucson Unified School District was a "unnecessary fire drill." Meanwhile, the lead coordinator for CCS said that if work didn't begin on the facility soon, planned improvements to keep the building from feeling like a former detention center would not be completed before the group had to move in. The Casa Alitas staffer said opponents of the move hadn't consulted with the operators of the migrant shelter, and that "second-guessing" could "undermine the work that we're doing."

Friday night, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry instructed officials to "stop all work on this project."

"Given Supervisor Elias' opposition it is not viable at this point," he wrote, referring to "the usual nonsense" in another part of an email exchange.

Huckelberry said he ordered work to halt until after the Board of Supervisors meets on August 6 to review the plan. "This will delay their use until September and if not approved they will not be able to use the facility," he said.

On Monday, county officials announced that they would lease an unused section of the juvenile detention facility, part of the Pima County Juvenile Court Center complex, 2225 E. Ajo Way, to Catholic Community Services. The group would use three units that are vacant and can accommodate up to 300 people, said Huckelberry.

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.

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.

Unlike those in the controversial centers — decried by some as "concentration camps" — operated by federal agencies like Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and others, the migrants at the Casa Alitas shelter are not being detained; they've already been reviewed and released by the feds.

The owner of the monastery plans to re-develop the historic building on North Country Club Road, and has asked CCS to vacate the property by August 6, said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for the group. 

"I'm just hanging here by my toes," Cavendish said Friday afternoon. "We've known for last seven months that we have this deadline," she said. "The property owner has been more than generous in giving us this facility, and there's no possibility for an extension for our stay here in the monastery. We appreciate it, and we'll honor our agreement with him."

Learning that the county had halted work Friday night, Cavendish told, "We have no alternate plan."

With the deadline to move the shelter approaching, city and county officials began seeking out a new location for the agency to serve migrant families, offering medical triage, food, travel arrangements, and a place to sleep before they travel further. 

In recent weeks, city and council officials and the shelter operators settled on the juvenile detention facility, which has the elements necessary to make it a good new shelter, said Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik.

Center meets 'pretty rigid' requirements for migrant shelter

"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. 

Kozachik called the objections a "bottom of the ninth effort" driven by people who just "cannot get their heads around" the idea that facility is not part of the juvenile detention center. 

Kozachik pushed back against the idea that the two TUSD schools could be used. "No, it's just not going to work." One school is leased by a charter school through at least December, he said, and a plan to spread the organization's effort across a number of volunteer churches won't work because "the operation needs a central intake." 

The churches are helpful and can help take overflow, but they're not doing the "front-end work" that's required. "You can’t have 12 intake facilities scattered around town, he said, adding that many of the churches are "not ready" to do the staffing work that CCS is doing. 

"There's not a school that brings to the table all the things happening" at the monastery, Kozachik said. "But no one showing up here, after traveling from Guatemala through Mexico will care what the facility was used for," he said. "They feel the compassion from people working on that place," he said. He argued that the facility was a "dormitory." 

"Look they're well-intentioned, but we're not incarcerating Guatemalans," he said. "I think people when they see the changes, they’ll be on board," he said, adding that the county was picking up costs for the facility, including maintenance, food prep and laundry costs.

"No one is going to pick up that tab at TUSD," Kozachik said. 

The councilman, a Democrat, also warned that without a shelter and agreements with federal officials, the remaining option is "street releases." 

"If this falls off the rails," because of objections, "(opponents) own the street release option, if we don't get this facility." 

Huckelberry said earlier Friday that the county could only spend money on county-owned facilities, so that immediately excludes TUSD buildings. "And, the facility center was originally a detention center, so what better way than to repurpose it as a basic shelter?"

Monday, 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 empty 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.

Huckelberry said that learned that two TUSD schools were still being looked at by opponents of the move by "reading the paper." 

Two former Tucson Unified School District schools were proposed, including Menlo Park Elementary at 1100 W. Fresno St., and Howenstine Magnet High School, 555 S. Tucson Blvd, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

Led by Supervisor Elías and TUSD's Grijalva, those opposed to the move to the county center said they were now considering the two schools, just weeks before the Board of Supervisors would vote on the proposal to begin leasing the juvenile facility to CCS. 

"I understand that one of these schools had been examined by CCS, and it needs a complete remodel to get it up to speed," Huckelberry said, and the other school, Menlo Park Elementary is "leased to a charter-school operator" that plans to start a new school year in just a few weeks. 

"This might have been an unnecessary fire drill," Huckelberry told Friday afternoon.

Huckelberry pushed back on the idea that the facility, with locking doors and institutional plumbing fixtures, would remind families coming to the shelter of Border Patrol or ICE detention facilities. "So do college dorms. ... The people who are coming for two to three days just don’t have any idea that it was anything but a safe, decent and comfortable place with housing and food." 

"We’re absolutely open to all alternatives, but the problem is the monastery is falling around everyone’s ears, and it’s not acceptable to be in there much longer," he said.

Friday just after 6 p.m., he ordered county staff to halt work.

"I have stopped all modifications to the facility until August 6," he told staff and other supervisors.

Grijalva: School site could be 'long-term solution'

Elías had co-authored a guest opinion with Rev. Edward J. Weisenburger, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, in support of the plan to move to the county facility, sources said. That was set to be published in the Daily Star this weekend, but then the Democratic county supervisor withdrew his backing.

Elías did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Grijalva told that TUSD wanted to offer two potential schools to CCS, especially Menlo Park Elementary, on the West Side.

Menlo Park "doesn't need any work," but she said her feeling from staff at CCS was that "unless it checked every single box, it just didn't seem like an option."

The county has offered to cover costs at the juvenile center, and "so anything that's not free, it's just not going to be as attractive."

"The community will welcome housing migrants in Menlo Park, and it solves the problem of having another vacant school," she said Friday. "But it only only works if Catholic Community Services is willing to work through a plan, and that's not something they may be willing to do."

While Menlo Park is currently occupied, the charter school said that it has purchased a new building, and is planning on leaving in December.

"I think if we put our heads together, we could come up with a solution. The county could create a short-term solution, and then we could use Menlo as a long-term solution."

She said that she wished she there had been a "better opportunity" for the community to put together a plan, and "this just didn't happen with input from other groups."

"As much as I appreciate the county's attempt to figure it out on their end, there has to be a willingness to come up with a better long-term solution, and I hope that Menlo Park is the right one," the Democratic school board member said. "Some solutions work for the short-term, but there has to be a willingness to do that."

"Even if we pretty up a detention facility, it's still a detention facility. And, I'm not sure how much can be changed," she said.

'Second-guessing undermines the work'

"It would be lovely for the folks who had these opinions to talk to us," said Cavendish, from the Catholic social service agency. "We learn about what’s happening by reading the newspaper," she said. Cavendish said that she toured Menlo Park Elementary, and that "it's a perfectly lovely building as a school," but "it’s not available till the end of December." 

She also said that Howenstine Magnet has a "definite condition problem." 

"I cannot imagine it could possible be available to us by August 6," Cavendish told Friday afternoon. "We've been doing this for five years. We're a nationally respected service, and we're good at it. So, it's frustrating that other groups, who have not done the work at this scale, with the success that Casa Alitas has had, to second-guess and even undermine the work that we're doing."

"Elías said that he supported our move to the county facility" shortly after paying a recent visit to Casa Alitas at the monastery, "but now I guess he's reconsidering other viewpoints," said Cavendish.

She said that CCS plans to go into a facility that has "never used for anything but teaching and education," and that she worried that changes the group needs and wants to make have been slowed down because of "uncertainty." 

"We're bringing in artisans, construction managers, horticulturists, all sorts to assist and make the facility not look like an institution, but rather feel like the Casa Alitas we know. That's had to slow down," she said Friday, prior to Huckelberry halting work. 

And, now it's possible that because of this delay, ironically, people have made sure that we we occupy this space, it will look like a detention center," she said. "They've created the scenario that we've been criticized for." 

"That not just frustrating, but it's going to impact our guests, that impacts our families, and every decision we've made, is to create a respectful and dignified environment," she said. "Right now we’re having our hands tied, while work that we’ve been doing for five years is being second-guessed by people who don’t do this work." 

She also said that a plan to split the services among many churches would fail. "In Phoenix that's been far less successful. The model of very small shelters working independently, or attempting to work through single entity, is a model of failure. It just doesn’t work," Cavendish said.

'Replacing bodies of jailed children with migrants'

Following the announcement that the county would use the juvenile detention center, Tiera Rainey, a program coordinator with American Friends Service Committee, said she wanted to push back immediately.

"Using federal humanitarian funds to keep a piece of the prison industrial complex alive," just isn't a workable idea, Rainey said. "The community wasn't brought into that decision," she said, adding that the criteria used by officials were "vague" and that Catholic Community Services wasn't being "transparent." 

"I think they’re well-intentioned, but they’re not thinking ahead," she said. "Replacing the bodies of jailed children with the bodies of migrants, is not the right thing," Rainey said Friday. 

In her petition, Rainey criticized the plan, arguing that it was "poorly conceived" and was taking the "root out of the generous effort" of the faith community to "help shelter vulnerable migrant families being released from ICE and Border Patrol custody." 

"We are now being told that somehow using an empty portion of a still-active juvenile detention center, a child jail, as a site for a humanitarian shelter is what is of the highest good for all," Rainey wrote. "That using federal dollars earmarked for humanitarian aid to prop up a dying detention center is the moral choice because 'there is no other way.'" 

Tucson could do better, she wrote, because "we are scrappy, we are generous, and we CAN and WILL find a site that is not an active detention center to house these families," she wrote. "A child jail with murals is still a child jail — just look at Southwest Key."

The large facility that the nonprofit contractor Southwest Key uses in Tucson, on North Oracle Road, is a former hotel and college apartment complex.

"The interiors of these rooms (at the county center) still look like a child jail," she said. "Why bring traumatized people in what was a detention facility and say, 'oh it’s different'? It’s still part of  institution."

"We need to call out that this is not actual the reality of this situation," she said. "No one is saying we want the children on the streets, but they waited not to give time because it’s controversial." 

She said that former detention center was "not accessible to most people," and that dozens of vacant properties are still available. 

The facility, she said is a "non-starter." 

"We're suggesting other places, but the onus is on the county and CCS to find solutions," she said. "Tucson is a resourceful, supportive community, and the community would be happy to help in such a noble effort as rallying to help get a facility in working order," she said. 

"We don’t have a solution right this moment, but we are looking for one and we are brainstorming ideas," she said. "We're working to better support out migrant brothers and sisters," she said.

County to seek reimbursement from Stonegarden

Huckelberry 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, Bishop Weisenburger 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."

— 30 —

Top headlines

Best in Internet Exploder