Pima supervisors OK converting juvie center wing to shelter for asylum-seekers
On a 3-2 party line vote, Pima County supervisors approved moving a Catholic-run shelter for released migrants into a vacant wing of the juvenile detention center — but not before hearing dissension over the plan from other groups that work with migrants.
The "cooperative agreement" between the county and Catholic Community Services will see the social service agency operate the shelter for asylum-seekers who are newly released by federal immigration authorities. The county will fund the shelter, to the tune of about $530,000 for the remainder of this year.
Supervisors Steve Christy and Ally Miller, both Republicans, voted against the deal, citing financial concerns. The Democratic majority — Chairman Richard Elias and Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Ramon Valadez — voted in favor, but not without getting an earful from opponents of the deal, many of whom work with Methodist groups that also work with migrants.
The vote came after nearly two hours of public comments, mostly from members of the faith community and social-justice groups, and deep divisions were on display. Some said that CCS had pushed aside other groups in making the decision to use the juvenile center, and the county's decision to use Operation Stonegarden money for humanitarian aid was once again raised, with some calling it "dirty money."
"It doesn't need to stay the only option, but today it is," Elias said.
Two weeks ago, 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 Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. The current shelter operated by the group, at the former Benedictine Monastery, is set to close on August 6.
The deal — now framed as a "cooperative agreement" between CCS and the county, with the $100 nominal rent that was proposed set aside — is set for one year, but can be extended for up to five.
The meeting was called for Monday morning after a week of controversy saw the project announced, called off, and then put "back on track." A further week of heated debate led up to the meeting.
No call to the audience, during which members of the public can voice their opinions on the topic, was included on the initial agenda for the meeting. The only item listed was the agreement for CCS to use the facility as a shelter, but officials added the public call last Thursday afternoon after TucsonSentinel.com questioned them, saying it had been an oversight.
Elias and Valadez acknowledged some of the concerns expressed by those opponents of the deal who called for a different location for the shelter. The agreement can be cancelled with a 30-day notice, and a better facility might be found, they said.
Both supervisors said that there was an an urgent need to find a location. Some activists said that they should've been invited into the decision-making earlier.
For the last several months, Catholic Community Services, supported by an army of volunteers with help from city and county officials, has used the 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. CCS doesn't separate children from their families in the shelter operated by the nonprofit group. Most of the asylum-seekers stay for just a day or two, and then travel to stay with relatives or other sponsors as their asylum cases are processed.
The migrants all have legal status in the United States while their cases are ongoing.
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 CCS.
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, those officials and the CCS 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.
"This could be a good bridge, but it's a bridge and we need to think about it that way," said Elias on Monday.
"We've got to think about the long term of this," he said," and that doesn't make this option look that great."
"We did a poor job of rolling this out in the months we had to talk about it," the Democrat said. "We did not include the community."
"We need to do something, but it's also important how we do it," he said.
Heated remarks from audience
The supervisors heard from nearly three dozen speakers Monday morning, with Sups. Bronson and Miller participating by phone.
Elias began the meeting by asking the audience and speakers to "be kind, be respectful.... let's go a little bit further (than the rules)."
Nevertheless, several speakers grew angry during their remarks to the supervisors. After the votes were cast, progressive activist Najima Rainey called Elias a "motherfucker" and quickly strode from the room. "That's OK," he said. "I've been called worse, maybe even yesterday."
A handful of Republican activists spoke Monday against spending any county money on a shelter for asylum-seekers no matter what the location.
"Where is the compassion for the citizens of Pima County?" asked Chris King, first vice chairman of the Pima County Republican Party, who said the deal amounted to "extortion."
"Taxpayers should not be on the hook," he said. "Why are you even bothering to hold this special meeting when work has already begun?"
John Backer, who's challenging Christy in the GOP primary for the District 4 seat, said the county is "turning our back on ... the homeless. We have so many desperate needs here."
The deal wasn't criticized just from the Right.
Lola Rainey, from Black Lives Matter and the Tucson Second Chance Bail Fund, has opposed putting the shelter into the vacant section of the juvenile center.
"No matter how nicely we position this," she told the supervisors, the county will be "putting people who've been traumatized ... into a facility being used as an active detention center."
"This does not reflect the best that we can do," Rainey said. "Tucson is a poor community. The amount of money earmarked for this could be used for so much, not just for migrants but for people who live here year-round."
The plan shows a "lack of vision," she said. "People want to be free; they don't want to be contained."
Ryan Kelly, second vice-chair of the Pima County Green Party and frequent speaker at supervisors' meetings, remarked on "how uniquely American it is in 2019 that we will be looking to a detention center for temporary housing (for migrants). That's an indictment, if you ask me."
Gretchen Lopez, a site coordinator for The Inn, a shelter for migrants run by the Methodists, said that it is "a false narrative that the options are to approve this or they'll be on the streets."
"It shouldn't be the county's responsibility, it shouldn't be the county's money when there's a community here willing to step up," she said.
Monday, activist Tiera Rainey told the supervisors that "you can't repurpose a building that is still incarcerating people."
"The community wasn't even given the opportunity to participate in this conversation," she said. "If we had been given more than two weeks' notice" another plan could have been developed.
Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner, who leads a Methodist student group, assailed the move, saying "we keep hearing that this is our only option, that without putting our families into jail cells they will be dumped on the streets, but we know this is a false narrative that has been intentionally and strategically deployed for some purpose amongst those in power."
The plan would "erase the willingness and the work of the majority of the religious community in this county," she said.
Billie Fidlin, director of outreach and justice for Methodists in the Southwest, said the juvenile center "in no way can become a welcoming facility."
"No poster, no piece of artwork, no rug on the floor can mask" the center, "no matter how warm the welcome is," she said. The shelter will be "another kind of cage," Fidlin said, warning of "all the publicity to Tucson" if the plan is approved.
Calling Stonegarden funding "dirty money," activist Summer Aguilera said "if this is as creative as Tucson gets, we're screwed."
Supporters praise 'swords into plowshares' plan
Peg Harmon, the CEO of Catholic Community Services, told the supervisors that the shelter served some 20,000 people in the past year.
"We've been doing this since 2014," she said, noting the group's "due diligence" and conforming to "recognized standards of care" for shelters.
Harmon said she is "reminded of Isaiah" by the plan, citing the Bible about the "power of transformation."
"And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks," she quoted. "This is our opportunity to transform."
Laura Fairbanks, a volunteers at CCS's Casa Alitas shelter, described how she as "met with families who are fleeing for their lives, often with their children in tow."
Noting the scriptural admonishment to "welcome strangers," Fairbanks said of the center, "it does not matter what this space used to be. It will be transformed into a safe and caring" place.
"What we do is more important than the architecture itself," said CCS volunteer Blake Gentry. "The monastery itself was once an institution," but it was turned into a welcoming place. "The ability to provide shelter outweighs the potential for trauma."
Social worker Laurie Melrood said, "If there were an alternative being offered, we'd prefer it. But that's not the case."
Rev. Michael Lonergan, pastor of Church of the Painted Hills UCC, who has worked at the CCS shelter, said the new facility will be "a place of caring for God's children."
Sebastian Quinac, a representative of the Guatemalan consulate here, urged the supervisors to support the shelter move.
Elias, Valadez appeal for calm
Both Democratic supervisors on the dais Monday referenced the heated debate, and called for members of the community to work together.
"We live in an atmosphere where people can't disagree (reasonably)," Valadez said, reminding the audience of how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were able to "sit down, and put their emotions aside" despite being at odds.
"They found a way to work together," he said.
"We are suffering the consequences of the lack of decisions elsewhere," he said.
Elias said "we live in a poisoned atmosphere right now, poisoned by others who live far outside this community."
"I've been called a lot of names this week," he said. "I've divorced myself from it — it's coming from a place of goodness, not coming from a place of badness."
Councilman Kozachik "commended" the vote, but said Monday that "the anger and divisiveness that was present in the room was troubling. We are better than that. CCS deserves better than that. It is a symptom of the larger national level of distrust that does not belong in Tucson and Pima County."
Kozachik said that the owner of the monastery has agreed to a short extension for the shelter "if we need a couple of extra weeks to make the transition smooth, and hopefully in a way that eases some of the tension. I will cover the utility costs and make sure Ross (Rulney) is not out-of-pocket for any expenses."
"For me the most difficult part of this is seeing the splintering that is taking place among the faith community partners we have been working with on this issue. I believe that is exactly what those who are in the 'send them all home' crowd would love to see," Kozachik wrote Monday. "I am hopeful the in-house opposition eases. If someone finds the needle we have been looking for in the haystack, I am sure we are all ears."
"It's sad, and I guess a bit ironic to see such bitterness coming from within the faith community. We've been working together on this issue for years, and now some of them think a scorched-earth relationship is the way to go? I'll keep working with whoever wants to move forward productively, but not so much with the group who wants to challenge people's motives and character," he told TucsonSentinel.com after the meeting.
Miller joined with Christy in elaborating on their financial concerns just prior to the roll-call vote. Bronson, who said she had a bad connection and could barely hear some speakers, didn't offer any comments during the meeting.
"Pima County taxpayers should not be in the migrant shelter business," Christy said. "Faith-based groups, not-for-profits, non-governmental organizations should be taking the lead." The shelter "should not be the predominant task of just one social-service group, even though CCS is doing a phenomenal job."
Instead, Christy called for a "region-wide emergency summit" to "come up with a solution for this crisis that is not saddled on the backs of Pima County taxpayers."
Miller repeated her call for "full market value" rent to be charged for the center, and said medical care for migrants "is going to get into some real money."
"Why is this an emergency hearing? Why can't we wait a few more weeks?," she asked.
The county is asking that more than a half-million dollars in Operation Stonegarden money be directed toward humanitarian aid for asylum-seekers who have been released by the federal government. Those funds would cover the county's operating costs for a shelter for migrants through the end of the year.
With the county planning on converting a vacant section of the Juvenile Detention Center into a shelter for migrants — mostly Central American families seeking asylum in the United States, who have legal status in this country — officials have requested a modification to the federal grant for border and immigration enforcement efforts approved earlier this year. Those changes — affecting nearly half of the total Stonegarden grant — will require approval from both state and federal officials.
Because the current shelter, being operated at a former monastery by a nonprofit Catholic social service agency, must close its doors early next month, a new location is necessary, officials said.
The proposal to use part of the county-owned complex has drawn fire from border-rights activists and others — enough to at least temporarily stall the project — over "optics" and the location in an "active detention center." Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, a Republican, said he'd back the project "even if it all came out of overtime" for his deputies.
The county's portion of the cost to operate the new shelter will be about $94,500 each month, with another $57,000 to be spent modifying the facility before it begins operating, according to a document drafted by Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. The total for the final five months of this year would be $530,000.
The county's bill for the shelter and other border aid programs could reach $1.5 million next year, with officials looking at tapping other grants.
The Board of Supervisors accepted $1.2 million in funding for the Sheriff's Department from the controversial Stonegarden program in May, specifying that $200,000 of it must be directed to humanitarian efforts here. County leaders also conditioned accepting the grant on the maximum level of "indirect costs" allowed under the grant being spent on aiding asylum-seekers.
That slice was 28.58 percent, or $330,000.
Huckelberry submitted a request to modify the grant to "forgo the indirect cost recovery this award year," noting that the Arizona Department of Homeland Security told the county that paying for such costs "will be difficult to operationalize with only five months remaining" in the grant period.
The county will instead "seek to apply" that portion of the grant to humanitarian aid, Huckelberry wrote, for a total amount of $530,347.
The Stonegarden money would cover shelter operations through the end of the year. Huckelberry said that the county is applying for $1.5 million to run the shelter next year from a $30 million program of border humanitarian aid grants just being set up by the federal government.
The bulk of Operation Stonegarden funds, which have yet to be disbursed under this grant, are provided by the federal government to subsidize overtime pay for deputies who are coordinating with Border Patrol and other federal agencies on border enforcement patrols. Huckelberry noted in his change request that "if this request is approved, the Pima County sheriff will still receive the same overtime allocation approved by the Board. Furthermore, no overtime funding is authorized for the sheriff until the humanitarian aid request is fully approved."
Sheriff Napier: Backs plan 'even if it all came out of overtime'
Sheriff Mark Napier said last Tuesday that he supports the plan to transform part of the juvenile center into a shelter.
"We have an affirmative responsibility to provide care for these people, as they transition through our community," he said.
"They're not here illegally; they have legal status in this country pending their asylum hearings," said the Republican sheriff.
Both Huckelberry and Napier pointed to public safety as well as moral issues prompting the shelter plan.
"If we turn these people out onto the street, they'll either turn to criminal activity out of necessity or become victims of crime themselves," Napier told TucsonSentinel.com.
The county administrator wrote to state officials that "if asylum-seekers are simply released to our local streets, the resulting chaos will certainly endanger them as well as the community."
Napier did express concerns that the expanded request for humanitarian funding from Stonegarden might cause the feds to think twice about approving future requests under the program. He said his department has asked for "closer to $2 million" in the next round of Stonegarden grants, with much of the increase meant to fund stationing a PCSD airplane at the Ajo airport.
He also expressed concerns that the shift in the allocated funds is not assured.
The county has "significantly escalated the amount of humanitarian aid I agreed to," Napier said. "But there are costs being borne by Pima County that our federal partners aren't funding. We have an immediate humanitarian responsibility."
"Our NGOs and nonprofits are all stressed to the max," he said.
"It all depends on how that reallocation is pursued," but the sheriff said he'd support funding the shelter for the moment "even if it all came out of overtime."
Shelter drew quick criticism
The plan to use the vacant wing of the detention center has drawn fervent opposition from some on the Left as well as the Right.
Napier, the Republican sheriff, noted that "too many people in my party say, 'just put them on the street.' That's not reasonable. It's not the humane thing to do, and not the safe thing to do. It's not acceptable."
"A lot of Republicans say that they're Christians," Napier said. "That's not the Christian faith that I recognize."
'Replacing bodies of jailed children with migrants'
Following the initial announcement that the county would use the juvenile detention center, activist Tiera Rainey 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 the week the plan was announced.
In an online 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.
Kozachik said that weekend that "we're not incarcerating our children. That whole mantra needs to stop."
"It's really quite offensive to people to be conflating (Border Patrol and ICE-run detention centers) with what people are going to be experiencing in the county facility," he said. "It's a dorm."
"The volunteers are the spirit of the place, not the walls," he said.
"My office used to be a police station, complete with detention rooms," Kozachik said after Monday's vote. "Nobody has objected when I welcomed refugees into our community room, and none of them were traumatized by being here."
Kozachik noted earlier that shelter organizers have been looking for a replacement facility since January.
CCS, Kozachik and others involved in the effort examined many sites, including "vacant schools, warehouses, community centers, the former Tucson Heart Hospital — every one of them has to check a lot of boxes."
Including the schools floated this week as potential sites, "every one has failed on multiple counts, except for the county facility," he said.
Kozachik elaborated on the list of needs for a shelter after Monday's vote, and said that the county will provide many of them under the arrangement.
"When I was up in the third-floor laundry room of the monastery last week there were two ladies up in that hot room doing laundry and folding sheets," he wrote in his weekly newsletter "Bless them. Nobody who is objecting to the move has done any of that. Nor have I heard them volunteer to take laundry home as so many of the current volunteers are doing."
Under the CCS/county deal, in addition to preparing meals and doing all the laundry, "building maintenance and custodial services are being taken care of by the county, and the county is paying for all utilities."
Bishop requested agreement
In a July 3 letter to county officials, Bishop Edward Weisenburger of the 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."
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."