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Pima County shelter opens doors to 400 legal asylum-seekers

After weeks of controversy, a shelter for asylum-seekers quietly opened its doors two weeks ago and has hosted about 400 people, said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry and shelter managers.

The Casa Alitas shelter, part of the nonprofit group Catholic Community Services, is operating in a renovated section of the county's Juvenile Detention Center after moving from the former Benedictine Monastery as part of a deal underwritten by the county. 

In a memo to the county Board of Supervisors written last week, Huckleberry said that the facility received 246 legal asylum seekers in that first week's time, and that the former juvenile detention center had been "significantly remodeled."

From the end of October to the end of July, CCS helped 14,555 people, and they had another 150 "guests" at the shelter this week, said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for the nonprofit agency.

Over the first half of the year, CCS aided more than 10,000 legal migrants at the monastery in Midtown Tucson with support from an army of volunteers and help from city and county officials. The shelter acted as respite for families who sought asylum in the United States after traveling through Mexico, and were processed and released by immigration officials at U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

However, as part of an agreement with the property's owner — who plans to develop the historic building on North Country Club Road — the shelter agreed that it would vacate the space by July 26. With that deadline approaching, city and county officials began seeking out a new shelter for the agency, and finally settled on the juvenile facility, part of the Pima County Juvenile Court Center complex, 2225 E. Ajo Way. The monastery developer agreed to push back the deadline to the first week of August to allow for some remodeling of the new shelter.

The people who stay at the new shelter are mostly families — nearly all from three Central American countries — who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum, and will be traveling to live with 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 or ICE, the migrants at the Casa Alitas shelter are not being detained; they've already been reviewed and released by the feds. 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.

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The migrants all have legal status in the United States while their cases are ongoing.

Like the monastery, the new facility serves as a waypoint for migrant families, offering medical triage, food, travel arrangements, and a place to sleep before they travel further. 

As part of the deal, CCS took over three vacant units that can accommodate up to 300 people, and county officials agreed to 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. As part of the "cooperative agreement," between the county and Catholic Community Services, the county is funding the shelter for about $530,000 for the remaining part of the year. 

This includes $57,000 in immediate upgrades and remodeling, as well as $100,000 per month for operating costs through the end of the year. 

The county agreed to spend about $57,000 for facility remodeling, including disabling surveillance cameras, removing a basketball hoop, fixing up showers, and adding wall openings, with the largest sum of $25,000 spent on for paving a bus turnaround for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol vehicles.

The county also agreed to spend about $65,400 per month for food service and cooks, along with $11,000 per month in janitorial services, about $8,300 in utilities, another $5,200 per month in maintenance, and $1,663 per month for laundry services. However, Huckelberry has said that food costs could be lowered if CCS uses volunteers to prepare bag lunches, instead of certified county food workers using the center's kitchen

As the project moved forward, it become a focal point of controversy, as advocates argued 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. 

Backers of the proposal emphasized that the center is "a vacant dorm" and that "this is not a jail" to detain families seeking asylum. 

That controversy came to a head on July 22, when the Board of Supervisors voted on a 3-2 party line to approve the deal, but not before hearing dissension over the plan from other groups that work with migrants. 

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. 

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From December 21, 2018 to August 12, 2019, officials with ICE have released 222,000 people, including around 41,600 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.

By May, the number of people traveling as families and picked up by Border Patrol spiked at 84,452, before declining 32 percent in June, and another 25 percent in July to 42,566. Trump administration officials argued the decline was due to new arrangements with Mexico and Guatemala, but the decline also follows seasonal shifts in migration along the U.S.-Mexico border over the last decade, leaving it an open question whether the shelter will be needed by the end of the year.  

As county officials moved forward on the renovations, Huckleberry also told the board that a request for more than $600,000 in humanitarian aid funding through Operation Stonegarden was approved by the Pima County body that oversees the law enforcement grant. 

Huckleberry said in meeting on July 30, members of the Pima County Integrated Planning Team for Operation Stonegarden, which includes local law enforcement and U.S. Border Patrol agents, approved the county's request for $530,346 for "humanitarian aid," as well as a complementary request from the city for $70,000. 

This is an "important first step" in receiving funding from the federal government to support the Casa Alitas shelter, Huckleberry wrote. The funding still needs to go through Border Patrol headquarters, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for approval, Huckleberry wrote, adding that he was "hopeful" that the last two approvals would be completed before the end of August. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

An interior view of part of the Casa Alitas shelter before remodeling began.

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