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Trump admin blocks Pima County request to shift Stonegarden funds to migrant aid

Federal and state officials have rejected a request by Pima County to use part of an Operation Stonegarden grant for humanitarian aid, including funding for a migrant shelter hosted at a section of county's juvenile detention center, according to a memo issued Friday by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. 

Last May, the supervisors accepted the controversial Stonegarden grant, specifying that $200,000 of the $1.2 million in federal funds must be directed to humanitarian efforts here, including a condition that the grant must include "indirect costs" spent on aiding asylum seekers in April and May.

However, on Nov. 14, Arizona Department of Homeland Security officials rejected the plan, and Huckelberry sought an appeal to the decision, but as he wrote on December 26, "I have yet to receive a response to this request." 

"It is clear," Huckelberry wrote. that based on the response from the federal Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection that Operation Stonegarden funding is "poor and essentially nonexistent for local entities, perhaps other than the sheriff." 

The use of humanitarian aid from Stonegarden remained controversial over the summer. During a contentious meeting in July, members of the faith community and social-justice groups said that Stonegarden funding was "dirty money," arguing against the plan to use the county's juvenile detention center as shelter for migrants.

Huckelberry estimated back in July that the county could spend in the area of $1.5 million on the shelter for asylum-seekers and other programs for migrants next year.

In fiscal year 2019, which ran from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, nearly 852,000 people were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents, and of those nearly 65 percent were either families traveling with children, or children traveling with parents or guardians. Over the summer, the numbers of people seeking asylum peaked, and nearly 250,000 people were taken into custody in April and May, either by BP or by officials at U.S. ports. 

As immigration detention facilities filled, Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Enforcement officials began releasing families to the streets, often with little but their clothes, and "notices-to-appear" documents in hand. In Tucson, hundreds were dropped off at the Greyhound bus terminal on Broadway and Euclid Ave., prompting city and county officials to marshal resources to transport and shelter people throughout the county. 

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In a letter written by DHS officials, including Brian Hastings, the chief law enforcement officer with Border Patrol, and the head of grants at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Bridget Bean, the bid to reallocate these funds has "insufficient basis" for the reallocation of  the grant funds.

They also highlighted the county's previous refusal to accept Operation Stonegarden. 

"Pima County's reallocation  request to move operational funding to humanitarian aid does not establish an appropriate and prevalent border security risk for mitigation," they wrote. "A determination to convert" funds for the 2018 fiscal year, "for humanitarian relief contravenes border security operations" as Border Patrol priority, they wrote. 

They also wrote that while reviewing the requests, they took into consideration "the previous voluntary return of over $1.2 million in FY2017 operational funds by Pima County, which resulted in the loss of over 11,000  Operation Stonegarden-funded overtime hours." Huckleberry disputed this, writing in his own memo that the funds were not "not lost to border security; they were simply reallocated by the agency to other local agencies in Arizona." 

"As I recall, the biggest benefactor from this reallocation was the State of Arizona," he wrote. 

The decision puts the county, and Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, in a difficult position. 

Not only was the May decision to accept the Operation Stonegarden grant made with the condition that some of the funds would be allocated to humanitarian aid, but a few weeks later, the supervisors voted to help convert 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. 

Since the July decision, the Casa Alitas center has hosted thousands of people as they journey from the borderlands to the rest of the country, serving meals, and offering medical care in a space that was converted from hard concrete and metal cells to newly-painted and carpeted rooms, as well as a garden area and installed mosaics. 

Huckleberry said that the county spent about $400,000 "standing up the new facility," and with about $10,000 to $15,000 per month in operational costs, aiding about 3,500 people since July. 

In his memo, Huckleberry included a November 13 letter to U.S. Martha McSally asking for assistance, telling the Republican that "if not" for the county's decision "it is likely that a community shelter" for asylum seekers in Tucson would have closed and DHS agencies would "resume their past practice of releasing these people onto our streets." 

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The county, he said, had "acted in good faith" and applied for the federal grant, and he asked McSally to help. "It is clear that Border Patrol views [Stonegarden] funds as an exclusive funding domain for law enforcement," he complained. 

"We are now approaching eight months after we began the process to seek humanitarian aid and five months after we have begun incurring costs in providing a humanitarian shelter and processing site for asylum seekers," he wrote. "We have yet to hear any determination regarding our [Stonegarden] humanitarian aid request,"  Huckleberry wrote. "Based on these facts, it is clear that Border Patrol has an ideological bias against the provision of aid," using Stonegarden funds, he wrote. 

He said in an email that he had not received a response from McSally, and that U.S. Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick had a call with DHS officials who told her that the county "would not get any Stonegarden funding" for humanitarian aid. "Typical response from a non-responsive agency," Huckelberry wrote. 

TucsonSentinel.com requested comment from CBP about the refusal, but did not receive a response. 

He also added that the county continued to have other concerns about the grants, writing by email that the "lack of indirect expense reimbursement and long term pension obligations" means "local taxpayers are subsidizing the federal government through the Stonegarden program." 

"Based on these facts I will not recommend any acceptance of future Stonegarden funding," he said.

Shelter, other migrant aid could cost Pima County $1.5M in 2020

In July, Huckleberry said in a memo that the total for the final five months of this year would be about $530,000, and 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, including a $30 million program of border humanitarian aid grants created by Congress in November 2018. 

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 Mark Napier told TucsonSentinel.com before the July vote that he supported the plan to transform part of the juvenile center into a shelter, "even if it all came out of overtime." 

"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 in July. 

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."

The Republican sheriff said Saturday, responding to a request for comment about the federal rejection, that "Stonegarden is an operationally focused grant program. It was never intended to be a funding stream for humanitarian aid. However, as a brief stopgap measure the feds provided a path for applying for such aid from Stonegarden."

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"While we were in process, HB3401 was passed," Napier said. "Part of HB3401 has grant funding for humanitarian aid in it. Specifically, it had $30 million originally funded and there is about $20 million left. That is the appropriate place to request humanitarian aid.  I fully support it and have been clear about this all along. Stonegarden was not the right place to get this funding, HB3401 is.  I think the county will be successful in getting funding there."

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1 comment on this story

Dec 28, 2019, 3:09 pm
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You canít negotiate a deal that balances people who approve and disapprove of the political goals of a project, overspend the agreement and expect everyone to just say Ď hey, ok, I really didnít care about what I negotiated before.í  Thatís not how any of this works.

A deal is a deal. And spending more than the deal is on you.  There are hundreds of competing and honorable charities or uses for the money.  You simply cannot play this game using shaming and playing on emotions to try to scheme your way out.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry during the county's July meeting.


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