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Pima County expects to aid 12,000 asylum-seekers in 2020; continues to seek federal funding

Monthly shelter operation costing about 50% of July projections

Pima County officials expect to aid around 12,000 asylum seekers in the coming year, and are seeking more than $1 million in federal funding to "compensate" the county for the costs of a migrant shelter set up in an unused wing of the county's Juvenile Detention Center.

The operating costs of the shelter are running about half of the monthly expense forecast in July, officials said.

Pima County aided nearly 20,000 asylum-seekers in 2019 after they released by federal officials, and this has continued despite the implementation in Arizona of the Migrant Protection Protocols—a highly controversial program that requires Central Americans to wait for months in Mexico while their asylum status remains in limbo. 

In a memo to the Board of Supervisors, County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry said in 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released 15,014 people in Pima County, and Border Patrol released another 4,547 in the Tucson area.

In July, Huckelberry had forecast that the county's support of the shelter could cost up to $100,000 each month — with a $1.5 million bill expected for 2020. The county had planned on federal funding to support that effort.

But last week, Huckleberry announced that federal officials had denied the county's application to shift funding from Operation Stonegarden, a border-enforcement grant program managed by FEMA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol's parent agency.

The current level of shelter operation is costing about $50,000 per month, the county administrator said. The decrease in expenses is mostly due to food service costs being significantly lower than the July projections, he told the supervisors.

Asylum-seekers released to streets by feds

As federal officials struggled with the increasing number of people seeking asylum in the United States, both ICE and Border Patrol began releasing people directly to the streets of border communities. The move prompted Yuma's mayor to declare an emergency in mid-April, and throughout the summer, both agencies continued to release large numbers of people, often with little notice to local officials and nonprofit aid organizations. 

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In Tucson, a network of churches and nonprofits began setting up ad-hoc shelters, hosting asylum-seeking families in church sanctuaries and basements, and as the numbers increased, Catholic Community Services began using a former Benedictine monastery as a shelter in Midtown Tucson. However, by mid-June, it became clear that the aging monastery plumbing and infrastructure was not designed to handle the numbers of people, and CCS faced a looming deadline to leave the building by August, as part of deal made Ross Rulney, the developer who had purchased the property months earlier. 

The deadline prompted city and county officials to seek a new central shelter for asylum seekers, landing on a vacant section of the county's Juvenile Detention Center, which began operating as a shelter in August. 

In his memo, Huckleberry noted that the Benedictine Monastery had handled 7,915 people, while the new Casa Alitas facility at the Juvenile Detention Center has handled nearly 5,000 people since its opening in August. This was followed by Rincon Congregational Church United Church of Christ, which has helped around 1,000 people during the same period. 

In May, the number of people taken into custody by Border Patrol peaked at nearly 133,000 people, and of those nearly 73 percent were either families traveling with children, or children traveling without a parent or guardian—called "unaccompanied children" by federal officials. 

From Dec. 21, 2018 to August 12, 2019, ICE released 222,200 people to four "areas of responsibility" along the southwestern border—described by ICE as the San Diego, Phoenix, San Antonio and El Paso AORs. In the Phoenix area, which includes Tucson, ICE released around 41,600 people, said Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman. 

Families released by either agency have legal status in the country, and can remain in the United States as they pursue their asylum claims after successfully convincing federal officials that they credibly fear returning to their home countries. Most are families from three Central American countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and are fleeing violence and poverty, however, people from Venezuela, Cuba, and India have also successfully sought asylum. 

This has continued even as the Trump administration has moved aggressively to shutter the United States from asylum-seekers, largely by the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocol. Originally announced as the Remain in Mexico policy in December 2018 by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen—one of two DHS heads ousted as the president fulminated against the rising increase of asylum-seekers—the program immediately began sending asylum seekers back to Mexico, often to wait several months before their claims could be heard. 

In Arizona, federal officials have not implemented MPP to the neighboring border cities of San Luis, Nogales, or Agua Prieta, preferring instead to ship those claiming asylum to port cities across from either California or Texas, with the largest share of asylum-seekers waiting in frozen tent cities in Juarez, just across from El Paso, Texas. 

However, in late-November, CBP announced that it was "implementing" MPP for a group of Venezuelan asylum-seekers, who attempted to cross into Nogales, Ariz., in cars. 

That move was widely criticized by U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Ann Kirkpatrick. 

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In a statement, Kirkpatrick said that she was "heartbroken to learn that the MPP will now be implemented in Tucson." 

"I believe it is morally wrong and violates domestic and international law," she said. "I wait anxiously for the Ninth Circuit ruling of whether or not MPP is legal, and in the meantime, my staff are working with local groups and making call to see if there is anything else we can do to fight this."

She said that CBP officials told her the new policy was still "very fluid" and that the transportation of people from Tucson to El Paso "will depend on the amount of people who cross each day."

Kirkpatrick said that women who are six months pregnant or more, families with children under a year, and people who are "physically vulnerable or disabled" will not be sent to El Paso. 

"The expansion of 'Remain in Mexico' will exacerbate the already dire conditions of vulnerable asylum-seeking families fleeing violence in their home countries,"said Grijalva. "This is yet another example of how the Trump-Stephen Miller anti-immigrant agenda is putting migrant families at risk and denying them the safety they so desperately need. We have a legal obligation under both national and international law to allow asylum seekers to pursue their cases in the United States. The expansion of this policy exposes them to more violence and makes a mockery of the asylum process as we know it."

A report from Human Rights First said that there were 636 violent attacks on asylum seekers returned to Mexico, with close to half of those incidents coming in just the last two months.

While numbers have fallen dramatically since the summer, federal officials are still taking people into custody. In November, Border Patrol said that around 33,500 people were picked up along the southwestern border, including about 9,000 people traveling as families and around 3,300 unaccompanied children. 

Meanwhile, in El Paso, CBP said this week that a pilot program for quickly processing asylum seekers had been green-lit. 

Beginning in October, CBP began the Prompt Asylum Claim Review, or PACR in October, as part of what federal officials called a "whole of government approach" to quickly fast-track the processing of migrant men and families, while maintaining "protections and due process." 

However, immigration lawyers and advocates have said the policy denies asylum-seekers due process, and restricts access to attorneys. 

ICE has released around 2,900 people from custody in the last two weeks of December, including around 1,050 in the Phoenix area. In the last seven days, the Phoenix area received around 430 people, just slightly behind the El Paso area, which received around 450 people, said Pitts-O'Keefe.

500 at Pima shelter in one Dec. week, Stonegarden shift denied

Huckleberry said that "in one week alone," over 500 people came to the Casa Alitas shelter in December. 

Huckleberry said that the county expects to manage around 12,000 asylum seekers at the county's facility next year, and said that  he would seek around $1 million in federal funding from the "second round" of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, a federally-funded program managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. 

Last week, Huckleberry announced that federal officials had denied the county's application to funding from Operation Stonegarden, a border enforcement grant program managed by FEMA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol's parent agency. 

In his memo Monday, Huckleberry said it was "unfortunate" that U.S. Border Patrol and ICE did not approve the request, noting that the county's request for $200,000 "represented one percent of the total [Stonegarden] funding dedicated to border security." 

Previously, the county's Board of 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." 

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"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. County officials estimated in July that the county would spend about $94,500 per month to manage the facility, with another $57,000 on immediate costs to modify the building. 

The county spent about $400,000 on "standing up the new facility," Huckleberry wrote, and the county spends about $50,000 per month, which includes around $10,000 to $15,000 in "operational" or fixed costs at the building. 

Much of the difference is because Casa Alitas is not using all of the food services available at the detention center, he said. 

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2 comments on this story

Jan 2, 2020, 5:30 pm
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I agree. If you want to help law breakers, that should be on you not tax payers from other states

Jan 1, 2020, 8:39 am
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Please stop using our tax dollars on foreign nations,  Is that even legal?

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A protest against the implementation of the 'Migrant Protection Protocols' in Tucson on Dec. 16, 2019.


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