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Kozachik: Compassion must guide vote on Pima County migrant shelter

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Kozachik: Compassion must guide vote on Pima County migrant shelter

  • A look inside one of the vacant wings of the Pima Juvenile Center that's planned to be turned into a shelter for asylum-seekers, during a press tour on Wednesday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA look inside one of the vacant wings of the Pima Juvenile Center that's planned to be turned into a shelter for asylum-seekers, during a press tour on Wednesday.

On Monday, the Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote on a cooperative agreement with Catholic Community Services, to facilitate moving the shelter for asylum-seekers to an empty section of the Pima County Juvenile Complex.

The agreement recognizes that CCS is, and has been, providing a significant service to the community. For the past five years I have worked alongside their staff and hundreds of volunteers who have met the needs of refugee, asylum-seeking men, women and children as they move through our community. The Board of Supervisors has an opportunity to acknowledge the service CCS has been providing and in fact play a positive role in furthering their work.

On Friday, Supervisor Ally Miller penned a position paper on the upcoming vote. In it she states that if the supervisors don’t act, it places the safety and well-being of the refugees at risk, and potentially creates a public safety issue. She is absolutely correct. Miller goes on to say that this is a federal issue and that our federal delegation has failed to act. Again, I am in complete agreement with her sentiment. Supervisor Steve Christy is quoted as having wondered "when did this become our responsibility?"

The answer is simple. The issue becomes our responsibility as soon as a young child and his single mom arrive on our doorstep. Fighting about "who pays" has got to take a back seat to the immediacy of taking care of the people who have been, and will continue to be dropped off in Tucson.

Related: Pima County seeks to redirect $100K/mo in Stonegarden funds to migrant shelter

Ally asks a series of questions related to costs. What will the services cost? Will the taxpayers be reimbursed? Shouldn’t we be charging fair market value? Who pays for medical services? Certainly we should be keeping a record of costs, and certainly we should be fighting for full reimbursement. That is exactly the point of the humanitarian aid applications being prepared by both the county and by the city. And yet, while those efforts are in play, the immediate issue is how we are going to take care of the people who need our care.

Since January we have processed over 12,000 people through the Benedictine Monastery. Every one of them is here legally, having been processed by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They are delivered to the care of CCS with instructions to present themselves to an assigned judge within 15 days. Our work at the monastery has been getting them fed, clothed, housed, taking care of medical needs and connecting them with next-of-kin or their sponsor. We make sure they have bus tickets, and ultimately get them on the bus and headed to their family or sponsor. The refugees are in our care for 2-3 days as the arrangements are made.

It is that array of services CCS is providing to the community. They are uniquely qualified to continue doing so. All they need is a facility. They will manage the rest. It is that facility the supervisors’ cooperative agreement is going to address.

Many of us have been looking for a suitable facility since the start of the year. We knew the Benedictine would become unavailable in the early fall. The deadline is August 1. That is the reason the vote on Monday comes with a sense of urgency. Once the monastery is unavailable, the option is having Border Patrol release refugees on the street at the Greyhound bus station. Without a new shelter, Catholic Community Services, along with the partner faith groups who have participated in this operation, simply does not have the capacity to house the number of people who have, and who will continue to be brought into our community by CBP and ICE.

What do we need in a new facility? It will require a capacity of at least 300 people. It must be available for an extended period of time. It must be available every day, all day, not simply when other programmatic obligations of the host site allow. We need cooking facilities, food storage and food service areas. We receive donations from throughout the community – storage capability for those donated items must be provided. There must be room for the guests to sleep. We need laundry facilities, showers and rest rooms. The facility must have internet capability and the ability to make phone contact with next-of-kin. It needs to be close to the Greyhound depot. Activity areas for the people, indoors and out. And we’ve had art and music – those are "nice-to-haves," but given the traumatic conditions and grief the people we’re taking care of have experienced, those amenities make the space a true welcoming place of respite.

The issue the Board of Supervisors will vote on is not about "what if we don’t get funding." The issue is real, and it is present in our community. It has been for five years, it has been at a significantly increased level for the past seven months. And it is not going away anytime soon. Miller states in her newsletter  that"the issue" has to do with making sure the taxpayers are reimbursed. 

Pima supervisors to hold special meeting on migrant shelter at juvie center

That’s not at all what "the issue" is. That’s a battle we need to fight, but the issue is our response as a community to the real human needs we are seeing.

Nobody has brought forward a solution that addresses the magnitude and many moving parts this issue has presented us with. While Congress and the president have used this real human suffering as political fodder, Catholic Community Services and hundreds of volunteers have been shouldering the load for years. Throughout we have been committed to the reality that "street releases" are not an option. That is the result if the supervisors do not approve the cooperative agreement.

All of the questions related to funding are important. But the superior principle is compassion. That must guide the vote, and if it does we’ll see the cooperative agreement approved 5-0, to the great credit of the county's governing body.

Steve Kozachik represents Ward 6 on the Tucson City Council. Contact him at at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or (520) 791-4601.

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