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Pima County to fund upfront costs of transporting asylum seekers to shelter
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Pima County to fund upfront costs of transporting asylum seekers to shelter

A member of the medical staff examines a girl, one of about 30 released from Border Patrol custody in the Ajo area and brought into Casa Alitas migrant welcome center, Tucson, Ariz., March 19, 2021

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to provide transportation for asylum seekers released by the Border Patrol to a shelter in Tucson.

At an emergency meeting Wednesday, the board voted 4-1 with Supervisor Steve Christy opposing to provide county-sponsored busing to migrants released in Pima County to the Casa Alitas Welcome Center in Tucson.

The center is run by Catholic Community Services out of a converted wing of Pima County’s juvenile detention center. The shelter there serves as a replacement for the former Benedictine Monastery on North Country Club Road that housed thousands of asylum seekers in 2019.

Most of the asylum seekers at the shelter are families from Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil and Ecuador, according to shelter staff. The shelter does not take in unaccompanied children. The families generally stay at the shelter for a few days while they arrange travel to cities throughout the country to live with sponsors as their immigration proceedings unfold.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse the county for transportation from border areas in Pima County to Tucson.

The county spent about $2,000 to transport 21 migrants to the Casa Alitas shelter in Tucson after the Border Patrol released them in Ajo last Friday, Huckelberry wrote in a memo to the supervisors.

Once the Border Patrol releases migrants crossing the border near Yuma and Ajo, the agency relies on nonprofits accepting asylum seekers to provide transportation. These nonprofits then turn to the county to transport migrants to their shelters.

On Tuesday, Huckelberry said Casa Alitas received 72 migrants, including some transported from Ajo and Yuma and some dropped off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

According to Huckelberry, communication with the Border Patrol in arranging transportation for migrants is subpar.

The notice from the Border Patrol that asylum seekers will be released is “relatively short” and “sometimes it’s significantly inaccurate” with regard to how many asylum seekers will be released, making it difficult to gauge how many buses are needed, Huckelberry said.

A 32-seat bus has a 15-person capacity due to coronavirus precautions, Huckelberry said. In his memo he noted the Border Patrol said 28 migrants would be released last Friday, but only 21 were actually released.

In April 2019, when more than 1,000 asylum seekers were released in Tucson in a matter of days, the Border Patrol transported them to emergency shelters at the El Pueblo Center and Kino Event Center. Both facilities are being used for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, Huckelberry said.

Huckelberry said Border Patrol officials say the agency no longer has the resources to transport migrants and that doing so violates the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from over-expending federal funds.

The Border Patrol will no longer transport migrants more than 35 miles from where they were apprehended, Huckelberry said.

“That’s why they’re releasing in Ajo. We expect the same thing to happen in the near future in Three Points,” Huckelberry said.

On Tuesday morning, more than 100 migrants surrendered to agents near Sasabe, the border town south of Three Points, according to Border Patrol officials. Most of them were from Guatemala, and more than 70 were unaccompanied minors. Agents gave them masks and transported them to Tucson for processing, Interim Sector Chief John R. Modlin said in a tweet Wednesday.

Last Wednesday, agents arrested more than 240 migrants in four separate encounters. Most of them were families or unaccompanied minors.

The Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector has seen a steady increase in apprehensions since April, including a spike from January to February. Statistics since March 1 are not yet available.

Most of the apprehensions in the Tucson Sector involved single adults, but migrants traveling as families more than doubled from about 400 in January to nearly 1,000 in February. The Yuma Sector saw an increase from 560 to 1,700, which prompted the Border Patrol to release certain migrants to aid groups.

Christy, the only supervisor opposing the motion, said transporting migrants should not be the county’s problem.

“The federal government should be the one driving this,” he said. “At very least, the NGOs and the social service entities, the faith-based community who are administering aid and shelter to the current asylum seekers, they should be the ones arranging the transportation; they should be the ones paying for the transportation.”

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva took the position that the county needs to intervene, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a situation that requires all of us to put political parties aside and understand that this is a health crisis,” she said. “We potentially can help mitigate by transporting people, by making sure we get them the services that they need.”

For now, the board has addressed the issue of transportation but will likely revisit reimbursement for housing costs in the future.

Huckelberry said the Border Patrol is warning of a “surge” of asylum seekers in the near future.

Under Title 42, a health order put in place by the Trump administration in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, agents quickly expelled hundreds of thousands of migrants to Mexico, rather than process and release them. The order remains in place, but could be rescinded by the Biden administration.

If Title 42 is lifted, the Border Patrol says the increase in migrants crossing the border could be four times what the county saw in 2019. Huckelberry said the cost could be $4 million over a six-month period for housing, food and shelter.

Reporter Curt Prendergast contributed to this story.

Contact Nicole Ludden at On Twitter: @nicolemludden

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Nicole joined the Star in 2021. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at ASU’s Cronkite school in 2020 and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, AC Press and Arizona Press Club.

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