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Feds deny county's request to shift funds to Tucson migrant shelter
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Feds deny county's request to shift funds to Tucson migrant shelter

Federal officials have notified Pima County that their request to use a portion of Operation Stonegarden funding to operate the Casa Alitas migrant shelter was denied after they determined “there is no border security operational benefit.”

The decision was disclosed in a Nov. 14 letter from Brian Hastings, chief of law enforcement at the U.S. Border Patrol, and Bridget Bean, assistant administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who wrote to Arizona Department of Homeland Security assistant director Susan Dzbanko that there was an “insufficient basis” to reallocate funds, based on a Border Patrol risk analysis for Pima County.

“No change in relevant risk/threat has been provided to support reprioritization as delineated in this reallocation request as a border security requirement. USBP has determined there is no border security operational benefit derived from this reallocation request,” Hastings and Bean wrote in the letter, which was forwarded to Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier and two other Sheriff’s Department employees.

The existence of the denial letter was revealed Thursday in a memo from Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who wrote that Napier notified him of the letter on Dec. 10. Huckelberry had publicly maintained that the county was awaiting a decision from the federal government after the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted in May to resume accepting the grant to allow $200,000 for the shelter, which opened weeks later in the county’s juvenile jail facility.

“It’s pretty disappointing that somebody would think that humanitarian aid that was provided for in the law and in the policy would somehow diminish border security,” Huckelberry told the Star on Friday, adding that he’ll “reassess with the board where this will go.”

Huckelberry told the Star that the county has spent roughly $500,000 at the shelter, which had housed just under 5,000 migrants seeking asylum as of earlier this month since it opened in early August. The bulk of that amount — $300,000 — was spent on improvements to the facility, while the county has come in under budget on operational expenses, he said. The county did receive a $27,000 one-time FEMA grant to offset some of those costs, with the remaining funding coming from the county’s facilities fund.

While the county still has yet to incur the majority of the costs, Huckelberry said “we have no plans to do anything about Casa Alitas.”

“We’re going to keep it open and continue to apply for grant funds,” he said.

Huckelberry had previously maintained that the county has been waiting for a decision, penning a letter to Tucson’s congressional delegates on Nov. 13 that took aim at both the Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol, saying the former’s policies regarding migrants seeking asylum have “severely taxed the resources of this community.” The denial letter, which was dated one day after Huckelberry’s message to the congressional delegates, detailed reasons the request was denied, including that “reducing the available operation funding during this critical time will be detrimental to the security efforts along the southwest border.”

Hastings and Bean also alluded to the county’s previous decision to voluntarily return over $1.2 million in Stonegarden Funding, which they argued “resulted in the loss of over 11,000 Operation Stonegarden hours.”

Huckelberry provided a counter to those arguments in his memo, arguing that a surge of asylum seekers in Pima County that overwhelmed the Border Patrol and prompted the request from the supervisors is “an appropriate border security risk for mitigation.” He criticized officials for not contacting the supervisors directly regarding the denial.

“It is clear, communication from Federal Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection regarding OPSG funding is poor and essentially nonexistent for local entities, perhaps other than the sheriff,” he wrote, adding that it’s the federal government’s “prerogative to do so unilaterally without appeal.”

A representative from the Arizona Department of Homeland Security referred questions to representatives from the Border Patrol and Federal Emergency Management Association, who did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.com or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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