The Trump administration has started busing asylum seekers back to Mexico through Texas, prompting what is expected to be an "immediate drop" in how many migrants are served at a shelter operated in Tucson.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesman confirmed news reports that asylum seekers in Arizona will be subject to the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as "Remain in Mexico." Under the new policy, asylum seekers who cross the border near Tucson will be first sent to El Paso and then Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, as they await their immigration court hearings.
Teresa Cavendish, director of the Casa Alitas shelter, said they became aware of the change Thursday night. While they'll continue to receive migrant families, they expect to see an "immediate drop" from 80 people arriving per day to about 30.
That number is based on the expectation that one bus of migrants, or about 50 people, will be driven to El Paso daily, she said. Later Friday, she said the shelter received fewer migrants than the last couple weeks, but that could also be attributable to bad weather that impeded border crossings.
"It is not a welcome development," Cavendish said. "Certainly the shelters in Tucson were more than capable of managing the folks who were released to us on a daily basis."
Rep. Ann Kirpatrick, D-Tucson, said Friday that she spoke with a local CBP official regarding the policy and was told that the details "are very fluid" and that the daily transportation count will depend on the amount of people who cross each day.
People currently housed at Casa Alitas are not among those that will be transported, she said. Other exceptions include women who are 6 months pregnant or more, families with kids aged 1 or younger, and physically vulnerable or disabled individuals.
"Our Tucson community has come to together to offer a humane response," she said. "Shelters like Casa Alitas have opened their doors and hearts to asylum seekers being processed. I believe local organizations and shelters have proved it possible to have an organized system for housing people in a humane and structured way — it doesn’t need to be cruel."
The new policy would mark a dramatic change for migrant families from Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries who cross the Arizona-Mexico border and seek asylum. Since they started crossing Arizona's border in large numbers last year, the Tucson community has rallied to take care of them for the few days they need to arrange travel to family and friends throughout the country. Those efforts unfolded largely at the former Benedictine Monastery on North Country Club Road and now at Casa Alitas in unused portions of the Pima County Juvenile Justice Center on East Ajo Way.
The Remain in Mexico policy went into effect in California and Texas at the start of this year, and has faced several legal challenges from immigration lawyers who have claimed the migrants had their rights violated by being forced to wait in unsafe condition in Mexico. The policy remains in place as officials wait a ruling from the Ninth Circuit.
The government has forced over 55,000 asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico. The migrants often wait in squalid camps, and many are kidnapped, robbed or extorted.
Kirkpatrick added that she's "heartbroken" that the policy was extended to her home district.
"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.”
News of the policy change came as a surprise to officials at Pima County, which pays for food and utilities at the Casa Alitas shelter.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said "we hadn't heard a thing" when he was contacted by a reporter Friday morning. He said it will be up to the board of supervisors to decide what to do next.
"If it does reduce the numbers, we will evaluate whether Casa Alitas will continue to remain open as a shelter for asylum seekers. If it doesn't, it will become a shelter for other emergencies," Huckelberry said. "My concern is we don't return to previous practice of releasing asylum seekers into the county, which is what started all this to begin with."
Supervisor Richard Elias, a Democrat, said he found out late Thursday when he saw the news articles as he was scrolling through his phone.
"It's shocking, it's horrible and its certainly not in line with the values we share here in Tucson," he said, adding that the policy change is ultimately "about scaring people."
He said "he's very sure" there will be some actions taken by the supervisors. They're scheduled to meet Dec. 3.
"These are people that have legitimate status here in the U.S.," Elias said. "These are not folks that deserve to be removed. We should protect people who belong here in the U.S."
In general, migrant families who cross the border in remote areas turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents and claim asylum. They are then processed and given a court date to hear their cases, which could be months later.
In the last fiscal year, which ended in September, the Tucson Sector saw 16,200 members of migrant families, according to CPB statistics. That was an increase from about 5,000 in the previous fiscal year.
In October, agents in the Tucson Sector saw nearly 2,400 members of migrant families at the border, mostly near Sasabe. The highest total was in the Rio Grande Sector in Texas, which saw roughly 2,900 members of family units last month.
In the early months of the year, large groups of migrant families surrendered to agents near Lukeville, a small border town 150 miles southwest of Tucson. In May, the crossing point shifted to Sasabe, a small border town between Nogales and the Tohono O'odham Reservation.
Last weekend, five groups of migrant families surrendered to agents near Sasabe, including one group that included 129 people, according to the Border Patrol.
The Casa Alitas shelter was opened Aug. 6 as a way to fill the need to temporarily house the families seeking asylum after they've been processed and released by Border Patrol and Immigrant and Customs Enforcement.
Huckelberry said last week that the shelter had housed a total of 3,418 migrants since it opened, with a steady flow of between 150 and 300 migrants per week, as of Nov. 13.
Huckelberry said this week the county has spent about $400,000 so far at Casa Alitas, including about $300,000 for improvements to the former juvenile detention facility and about $100,000 on operational expenses, below a $90,000-per-month projection when the initial project was approved.
The county received a $27,000 one-time FEMA grant that will be used to help cover those monthly costs, while an additional $1.5 million grant remains outstanding. The remaining funding is paid through the county’s facilities fund.
Pima County is also seeking help from Tucson’s congressional delegates regarding a request to use $200,000 in Operation Stonegarden funding to offset the costs. Huckelberry penned a letter to Arizona Sens. Martha McSally and Krysten Sinema, and U.S. Reps. Raul Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick and Tom O’Halleran last week that took aim at Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security.
“We ask for your direct assistance in resolving this unfair, unreasonable and incorrect interpretation of federal policy regarding the use of OPSG (Stonegarden) funding for humanitarian aid purposes, particularly since the 2018 OPSG funding period expires on December 31, 2019, or less than two months now,” Huckelberry wrote.
Border Patrol agent Pete Bidegain, a spokesman for the sector, told the Star in September that the migrants have come in groups of roughly 40 people, with some groups as large as 130 people. They're being dropped off about a two- or three-hour walk south of the border and walking across the border about 6 miles east of Sasabe.
Local officials with CBP referred questions about the new policy to the Department of Homeland Security, which has not responded.
“We see the same tactic out here that we saw in Lukeville where they utilize the family units to maneuver some of the other illegal traffic through the area," Bidegain said, standing at the spot on the border where migrant families cross.
"This area here, historically, has seen a lot of traffic," Bidegain said. "The other people that are crossing are generally single males, they’re dressed in carpet booties, camo head to toe, and they’re sneaking across the border. That’s happening in conjunction with the family units.”
The Kino Border Initiative, which runs a dining hall in Nogales, Arizona, for migrants, vehemently opposed the change in policy.
"Placing people in such precariousness and danger is unacceptable under any circumstance, but it is particularly egregious when services exist in the region to provide hospitality and welcome to asylum-seekers and migrants," the group said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.