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Supervisors approve deal to put migrant families in juvenile detention center

Supervisors approve deal to put migrant families in juvenile detention center

A divided Pima County Board of Supervisors agreed Monday to a deal with Catholic Community Services allowing the nonprofit to use a portion of the juvenile detention facility to temporarily house migrant families.

The decision came after nearly two hours of public comments, with speakers largely split on whether the county should allow migrant families in Tucson to be housed inside an active detention facility.

Monday’s emergency board meeting was prompted by a request from the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Edward Weisenburger.

He asked Pima County to lease out the detention center before the former Benedictine Monastery in midtown, where families stay now, is converted into residential and retail space.

The cost to the county to convert the detention facility and house migrant families for the next five months is estimated to be $530,000. County officials are seeking at least three federal grants to fully cover the costs.

Officials had been talking about charging Catholic Community Services a $100 annual lease, but decided instead to offer a cooperative agreement with no fee.

The vote Monday fell along party lines. Democrats Sharon Bronson, Richard Elías and Ramón Valadez voted for the yearlong contract, which has options to lease the facility for a longer period.

Republicans Steve Christy and Ally Miller both said they could not support the agreement.

The plan has drawn fire from critics opposed to spending public dollars on assisting migrant families, and from others who object to the optics of migrant families staying inside a former detention facility.

County employees have been working around the clock to make the unused portions of the juvenile detention center more welcoming to families, by removing locks on doors, covering surveillance cameras and painting colorful murals.

Critics of the plan to use the three pods of the detention center pleaded with the supervisors to back an alternative that would house migrants in a sprawling network of churches, many of which have been quietly housing migrant families this year.

Gretchen López, coordinator with the Inn Project, said she has been part of the community response to the need to temporarily shelter migrant families for nearly two and a half years.

She argued that there were alternatives to the detention center, noting many churches — including hers — have been housing migrant families for years and could handle more when the Benedictine Monastery closes.

“It is a false narrative that the two options are to approve this space or they will be on the streets,” López said. “With a no vote, it does not mean that the families will be left on the streets. Tucson will not let that happen. I will not let that happen.”

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner of the United Methodist Church on the University of Arizona campus told the supervisors there is a stark difference between where the migrant families would stay in local churches and the detention center.

“Yesterday, I spent most of my day at the Inn, which is where I spend most of my time,” Adair Bonner said. “I watched a mother prepare food for her daughter, I watched a father go out and walk freely up the street to go to the CVS to get a Coca-Cola.”

“I watched all the things I will lose if you move this to a jail,” she said.

Dr. Stephen Thompson told the supervisors that he and his wife, who is also a medical doctor, support the move to the detention center. Both volunteer at the monastery.

A centralized location ensures every migrant receives a medical screening and the same access to care, he said.

“There is a practical reason for this. The care that is provided is all done by volunteers,” Thompson said. “Distributing this health care to other locations — even temporarily — would be extremely disruptive to the process and make it essentially impossible to achieve to the level provided at this point.”

Valadez and Elías encouraged those in the audience unhappy with their decision to find an alternative location, noting that the cooperative agreement can be easily canceled with 30 days notice.

Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at or 573-4197. On Twitter: @JoeFerguson

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Joe has been with the Star for six years. He covers politics as well as the city of Tucson and other municipalities in Southern Arizona. He graduated from the UA and previously worked for the Arizona Daily Sun.

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