Further federal funding averts street releases in Pima, Cochise, and Santa Cruz counties

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Casa Alitas

Further federal funding averts street releases in Pima, Cochise, and Santa Cruz counties

PIMA COUNTY March 26, 2024 – Pima County will continue to support the coalition of agencies providing temporary sheltering and transportation assistance to legally processed asylum seekers (LPAS) released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies in Pima, Santa Cruz, and Cochise counties, averting street releases that would have begun April. 1

Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher today told the Board of Supervisors in a memorandum that she had assurances from federal authorities that sufficient funding to continue sheltering operations was included in the budget package signed by President Biden March 23. Lesher directed County departments to renew or extend the contracts necessary to keep the coalition going after March 31. The three counties, and the cities of Tucson, Nogales, and Douglas had been preparing for street releases April 1 due to the depletion of federal funds that were provided to the County in 2023. The County had intended to cease its support March 31 due to exhaustion of federal funding.

Pima County and Tucson elected leaders have insisted that immigration is a federal issue that requires federal funding. Both governments have said trying to absorb the costs of sheltering would be ruinous to their budgets and local services. Pima County has been serving the coalition as the fiscal agent for federal reimbursement funds since 2020. The county contracts with providers for most of the services necessary to shelter, feed, and transport asylum seekers. 

Without the federal funding, the affected border communities were preparing for hundreds of asylum seekers being released each day, potentially creating humanitarian crises in each city as the temperature heats up and asylum seekers struggle to find shelter, food, and transportation on their own. In Tucson, Border Patrol planned to release as many as 400 people a day at the Greyhound Bus Terminal near Park Avenue and Broadway Boulevard. 

“I am immensely relieved that this new federal funding will continue to protect and assist asylum seekers following the legal process while they wait for their immigration court hearings,” said Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Adelita S. Grijalva. “It will prevent hundreds of people a day from struggling to find the resources to travel on to their families and sponsors in other cities, and protects our community, ensuring safety for everyone. However, this is not a solution to the problem, it’s only treating a symptom. When this money runs out, we could be facing in a few months the crisis we just averted.”

The Department of Homeland Security received $650 million for sheltering services in the funding package approved by the Congress. Lesher had told the Board that the minimum amount the County could accept is $12 million, which would fund the sheltering operation for three months or longer.  

The cost of sheltering services rises with the volume of LPAS released by Border Patrol. In 2022 and the first half of 2023, the sheltering costs per week, or burn rate, ranged from $300,000 to $500,000. But during the end of 2023, U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector became the busiest crossing point on the U.S. – Mexico border with more than 250,000 people encountered by Border Patrol between September and January.  The sheltering coalition assisted nearly 40,000 people in December alone, raising the burn rate to $1 million a week. During that time, Border Patrol was releasing an average of 1,300 people a day. Since 2019, the County has received more than $77 million in federal funds for this effort, which is a little less than $300,000 a week.

Over the past two weeks, Border Patrol has been releasing between 550 and 650 people a day. But since 2021, border migration has trended to lessen in the winter and then slowly increase month-over-month with peaks and surges occurring in the fall, which makes it difficult to predict how long the new federal funds might last.

Lesher told the Board in the memo that she also has instructed County staff to continue to find savings in sheltering and transportation costs to make the funding last as long as possible.

“I am relieved that Pima County can continue supporting the coalition of agencies providing temporary sheltering and transportation assistance to legally processed asylum seekers in Pima, Santa Cruz, and Cochise Counties," said Governor Katie Hobbs. "This federal funding ensures the continuation of vital operations to maintain a safe, secure, and humane border.”

“I extend my sincere thanks to Senators Kelly and Sinema, and members of Arizona’s congressional delegation for their steadfast advocacy in securing this critical funding. From the beginning, I've remained committed to prioritizing practical solutions over political gamesmanship in addressing the border crisis, and today, that commitment is delivering results,” the governor said. “Moving forward, I will continue working closely with our federal partners to ensure the swift distribution of these funds to support Arizona’s border communities, safeguarding the safety and security of our families while fighting to prevent unmitigated street releases. Additionally, I will continue to direct DEMA to provide necessary transportation resources to these communities, helping to prevent street releases and alleviate pressure on local services.”

Pima County and the City of Tucson since 2019 have been assisting Catholic Community Services’ Casa Alitas shelter, and other charitable organizations, in the temporary sheltering and transportation assistance of asylum seekers released by CBP agencies in Pima County.  In 2021, the County agreed to also assist Santa Cruz and Cochise County by transporting releases in those counties to Casa Alitas. The effort has grown into a coalition of governments that include the three Tucson Sector border counties, Tucson, the state of Arizona, Border Patrol, and numerous shelter agencies from Nogales to Phoenix.

Gov. Hobbs in 2022 assisted the County with $3.1 million in state funds to help purchase a former call center on Drexel Road that was converted into a 650-bed shelter. The Drexel shelter is now the primary LPAS assistance center for the coalition.

CBP agencies have released more than 420,000 asylum seekers to the shelter coalition since 2019 and all but about 100 were given shelter and travel assistance to other parts of the country. Besides federal funds, the state pays for and coordinates long distance transportation, and the County Health Department is using a state grant to pay for medical screening services.