As Lesher pushes to 'wind down' migrant shelters, Pima County Supes seek one more federal grant

Pima County will seek additional federal dollars to shelter asylum seekers through next year, however County Administrator Jan Lesher urged the Board of Supervisors to wind down shelter operations and face “the
reality and inevitability of street releases” next year.

In a memo to the supervisors on Monday, Lesher said while the federal government has put up more than $340 million in additional funds to shelter asylum seekers in competitive grants, the county should not apply and should “continue plans to smoothly transition out of the current role of fiscal agent at the end of the current grant period.”

“Every other border community in the country has come to terms with the
reality and inevitability of street releases,” Lesher wrote. “Pima County and our
sheltering coalition partners have staved off this reality for more than
60 months.”

“After December, it may be time for our community to face the
same reality as the others and switch efforts to managing the effects
of street releases rather than suffer the enormous effort and
substantial funding needed to prevent them,” she wrote.

During the board meeting on Tuesday, Lesher said the county should
“transition out of the business” of sheltering asylum seekers. She added the county should allow
the grant to pass without applying for the next “tranche” of
funding.  The new federal dollars are highly competitive and
unlike previous federal grants are open to communities across the U.S.,
including New York City and Boston, Lesher said.

She added the county should continue to spend around $22 million through the end of the year. “It is not our desire to simply drop the baton on the ground, but to make sure that we have the next several months to pass the baton.”

“We remain the only jurisdiction we believe in the United States that has not seen street release,” she said. “And our goal, our number-one goal is to make sure that we do not have street releases.”

Supervisors Matt
Heinz and Adelita Grijlava argued the county should pursue the latest
round of funding and submit materials before the deadline on June 13. However, Supervisor Steve Christy — who has long opposed the county’s involvement
in sheltering asylum seekers — argued continuing to seek federal funds was “prolonging the inevitable.”

Only county without street releases

Over the last five years, Pima County has received $98 million in
federal dollars to shelter 473,929 people as part of a partnership with
Catholic Community Services in Tucson. The program sought to avoid
“street releases” of migrants after they are processed and released by
U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Since last September, the
effort—aided by state emergency managers—also helped transport thousands
of people dropped off by CBP in Cochise and Santa Cruz counties, relieving pressure to the smaller counties.

In her memo, Lesher said the temporary sheltering and travel assistance has “moved beyond
the temporary crisis Pima County stepped in to assist with more
than five years ago.” 

“It has become a chronic situation in which other
governments have benefited from the county’s continued role as fiscal
agent for sheltering” migrant released by CBP, she said. “It is possible that those governments
have begun to assume and perhaps take for granted that Pima County will
continue applying for these funds and serving as the fiscal agent and
sheltering coordinator for as long as necessary.” 

Last September, Pima County was praised for efforts to mitigate street releases and “doing the heavy lifting” to manage grants, logistics and shelters.

As
federal funding dried up earlier this year, Lesher warned of
“homelessness on steroids” when hundreds of asylum seekers, including
families with children, would end up on Tucson’s streets without any
place to go. The county began winding down contracts to feed and care
for people after they are released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection
pending their asylum cases and officials prepared for a possibility
that as many as 400 people would be left at the Greyhound Bus Terminal just outside Downtown. 

However,
with the deadline just days away, Congress passed a spending bill that
including nearly $650 million for the Shelter and Services Program,
which is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The county was given nearly $22 million and Lesher estimated the funds would carry through the year.

“We are the only community that has not had any significant street releases, so we’ve done a really well,” Heinz said.

Heinz said the choice to forgo the next grant could not be undone, and he worried about how the county would be affected by the Biden administration’s move Tuesday to make it harder for migrants to seek asylum.

Biden moved to suspend asylum requests at
the U.S.-Mexico border when daily unauthorized crossings pass 2,500
people. The changes mean people who cross the border without
authorization will be ineligible for asylum and will be removed. While
people can request protection, the standard for requesting protection
was raised to a higher bar.

Meanwhile, the changes could also
mean a return to deportations of families with children, and vulnerable
adults to remote towns like Naco and Sonoyta, which was largely limited
as part of an agreement with officials in Mexico.

“So I know the recommendation is not to do this, but I think we shouldn’t leave any dollars on the table,” Heinz said. He also noted the governor’s office has agreed to become the fiscal
agent—guiding grant requests and allocating funding—for Maricopa and
Yuma County.

Grijalva said the county should apply and then make the decision to accept the funds or not.

“If we don’t at least put in for these funds, we’re still in this limbo, when do we cut off services?” she said. “It’s a safety issue and we have to be responsible. If things change at the border, then we can make a decision of whether or not we accept the funds.”

‘Wind down and ramp up’

Lesher reiterated her criticism of the federal grant system. 

Last fall, Lesher told the Tucson City Council that the county burned through up to $4 million per month, and she criticized how the federal government funding its shelter programs, arguing that funding arrived in just-in-time “tranches” from the federal government. This system, she said, was similar to throwing a coat over a mud puddle as the county continued to the next. “And, that’s not the way to handle this,” she said.

On Tuesday, Lesher said the county has been forced to “wind down and ramp up, and lay down and ramp up” shelter operations.

She later told Tucson Sentinel that state officials are working to manage the grants for Maricopa and Yuma counties, leaving Pima County — and partners in Santa Cruz and Cochise counties — on their own. “And then my greater concern is with the feds, we look like we’re competing against ourselves.” 

She added the county won’t know until October if the next “tranche” of money is coming.

In her memo, Lesher reminded the board the federal grant system only allows governments and nonprofits to serve as fiscal agents, which “severely limits the pool of available agencies that can apply for these funds.”

“Across the country and especially in the border states,” nonprofit organizations are “exhausted by the relentlessness of this problem over the past four years, and they have been pulling back from their willingness to serve as fiscal agents, or to provide assistance,” she said, adding the largest nonprofits are reducing operations or ceasing their involvement.

From May 9 to May 15, federal officials handed off 3,577 people, including 842 families traveling with children to Casa Alitas shelters. This includes people who arrived at U.S. ports and requested asylum under U.S and international law, as well as people who crossed the deserts along the U.S.-Mexico border and requested asylum.

Around 1,949 people were hosted at the facility on Drexel Road, while around 660 were sheltered at the Casa Alitas Welcome Center. Just under two dozen people were sheltered at hotels that provided “rooms as needed”

On average, the people who arrived in May stayed one to three days before traveling further into the U.S., county officials said.

Since December, apprehensions have dropped in the Tucson Sector — which runs from the Yuma County line to the New Mexico border — however, it remains unclear whether this is a seasonal decrease, or due to the Biden administration’s actions and stricter enforcement in Mexico.

During the height of apprehensions in the Tucson Sector in December, Casa Alitas sheltered 39,714 people, and received as many as 1,642 people in a single day. 

‘Cut the pain’

“It seems like we’re going to be accepting a grant, only to not accept a grant in the near future,” complained Christy. “Why don’t we just cut the pain right now and not pursue any grants?”

He also asked why the county remained worried about street releases, a point that has been outlined to him repeatedly over the past two years. “What is it the awful consequences of street releases? After all these folks are only here to see a better life. Aren’t they that innocent hard working folks that are coming over?”

Lesher noted that street releases will include families with children, who will be left in a tarmac parking lot without food or water.

“You’re saying that street releases do probably do pose a risk to the community?” asked Christy, the lone Republican on the board.

“Street releases can pose a risk to the individual who is released as well,” Lesher responded. “To everyone I think that the initial phase is the primary concern is with the individuals being released to the facility with no water with no shelter and with no food and that becomes a concern.”

With Supervisor Rex Scott absent, the board voted 3-1 to pursue the funding—with Christy voting no.