Pima County to get $21.8M to shelter asylum seekers through end of the year

Pima County will receive $21.8 million in federal funding from Homeland Security, allowing the county to provide refuge for asylum seekers through the end of the year, officials said last week.

The funding is well above a minimum of $12 million the county sought, but below a hoped-for $48 million.

Over the last five years, Pima County has received $77 million in federal dollars to shelter 446,474 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.

However, county officials have been careful to avoid spending dollars from the general fund, and as federal dollars began to dry up earlier this year, Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher moved to wind down the shelter operation and the Board of Supervisors agreed. 

During a high-water mark, the county spent nearly $1 million per week to support as many 1,000 people arriving each day, but those costs will decrease as the number of people released by CBP declines and the county finds way to minimize costs.

Officials said Friday the county serves as the “fiscal agent”
for federal funds, and provides “logistical
coordination” and manages contracts with the agencies and vendors
providing sheltering and transportation services. Other costs —
long-distance transportation and medical screening — are covered by the
state’s border security and health assistance funds. 

The state
also covered half of the cost to purchase the 650-person shelter located
on Drexel Road, officials said, adding that “no local funds are used to pay
for sheltering services.”

Adelita Grijlava, the chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, praised the funding and said it would allow the county to continue to work with Casa Alitas, the city of Tucson, as well as neighboring counties to “help legally processed asylum seekers reach their final destinations.”

“The size of this award is an acknowledgement by the Biden administration of the benefit that our coalition provides to the country and the people of Arizona, Pima County and Tucson. Easing suffering, facilitating travel, and protecting the health and welfare of our border-county communities is a win for everyone,” said Grijalva. “This funding gives us the breathing room to work towards a better solution that, at the very least, will relieve local governments of the burden of mitigating the effects of federal border control and immigration policy.”

“I appreciate the investment by the Biden administration, DHS Secretary Mayorkas and the advocacy done by our congressional delegation and Gov. Hobbs for this infusion of funds into our region” said Tucson Mayor Regina Romero. 

“They understand the important role this coalition plays in keeping Tucsonans and legally processed Asylum seekers safe,” Romero said. “I look forward to Congress working on permanent solutions including comprehensive immigration reform, so we can realize the benefits of lawful cross-border trade and travel.”

“The tremendous assistance provided to legally processed immigrants over
the last six years has been possible because of several wonderful
partnerships,” said Tucson Catholic Diocese Bishop Edward J.
Weisenburger. 

“Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona has
worked closely with multiple strategic partners: the federal government,
Pima County, the state of Arizona, the city of Tucson, and a host of
volunteers and donors,” Weisenburger said. He thanked the various agencies involved for their “critical” help, as well as a “host of committed volunteers
representing members of many churches and faiths, along with those of no
religious faith, has made possible a humane and charitable response to
the humanitarian crisis we face.” 

“These creative partnerships resulted in
our ability to treat all human beings processed by our government at
the Arizona border with dignity. And of course, the continued federal
funding is a true blessing as it allows us to continue this work–so
dear to our hearts,” he said. 

Earlier this year, Jan Lesher warned the county would be forced to shutter their
shelter operations as
federal funding dried up, and worried 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. As federal funding ran out, county officials, aided by Gov. Katie
Hobbs and federal lawmakers, made a full-court press for additional
funding.

During a meeting with the Tucson City Council, Lesher said
“everything we’ve been able to do is because of the federal dollars,”
adding it is “not appropriate for local tax dollars to go to a uniquely
federal problem.”

She said the county burned through up to $4
million per month, and criticized how the federal government funding its
shelter programs, arguing that funding arrived in just-in-time
“tranches” from the federal government. Lesher said the system 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.

As
the deadline loomed, Congress passed a new $1.2 trillion budget for the
federal government, including funding for the Shelter and Services
Program, which reimburses local governments and non-governmental
organizations for the costs of sheltering asylum seekers, which includes
food, clothing, transportation, and shelter spaces.

Lesher told
the Tucson Sentinel the county asked for $48 million, which would have
been a “godsend” and allow the county to back Casa Alitas for months,
but the minimum the county needed was $12 million.

Tucson has become a waypoint for asylum seekers who make irregular crossings in Arizona’s vast wilderness and then ask responding Border Patrol agents for protection in the U.S. Limited by immigration law, a series of court strictures, and the logistics of individual stations, CBP and other federal authorities release migrants from custody, allowing them to travel to other parts of the U.S. while pursuing their asylum cases.

In 2019, the county helped shelter around 18,131 people, averaging around 50 people per day, officials said. In 2024, the county sheltered 57,117 people, averaging 952 people per day.

Throughout the end of last year and through the winter, the Tucson Sector lead the nation in apprehensions. In December, Tucson Sector took just over 80,000 people into custody, outpacing Texas’ Del Rio Sector, and during a record week, the county sheltered 9,114 people at Casa Alitas. Throughout the winter, Pima County officials told Washington D.C. they
need additional funds to cover shelter operations.

Since then, apprehensions across the Southwestern border have declined. In March, Border Patrol agents across the U.S.-Mexico border had 137,840 encounters, around 45 percent lower than December and 16 percent lower than a year earlier, CBP officials said.

CBP officials attributed the decrease to efforts from officials in Mexico, as well as changes in how the Biden administration manages asylum requests.

“CBP — in coordination with our partners across the Federal government as well as foreign partners — continues to take significant actions to disrupt criminal networks amidst unprecedented hemispheric migration activity,” said Troy A. Miller, who serves as the head of CBP. “Encounters at our southern border are lower right now, but we remain prepared for changes, continually managing operations to respond to ever-shifting transnational criminal activities and migration patterns.”

In March, Tucson Sector agents took nearly 42,000 people in custody—including nearly 20,000 people who arrived as families.

It remains unclear whether this declining trend will hold. While apprehensions declined in years past as temperatures spike in the Southwestern deserts, during the Trump administration, apprehensions spiked in May 2019 when CBP officials encountered nearly 133,000 people. 

Pima County officials said from April 4 to April 10, the Casa Alitas Welcome Center hosted 4,056
people, averaging around 579 people per day. Around 69 percent of those people were families with children. 

Arizona receives $55 million in SSP funds

Arizona Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema said nearly $55 million in SSP funds was coming to Arizona. 

Along with millions headed for Pima County, Maricopa County will receive $11.6 million. World Hunger based in Maricopa will receive $11.606, while World Hunger in Yuma will receive $9.5 million

“Arizona’s local governments and nonprofits are on the frontlines doing the vital work that keeps asylum seekers and communities safe, and this funding will help them continue operations and support our border communities” said Kelly. “Senator Sinema and I fought for these resources, and we’ll continue demanding the federal government prioritize communities at the border.”

“Today’s funds will help Arizona border nonprofits keep their doors open – preventing street releases and providing humane treatment of migrants seeking asylum,” said Sinema, who currently serves as the chair of the Senate Border Management Subcommittee and is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

While county officials praised the new funding, the bill represents a $150 million cut from last year, and cities like New
York City, Chicago and Denver have limited how long migrants can stay
at shelters. 

Arizona’s congressional representatives, including
U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva, Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton pushed DHS to send more
dollars to Southern Arizona. 

In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary
Alejandro Mayorkas and FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell, they wrote
the Southern Arizona Coalition was eligible for just $12 million during
the last funding cycle while New York City “received nearly nine times that amount.”

“But
despite this disproportionate allocation, Arizona has experienced
dramatic surges of migrant crossings–in just the first four months of
this fiscal year, Border Patrol in the Tucson Sector apprehended more
than 250,000 migrants,” they wrote.

“Organizations like
Tucson’s Casa Alitas provide essential services that help asylum-seekers
find sponsors—so that migrants arrive in interior cities with a travel
plan and a place to stay as they await adjudication of their cases,
relieving the burden on their city services,” they wrote, adding FEMA
and DHS should “quickly award an initial round of funding to border
communities so they can continue their necessary operations and minimize
the impact on local communities.”

“As Southern Arizona communities continue to deal with the humanitarian crisis, it’s critical we provide them with the resources and funding they need,” Grijalva said. “It’s clear that the only path forward to address these issues long-term is real immigration reform to fix our broken system beginning with humane solutions, increased legal pathways, dealing with root causes, and providing more resources and personnel at the border instead of Republicans’ detrimental funding cuts and failed enforcement-only policies.”

Stanton added the funding “couldn’t come soon enough.”

“I’ve visited local aid groups along the border, and they’re near a breaking point—over-stretching their budgets to help care for migrant families and prevent street releases,” Stanton said. “I’ll keep working to make sure Arizona communities get their fair share of federal resources to manage this crisis.”

DHS officials said $300 million will be distributed through SSP, including $275 million in the first allocation and another $25 million that will be given later in the year to “accommodate evolving operational requirements” for 55 organizations or local governments. The agency will also open a $340.9 million in SSP for a competitive grant program that will be allocated by the end of the year.