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February 18th, 2024
Tucson to see ‘homelessness on steroids’ as migrant-aid funds dry up

“Casa Alitas has also given tours to Arizona’s Congressional delegation, including Reps. Juan Ciscomani, Ruben Gallego and Raúl Grijalva, and Sens. Mark Kelly and Sinema, as well as Gov. Katie Hobbs, Evans said. 

But two conservative legislators are now the latest to have shown up at Casa Alitas facilities, unannounced and with a camera running.” 

Originally published in Tucson Daily Star by Emily Bregel

After an unprecedented effort to stave off unsheltered street releases of newly arrived migrants in Tucson, the nonprofit Casa Alitas and its local partners are now facing a reckoning.

At the end of March, the federal funding that has supported Pima County’s migrant-aid effort will be exhausted.

With no additional funds in sight, county officials say by April, Casa Alitas shelters will have dozens of layoffs and Tucsonans will begin seeing Border Patrol agents releasing hundreds of legally processed migrants each day onto the streets, with little to no support services.

“What we are about to experience with street releases is homelessness on steroids,” Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher wrote in a memo to the Board of Supervisors late Friday afternoon.

Inaction in the U.S. Congress means the chance of renewed federal funding before April is “negligible, if not zero,” Lesher wrote. So county officials are starting to wind down Pima County’s critical role in the local migrant-aid effort, including logistical coordination, contracts management and the administration of funding reimbursement for contracted agencies, like the nonprofit Catholic Community Services, which oversees the Casa Alitas program, she said.

Catholic Community Services’ shelters will lose 30 staff positions, the memo said.

The number of unsheltered releases will depend on the pace of migrant arrivals in the region but at current volumes, Tucson could see up to 400 people released by Border Patrol each day.

Pima County is analyzing possible ways to use the county’s general funds to help mitigate the fall-out, Lesher said in the memo.

“But every dollar spent helping legally processed asylum seekers move on to their destination cities will be a dollar we can’t spend on county residents who are struggling financially to afford adequate housing, or who are suffering from mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction,” she said.

The Senate’s failed bipartisan border-security package, co-sponsored by Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, would have appropriated $1.4 billion to support temporary shelter for migrants and related support services throughout the country. GOP legislators called the long-awaited legislation “dead on arrival” within hours of its release, and the Senate voted to kill the bill a few days later.

“It is severely frustrating and disappointing that we are in this situation,” Lesher said. “This is a crisis of the federal government’s making due to the failure to pass sensible border and immigration reform and to provide the necessary funding to local jurisdictions forced to deal with the deleterious effects of federal border policy.”

‘Keeps me awake at night’

Even before Friday’s notice from Lesher, local religious leaders have been working on contingency plans in case federal support didn’t come through, and contemplating the consequences for vulnerable migrants arriving here.

“It’s the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night,” Bishop of Tucson Edward Weisenburger said earlier this month. Weisenburger oversees Catholic-affiliated programs within the Diocese of Tucson to ensure they are fulfilling their religious mission.

For Weisenburger, Casa Alitas’ migrant-aid effort, through Catholic Community Services, is an embodiment of the Gospel. He’s been moved to witness the gratitude of the migrant families, who often arrive at Casa Alitas having walked through the soles of their shoes, he said.

It’s particularly emotional to see the sheer joy on the faces of children, who arrive with no possessions, to receive a small toy from volunteers at Casa Alitas, he said.

“It flows from Matthew’s Gospel, where he says, ‘What you do to the least of these little ones, you do to me,’” he said. “I think it’s one of the areas where Jesus is speaking profoundly, directly and literally.”

In recent weeks, Border Patrol has been releasing about 1,000 migrants per day in the Tucson sector, about half of them in Pima County and half in Santa Cruz and Cochise counties.

Pima County’s migrant-aid relief effort now costs $1 million to $1.4 million per week, county officials say.

Without the assurance of more federal support, “we have contracts that are going to start expiring and we can’t in good conscience extend those contracts without knowing there’s going to be funding there,” said Pima County spokesman Mark Evans.

Catholic Community Services, or CCS, intends to continue their mission of helping refugees and asylum seekers, but using donor funds alone, the agency could likely only cover services for about 100 migrants per day, Lesher said in the memo.

“CCS is still developing its operational and funding plan for April 1 onward,” Lesher wrote to supervisors. “I will have more details for you on that soon, including the possibility of continuing to rent county facilities to CCS.”

Lesher’s memo described two possible contingency plans to assist arriving migrants, ranging from a monthly cost of $126,000 to offer the “bare necessities,” to more than $1 million per month for a more robust offerings, including support staff and food.

But Lesher’s recommendation was that the county not fund any of the options — even though she acknowledged Tucson local governments would still likely face costs related to increased homelessness.

“I believe it would be imprudent for the taxpayers of Pima County to also have to absorb the cost of providing even this minimal amount of sheltering as described above, as this is a federal problem that requires federal funding,” she said.

Coordinated effort

Since 2019, the Tucson region’s migrant-aid coalition has been allocated $65 million in mostly federal funding to temporarily shelter more than 400,000 legally processed migrants who have passed through here.

“The county’s objective, since it agreed to assist the sheltering effort in 2019, has been to protect Tucson and the county from having hundreds of people with limited resources and English-language skills released onto city streets every day,” Lesher said. “County and city participation in this effort has prevented a humanitarian crisis from occurring daily.”

Border Patrol agents release migrants to Casa Alitas’ care or into border communities, after they are finger-printed, given facial scans and background checks, and had their belongings inspected.

Thanks to dozens of state-contracted buses, those released in small border communities — like Nogales, Bisbee and Douglas — have been transported quickly to Tucson, where there’s shelter and transportation infrastructure allowing migrants to rest, get medical attention and other supports before traveling to family or sponsors in the interior of the U.S., usually within one or two days.

Without that assistance, hundreds of migrants a day will be left unsheltered in border towns where there’s little infrastructure to house them, said Sobeira Castro, director of emergency management for Santa Cruz County.

Migrants arrive without food, without ways to charge their cell phones, if they have them, and with inadequate clothing for cold weather, she said. Especially in the winter months, many who arrive are dealing with illness, too.

“Without Pima County and Casa Alitas’ assistance, we would not be able to help these migrants. They would be basically unsheltered within the community and left on their own, without any guidance,” Castro said.

In preparation for the loss of Pima County’s support, Castro said her team has been developing posters in three languages that they’ll post in public spaces, with information on the city’s limited resources and maps to help migrants orient themselves.

“Some of them don’t even know exactly where they are” when border agents drop them off, she said.

Overcoming challenges

Casa Alitas director Diego Piña Lopez started at Casa Alitas as an intern in 2015. He’s watched the program expand from a five-bedroom house, to operating out of the Benedictine Monastery in 2019, before expanding operations to the “Welcome Center” on Ajo Way and the Drexel Center, which it leases from Pima County, to meet surging demand. The agency also utilizes space in local hotels, through local government contracts, to help with overflow capacity.

“I think we’ve learned a lot in the last 1.5 years of (higher) flows and adapting,” Piña Lopez said.

Long-time volunteer Debbie Bachel, 67, said she’s been amazed by Casa Alitas’ ability to adjust to the increased pace of arrivals.

“After the pandemic, when we’d see 100 people a day, we thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how are we going to do it?’” she said. “Now we’re up to 1,000 to 1,300 (per day,) and we can do it.”

Bachel said the camaraderie between volunteers and staff, as well as Piña Lopez’s leadership, drive that success.

“It’s like a family,” she said. “I’ve worked with several charities, but I’ve never felt as much as I do with Casa Alitas like I’m a team member.”

Some volunteers at Casa Alitas say they feel a personal connection to the new arrivals.

As a second-generation American, Iris Weisman, 70, said she chose to volunteer with asylum seekers out of gratitude for those who helped her grandparents when they arrived in the U.S. from Belarus and Russia.

“It was very personal to me,” Weisman said. Her grandmother fled Russia alone at age 14, arriving at Ellis Island in New York speaking no English, with nothing but a piece of paper with her brother’s address written on it, she said.

When no one had come to pick her up by midnight, a security guard pinned the address to her coat and put her on a bus, asking the driver to make sure she got off at the right stop to find her brother’s home, which she did, Weisman said.

“When I think about that, this is time for me to give back, in a way,” she said. “To be like that security guard and help people who are also escaping terrible lives, and who need just a little help to get from here to where they’re planning on going.”

One of Casa Alita’s newest helpers, 18-year-old Chris Amanat, said he was inspired by his own family history when he chose Casa Alitas for his senior-year internship through BASIS Tucson North charter high school.

Amanat is fluent in French and Mandarin, and his skills have been an asset as he’s helped do intake for an increasingly diverse group of people arriving at Casa Alitas, including many from the African country of Mauritania, where French is spoken.

Hearing asylum seekers’ stories of their homeland, and the circumstances they left behind, strikes a chord with Amanat, who is the child of immigrants, too: His father’s family moved from Iran to St. Louis when his father was an infant, and his mother’s family immigrated from China.

“I’ve grown up with those stories throughout my childhood,” he said. “It’s been very meaningful to meet people on their first steps. … I try to be very welcoming. They remind me of what my family must have faced when they first came here.”

Harassment continues

On top of the funding uncertainty, Casa Alitas staff and volunteers are also facing an escalation in hostility often rooted in falsehoods, fueled by right-wing media personalities who have wracked up millions of views on their social media posts making false accusations about the migrant-aid effort in Tucson and elsewhere.

About 98% of Casa Alitas’ guests pay for their own transportation to reach family or sponsors in the interior of the U.S., Piña Lopez said, despite false claims spread widely — including by Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb — that migrants are receiving generous Visa cards, phones and plane tickets to wherever they want.

For two weeks, Lamb, a Republican running for Kyrsten Sinema’s U.S. Senate seat, has not responded to the Arizona Daily Star’s requests for comment on his false assertions about non-governmental organizations, including that migrants receive $5,000 Visa cards.

Casa Alitas and Catholic Community Services have increasingly become the target of right-wing ire and conspiracy theories. Social media personalities have been showing up with video cameras unannounced at Casa Alitas shelters and demanding access, while falsely accusing staff, volunteers and local law enforcement of participating in, or refusing to investigate, “human trafficking.”

The targeted harassment has ramped up since January, when right-wing media personality James O’Keefe shared multiple videos filled with false claims about Casa Alitas. In one video with nearly 3 million views, he claimed the Casa Alitas’ Drexel Center was a “secret” facility that “none of the American people knew about until now.”

“That’s just absurd,” said Evans of Pima County. “They’re only secret to people who don’t know how to use Google.”

The Drexel Center’s purchase, and Casa Alitas’ work generally, have been covered by local, state, national and even international news outlets. Pima County’s Board of Supervisors publicly debates and votes to approve funding for the programs, as the Star and other outlets have routinely reported.

“Just a month or so ago, I did an interview with the Financial Times of London,” Evans said. “We’ve been completely open and transparent about what we’re doing here and why we’re doing it. We’re trying to protect the community from the deleterious effects of what would happen if hundreds of people a day were being released (without shelter) in Tucson.”

Casa Alitas has also given tours to Arizona’s Congressional delegation, including Reps. Juan Ciscomani, Ruben Gallego and Raúl Grijalva, and Sens. Mark Kelly and Sinema, as well as Gov. Katie Hobbs, Evans said.

But two conservative legislators are now the latest to have shown up at Casa Alitas facilities, unannounced and with a camera running.

While in Arizona for a committee hearing in early February, Reps. Tom Tiffany, R-Wisconsin, and Doug LaMalfa, R-California, filmed their own attempt to enter a Tucson hotel where Casa Alitas shelters migrants when its other facilities are full.

The day before, O’Keefe had posted a video of himself in costume, with a secret camera, at the same hotel, in a video that garnered 4.4 million views.

Tiffany’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He and LaMalfa shared a video of their visit on “X,” formerly Twitter, falsely claiming that O’Keefe had “exposed” that the hotel was “housing illegals.”

Tiffany’s Feb. 9 post now has more than 2 million views and nearly 3,000 comments underneath, including from Elon Musk.

Casa Alitas staff had been told to call police if strangers showed up demanding access, Evans said, and that’s what they did when the unfamiliar legislators showed up last week.

“They were rightly skeptical of who was there,” he said. “They were anxious and spooked from the secret videos of them posted on Internet, and the Internet harassment they were experiencing from the day before,” when O’Keefe posted his video.

In a Wednesday interview, Rep. LaMalfa told the Star that as legislators, he and Tiffany should have been allowed to inspect the facility and conduct interviews, whether or not they’d given notice.

“We showed ID,” he said. “We wanted to see exactly how they’re running their operation there. When they would not even talk to us, that’s what was concerning. They won’t tell us what they’re doing.”

LaMalfa falsely claimed to the Star that Casa Alitas was harboring “illegals.” All migrants housed at Casa Alitas have been processed and released by Border Patrol. Once they are released by Border Patrol, with a notice-to-appear for a court hearing, they are present in the country legally.

LaMalfa said nongovernmental organizations “really don’t seem to have accountability.”

“They’re getting a lot of money pushed at them to (shelter) people here that really don’t have any place here,” he said. “It isn’t unreasonable for members of Congress, who are in charge of appropriating the money to do that, to be able to look at how the processes are working and what they’re dealing with.”

Evans, and Casa Alitas director Piña Lopez, said the legislators would have been welcomed if anyone had known they were coming.

“If Rep. Tiffany had reached out to CCS or reached out to the county, we absolutely would have accommodated him and arranged for a tour for him to see what we’re doing and the successes in protecting the community,” Evans said. “But we weren’t given that opportunity. He just showed up. So he got rejected and took to the Internet to complain about it.”

“Love conquers fear”

For decades, U.S. legislators have failed to enact comprehensive reform to allow the U.S. immigration and asylum systems to cope with the new reality at the border, where most are turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents to request asylum and increasingly, families are arriving from diverse parts of the world.

In the Tucson sector, more than half of the 250,000 migrant apprehensions between ports of entry in fiscal year 2024, which began in October, have been members of families or unaccompanied children, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Bishop Weisenburger said, from the Christian perspective, centering the humanity of the most vulnerable among us is crucial in making moral policy decisions.

“How easy it is that we vilify immigrants,” he said. “But these are human beings. If you speak of immigration in the abstract, it’s easy to make decisions. But if you go down and talk to someone whose relatives have been murdered, whose child finally died from hunger, you’ll come to some different conclusions.”

Even as social-media personalities seek to exploit anxiety about immigration, Weisenburger counsels avoidance of fear-based reactions.

Fear is a natural human emotion, but it should not be the main driver behind decisions, Weisenburger said, referencing a message from the Gospel of John: “Fear always takes us where we do not want to go,” he said. “Perfect love casts out all fear.”

“The scriptures are one long story of every time we give in to fear, we make pretty bad decisions,” he said. “If we allow love to come to life within us, we make much better decisions. And then, we work together and we actually fix some of these problems, and we make the world a better place.”

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