Faced With Lacking Federal Resources, Pima County Supervisors Vote To Go At It Alone To Care For Asylum Seekers

Published: Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - 1:53pm
Updated: Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - 4:34pm

Pima County’s Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to create a transportation contract to bring in asylum seekers from the remotest parts of the county into Tucson. The costs are estimated to go as high as $4 million for the county alone as migrants continue arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

When Pima County was faced with hundreds of newly arrived asylum seekers in 2019, it was able to muster community support and even got federal assistance to help navigate the logistics. That was before COVID-19. Now, its administrator warns Pima County faces the same issue but this time is severely limited by the pandemic and by federal agencies restricted in how much they could help.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the Border Patrol in 2019 dropped people off right at shelters in Tucson. This year, he said he was told the agency doesn’t have the resources to do that. 

"So that's why they’re releasing in Ajo, we’re expecting the same thing to happen in Three Points," Huckelberry said Wednesday.

Ajo is two hours from Tucson, Three Points 30 minutes. Both are small towns with little to no resources for asylum seekers. And in the case of Three Points, not much shade.

The county is also facing COVID-19 restrictions. Shelters that once accommodated asylum seekers can’t now because they use older volunteers more susceptible to the virus. And spacing is an issue, reducing shelter occupancy to a fraction of 2019. 

Supervisor Steve Christy voted against the county spending.

"It’s the current administration in Washington, D.C., that should be addressing the situation, not Pima County," he said.

The vote passed 4-1 to create a contract for transporting asylum seekers into Tucson.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson declined to answer specifics about whether the Anti-Deficiency Act is stopping agents from driving people over to Tucson shelters but in a prepared statement said:

"CBP lacks the legal authority to provide or facilitate transportation of a person who has been processed for release. CBP will ensure that the release of any individual in or custody is done so safely while also ensuring that all operations are consistent with law. If CBP determines that the release of individuals directly from a specific facility is not safe, CBP will identify alternate locations in close proximity which may include such as transportation hubs, government or Non-Governmental Organization facilities. CBP has coordinated with local stakeholders to identify those locations."