AZ, Phoenix gov’ts largely sit on sidelines as communities grapple with migrant influx




migrants
A migrant boy sits on a couple of loose bricks outside the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix. The boy was among a group of around 70 Central American migrants who U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped off on the sidewalk in Buckeye Road and 24th Street in Phoenix on Wednesday, March 20. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

A week ago, the City of Tucson and Pima County each temporarily opened a shelter to help ease the burden on community groups that for months have been helping migrant families who recently crossed the border, while similar support in Phoenix and Maricopa County are nonexistent.

It marked the most significant involvement by local governments in Arizona since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began releasing families to charity organizations in October.

On April 18, Tucson opened the doors of a neighborhood recreation center to accommodate the mostly Central American mothers, fathers and their children, Councilman Steve Kozachik said. It could serve around 60 people, he said.

The next day, Pima County opened a shelter in a sports facility in Tucson, with about 125 beds.

Both city and county shelters closed Friday. The number of families released by federal immigration and border officials wasn’t as large as expected, Kozachik and Pima County spokesman Mark Evans said.

In the Phoenix area, neither Maricopa County nor municipal agencies have stepped up to provide meaningful support, despite calls from faith and nonprofit groups for government partners.

That’s not the case in other border states and communities.

What governments in Texas, New Mexico and California are doing

For a month, the City of San Antonio — which is about the same distance from the border with Mexico as Phoenix — has operated a resource center at a city-owned vacant space that was a former Quiznos, said Colleen Bridger, interim assistant city manager.

“We have been operating the resource center from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily since March 30 to provide a safe place for these migrants to rest, eat and be provided clothing and other necessities while helping coordinate travel for the next leg of their journey,” Bridger said. City homeless prevention staff from its Department of Human Services work in the center, in partnership with several charities, she said.

San Antonio falls within the Border Patrol sector that has seen the largest number of migrant families arrested. From October through March, 78,976 migrant parents and their children were arrested after crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley area, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures.

The El Paso sector, which covers west Texas and New Mexico, has seen the largest increase in migrant families arrested when compared to last year. Migrant families there were temporarily held under a bridge in striking images that made international news.

On Thursday, the city council of Las Cruces, New Mexico — a community just north of El Paso — voted to set aside $500,000 to support immigrant families as an emergency measure, according to KTSM-TV. That is in addition to $75,000 the council approved the week before. KTSM-TV also reported other publicly owned facilities, like a high school and a community center, were made available to assist migrant families in Las Cruces.

Last month, the El Paso city council voted to provide $20,000 to a non-profit assisting migrant families, according to the El Paso Times. The council gave the city manager authority through April 29 to “take all action necessary to commit, direct, and assign personnel and resources, to provide humanitarian relief to migrants released […] into the El Paso community.” The El Paso City Council extended that authority through June 25 during a meeting on Monday.

El Paso Times also reported the County of El Paso in February approved hiring a coordinator to assist groups helping migrant families, but tabled setting aside $100,000 for immigrant services.

On the California border, San Diego County has operated a migrant shelter in a converted courthouse since March. In November, county officials began providing vaccines to a shelter in Tijuana, and security and surveillance to shelters in San Diego, according to the county Health and Human Services Department. In December, county staff started daily health screenings of migrant families. On average, there’s about 14 county staff working daily on health support, the county said.

In early April, San Diego County filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, ICE and CBP leaders. The complaint claims ICE “abruptly, arbitrarily, and capriciously” changed a policy where it arranged and confirmed migrants’ travel plans and released them to a bus station or airport. The change forced the county to assume expenses, the lawsuit claims.  

It also says the county had spent more than $1 million in services and assistance as of March 29.

The number of families arrested at Arizona’s two border sectors — Yuma and Tucson — is almost triple what the San Diego area has seen, CBP figures show.

ICE figures also show the agency has released almost 12,000 more migrant family members in Arizona than California from Dec. 21 through April 22. Arizona has seen 26,700 migrant parents and their children released to communities in Yuma, Tucson and Phoenix, while California saw 14,800 in that period.

Yuma, in a state of emergency, has yet to see federal, state funds

Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls declared a state of emergency in the small border community on April 16. While the city has spent no money to run the humanitarian operation there, Nicholls said the large release of families was pushing its volunteer network to a breaking point.

In the two weeks since, there has been no federal or state funds made available to Yuma, but there is more attention and logistical support.

“It has prompted a lot of discussion with, say, the senators and congressmen to get more information,” said Jeffrey Breazeale of The Salvation Army, which runs Yuma’s only migrant shelter. “As far as funding or resources, there was nothing done at this time.”

In its emergency proclamation, Yuma cited a state law that says “state agencies may provide mutual aid, including personnel, equipment and other available resources to assist political subdivisions during a local emergency in accordance with emergency plans or at the direction of the governor.”

Gov. Doug Ducey pledged to provide whatever state assistance he can to Yuma.

It’s unlikely the state will provide shelter space to Yuma, said Wendy Smith-Reeve, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs.

“The state’s Emergency Response and Recovery Plan, for shelters specifically, is solely reliant on non-governmental organizations and voluntary organizations active in disaster,” she said.  

So far in Yuma, DEMA has provided logistical support. It has brought different groups to the table to facilitate conversations and identify resources available and needs, said Smith-Reeve.

“The communication with all of the partners is the most critical element, because if you are not communicating what the needs are, or what you already have or what is anticipated, then there’s a breakdown in resources,” Smith-Reeve said.

DEMA hasn’t provided any state funds or equipment to the Yuma local emergency, she said.

Aiding logistics coordination is the state’s emergency management agency’s main role, said Patrick Ptak, a Ducey spokesman.

“The emergency management function of DEMA is to resource needs for communities experiencing a crisis, so these communities can focus on the emergency at hand and not on where they are going to get the resources,” Ptak said. “DEMA pulls upon their entire network to resource these needs. They’re carrying out their function (in Yuma) in doing that.”

Maricopa, Pima counties focus on health response

In Phoenix, a network of churches and small Hispanic congregations, along with non-profits and refugee resettlement agencies, have helped welcome thousands of migrant families.

The Maricopa County Health Department has supplied community groups with items like Pedialyte, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, said spokeswoman Jhona Molina. The expense has been a little more than $9,000, she said.

“There have been no requests made to the Board of Supervisors or county manager for assistance for migrant families,” said Fields Mosley, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

The Tucson area has seven shelters available, all run by charity groups. The biggest one is a monastery operated by Catholic Community Services.

Before Pima County’s one-week stint running a migrant shelter, its health staff focused on handing out vaccines and other basic medical supplies, and providing staff support to the community groups, said Francisco Garcia, assistant county administrator.

As of April 5 – which doesn’t account for the county shelter operation – the Pima County Health Department had spent $24,250 in vaccines and staff support, Garcia said.

When the county opened the shelter, there were between 4 and 14 health department staff working there, he said. Staff from other county departments also help operate the shelter.

Pima County Administrator C.H. Huckelberry wrote to the county Board of Supervisors last week explaining why it opened a shelter for migrants.

“Our efforts are primarily related to preventing the spread of infectious diseases and preventing abandoned asylum seekers from becoming involved in our criminal justice system through vagrancy,” Huckelberry said. “These primary public health and safety reasons justify our actions identified previously.”

Kozachik, the Tucson councilman, thinks it’s best for the city to have the faith-based and non-profit community lead the response to the release of migrant families.

“My preference is to maintain that as the model, and not have the government become the facilitator of this,” he said. “We are not nimble enough, we are not light enough on our feet, to be able to respond to the changing numbers.”

The role of the local government, he said, is “facilitating and making sure that whatever protocols are in place are working for the community.”

He said setting up a shelter was a good “band-aid”, but not a solution.

“One reason is because ultimately we’d be displacing other programs and that’s not a solution,” Kozachik said. “As long as we have not exhausted our community-based options, I’m not inclined to put the government in the driver’s seat.”

Kozachik thinks state and federal agencies could be better partners with Tucson.   

“Both parties —  at the state and federal level —  have been a wall on this. They are more interested in politicizing the immigration and border issue than recognizing that there is an immediate need, a humanitarian need,” he said. “You can argue all the border politics all you want, do that in another conversation. How are we going to address the needs of the people who are here, that’s my focus.”

No government help in Phoenix

Groups in Phoenix have met with federal, state and city elected officials, but the meetings haven’t resulted in any meaningful outcomes.

“For now it has been just words, there has been no resolution,” Pastor Israel Camacho said. He said his small Mesa congregation has helped more than 6,000 migrants. He’d like the city or state to commit consistent, long-term support and funds so the groups can plan a sustainable work.

Camacho said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego’s office organized a meeting about two weeks ago with some 50 Hispanic faith leaders, with the goal of recruiting more churches to help with the influx of migrant families.

Gallego didn’t show up. He said the mayor’s office told them she’d reschedule within a month. The faith leaders are still waiting for actual date, he said.

“She knows what’s going on,” Camacho said.

He said they’re desperate for help, the kind of support other U.S. cities and their leaders have already started to provide migrant mothers, fathers and their children.

“In reality, if the City of Phoenix could do something, like finding a space, or anything to help the families,” he said.

When Gallego was inaugurated on March 21, Rabbi John Linder from Temple Solel in Paradise Valley gave an invocation and he told the new mayor, “Your metrics of success, along with cutting-edge economic development, will measure how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.”

Arizona Mirror has repeatedly requested an interview with Gallego for more than a month to discuss the city’s response to the request from the faith and nonprofits communities for assistance and partnership in helping migrant families.

In a statement April 25, city spokesman Nickolas Valenzuela responded for the first time: “We do not have a comment at this time.”

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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