FEMA reimburses $700k to AZ churches, nonprofits for assisting migrant families

By: - October 18, 2019 12:24 pm

Wilder Jose, 4, from Guatemala waves at the camera as he eats chicken soup at the Casa de Oración church in northwest Phoenix on Friday, October 19. The boy arrived with his dad and 30 other migrant families at the church after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released them. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Pima County and 13 state nonprofits and faith organizations were awarded more than $700,000 in federal funds to reimburse part of their work of assisting thousands of migrant fathers, mothers and children who were released by border and immigration officials earlier this year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The federal funds are part of a $4.6 billion emergency border aid bill approved by Congress in June amid a surge of migrant families and minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and public outrage over the deaths of migrant children and conditions at border detention centers. 

The border aid bill allocated $30 million to FEMA to distribute among communities that experienced the influx of migrant families. According to FEMA, $25 million will be distributed among government entities and groups in the four border states (Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas) and the remaining $5 million will be available for the rest of the states that “demonstrate a significant influx in migrants.”

A FEMA spokesperson said Oct. 10 that roughly $7.8 million of the $30 million has been allocated nationally to government entities and nonprofits that directly serviced migrants with food, shelter and transportation between Jan. 1 and June 30. That means Arizona groups received 9% of the first round of FEMA funds distributed. 

FEMA funds cover a part of expenses from community groups

Several groups contacted by Arizona Mirror said they had been notified of the FEMA award, but had not received the funds. 

The Salvation Army, which operated an overnight shelter in Yuma for about seven months this year, received the largest reimbursement among Arizona organizations: $202,422.

Jeffrey Breazeale with the Salvation Army in Yuma said the organization served about 5,800 people at its migrant shelter. He said the organization spent more than $400,000 to assist migrant families. 

“We are very grateful for the federal government’s help in the reimbursement of the costs we put out-of-pocket,” Breazeale said. “Anything helps. We weren’t looking for hand-outs. We know it was an opportunity that the Salvation Army could help our community and help individuals that were being released.” 

The Salvation Army serviced migrants released from Border Patrol custody, Breazeale said. Most of the families were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, he said. 

In the Phoenix and Tucson areas, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began releasing thousands of migrant families to churches and community groups in October 2018. Sometimes, when the community groups were overwhelmed, ICE would drop the migrant families off near a sidewalk, prompting urgent calls for meaningful city and state assistance — which never came.  

The migrants, mostly coming from Central America to seek asylum in the U.S., were released to the community groups after processing by border and immigration officials. They spent a few days with the charity groups and volunteers, who assisted them in arranging travel elsewhere in the country where the migrants planned to meet family or friends and begin their immigration cases in court.

According to ICE’s Oct. 14 estimates, 44,400 migrant family members have been released to groups in Arizona since Dec. 21, 2018. 

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The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity group that ran a center for migrant families in Phoenix for 86 days, was awarded a reimbursement of $111,000, according to FEMA. 

Jessica Berg, chief program officer for St. Vincent de Paul, said the group serviced a total of 5,070 migrant fathers, mothers and children and served a total of 16,539 meals. 

Berg added that the process of applying for the FEMA funds was unusual because the many groups and volunteers assisting the migrants weren’t doing the work with an expectation for reimbursement, so they didn’t have the receipts or documents available when the federal aid became available.    

“We were not able to get reimbursed for all the expenses because we didn’t have all the documents,” Berg said. “We have an accounting department, and staff that can help with these details, so I can imagine this was a bit tricky with the smaller organizations.”

A network of small Hispanic congregations in the Phoenix-area were among the first to partner with ICE and pool resources to welcome, feed, clothe and offer transportation to migrant families in October. The Monte Vista Baptist Church in Phoenix was at the forefront of that effort. 

Monte Vista’s pastor, Angel Campos, estimated his congregation serviced about 1,900 migrants between January and June. He said other churches didn’t have the documents needed to apply for the FEMA funds, even if they did the work.   

“We requested reimbursement for what we could prove was spent. There were pastors who didn’t have receipts,” he said. “This is us recovering an investment that we, as a church, had to make. We did it out of responsibility for our community, we never expected to have a reimbursement.” 

A Phoenix-area group that staffed organizations welcoming migrant families with medical volunteers and supplies, One Hundred Angels, received about $8,400 from FEMA. Between January and June of this year, the medical group saw more than 12,600 migrants and spent about $71,000 in over-the-counter medication, according to Cecila Garcia, founder of One Hundred Angels. 

The World Hunger Ecumenical Arizona Task-Force is a local group that received the applications for FEMA funds and relayed them to a national board. 

“Over 140 organizations, agencies and faith communities in Arizona were interested in the possible reimbursement of expenses incurred; most did not apply,” Tamera Zivic, executive director of WHEAT, said. 

A second application period is planned to distribute the remaining $21.6 million in FEMA funds and “is anticipated to cover eligible costs incurred between January 1, 2019 and December 31, 2019,” according to a FEMA spokesperson.

“This second application period will provide additional time for agencies to engage (…) and to receive additional technical assistance in developing an application,” FEMA said.

The federal agency will also expand the categories of eligible costs for the second application. Information on the new application is expected to be released in January 2020.

“Service agencies that participated in the first application period covering eligible costs expended from January 1, 2019 through June 30, 2019 may apply again, but funds cannot duplicate assistance already approved,” FEMA said.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.