Arizona groups criticize feds over unpaid FEMA awards for migrant care

By: - December 11, 2019 9:16 am
Monte Vista Baptist Church

Volunteers of the Monte Vista Baptist Church mobilized to bring in clothes, shoes, food, hygiene products, medicines and toys for the more than 20 migrant families who arrived there Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Months after federal funding was approved for faith-based and non-profits organizations in Arizona that assisted migrant families released by border and immigration officials, community leaders are criticizing what they call a confusing and unfair process of allocating reimbursement funds. 

In October, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved about $710,000 in funds to reimburse Pima County and 13 local nonprofits and faith groups in Arizona for providing services to migrants who arrived in waves at the southern border this year. But, to the surprise and frustration of some groups on that approval list, payment is unlikely to arrive for some. 

According to FEMA, of the 14 total Arizona agencies and organizations approved for reimbursement in October, eight have been issued payments as of Dec. 5. Those are: Catholic Community Services; Helping with All My Heart, Inc.; Iglesia Cristiana El Buen Pastor; Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest; One Hundred Angels; Pima County; St. Vincent de Paul Society; and World Hunger Ecumenical Arizona Task Force, Inc.  

The organizations that were approved for reimbursement in October but have not been issued payments include: Episcopal Diocese of AZ; First Church United Church of Christ; Iglesia Alfa y Omega; International Rescue Committee; Monte Vista Baptist Church; and The Salvation Army in Yuma, according to FEMA. 

A sense of frustration is lingering in a community that came together to welcome, feed, clothe and offer a place to rest to thousands of migrant children, teens, mothers and fathers that arrived in Arizona last fall. They didn’t expect to get anything in return, but said the federal reimbursement program has lacked transparency and fairness.

Pastor Angel Campos said the whole process has been confusing. FEMA said his church, Monte Vista Baptist Church in Phoenix, was approved for about $59,000 in reimbursement funding. He has not received a payment. 

“They said we were given the money already, but we haven’t received anything,” Campos said. “It’s been a roller coaster. We were happy at the beginning because we were going to recoup an investment we made with love.” 

He added that while he has made an effort to meet the documentation requirements, it feels like a moving goal post. 

Angel Campos
Pastor Angel Campos of the Monte Vista Baptist Church in Phoenix makes a list of the migrant families that arrived at his church on Oct. 9, 2018. Volunteers from the church mobilized to help provide food, clothes and support to the families. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

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.

The complexity of the federal reimbursement program is disproportionately affecting small Hispanic churches, like Campos’s, who were the first to respond to hundreds of migrant families released weekly in the Phoenix area since October 2018, according to various community leaders. 

Mary Jo Foreman Miller, executive director of Refugee Aid, said federal officials are purposely misinforming groups, and “word-smithing” requirements. 

“They create the impression that this money is going to be delivered, when in fact it may never be distributed,” she said. “It’s deceptive to imply someone is receiving funds when they may indeed never receive them at all. What’s the point of that?”

Roberto Reveles, founder of Somos America, said the problems with reimbursements have tarnished the reputations of church leaders. 

“If you are morally driven to provide a service, you shouldn’t have to risk your reputation,” he said. “I’m starting to suspect that this is part of an overall policy or strategy of the federal administration to exhaust not only the welcoming and goodwill of the churches to migrants, but to exhaust their resources – and to in fact disintegrate the message that we have been able to voluntarily come together to support the immigrants among us. We’ve done this, up to this point, without a single cent, provided by city government or state government.” 

After approval, documentation needed

The first round of applications for federal reimbursement funds closed in September. While some 140 organizations in Arizona were interested the reimbursement opportunity, most didn’t apply, said Tamera Zivic, executive director of WHEAT. 

Zivic is the administrator of the local board that assisted groups in Maricopa County applying for the federal reimbursement of migrant assistance expenses. Local boards assist and vet individual applicants and send them to a national board, which approves the applications after review and directly pays individual organizations. 

Zivic explained that, while FEMA funds were approved to Arizona organizations, supporting documentation was still necessary before payment. 

“Several agencies did not expect to receive funding because their expenses were in cash and/or they did not have the necessary bills/invoices/receipts to prove the expense. But, they sent in their request anyway,” she said in an email. “We were all surprised when some of those same agencies were listed as being on the allocation list. Turns out that those funds will only be released if that same documentation that is missing can be produced.” 

According to FEMA, local organizations approved for funding must provide documentation, like receipts and proof of payment, to support the expenditures submitted for reimbursement, along with daily logs for shelter and/or food and spreadsheets. 

“No agency will receive funds that have not submitted their completed supporting documentation,” the FEMA spokesperson explained. 

Requiring documentation after approving reimbursements, and a general lack of communication, have left small church groups feeling left out and confused.  

“I don’t agree with this… Why would they come and offer something that we don’t qualify for? It would have been best if they hadn’t offered it in the first place,” said Pastor Magdalena Schwartz. 

She leads a group of Christian congregations in Phoenix and the East Valley. Those small churches were the first ones to respond to hundreds of migrant families released weekly since October 2018. 

Schwartz added that the faith groups did the heavy lifting at the beginning of the influx of migrant families, but weren’t fairly notified or included in the opportunity to apply for funds made available by Congress.  

“We don’t have that structure, those methods, those systems that these other (larger) organizations have. They have assistants and someone in charge of bookkeeping. We don’t have experience in applying for funds because we do this from the goodness in our heart,” she said. 

Since October, the City of Tucson has also been approved for FEMA reimbursement, a FEMA spokesperson told Arizona Mirror. That brings the amount of federal funds approved to be allocated to Arizona groups to approximately $730,000. Of that, about $380,000 has been paid.  

A second application period is anticipated to be held in late January or early February 2020, FEMA said.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

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