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Arizona Border County Faces Massive Surge in Homeless Migrants

The looming closure of a migrant shelter in Arizona is raising concerns that stranded asylum seekers could add to the state's homelessness problem.

The Casa Alitas refugee shelter in Tucson, located in Pima County and about an hour's drive from the U.S.-Mexico border, will cease most operations within weeks due to a lack of federal funding and local funds to support the more than 130,000 legal asylum seekers released into Cochise, Santa Cruz and Pima counties by the Border Patrol's Tucson sector since Sept. 1, 2023, officials said.

Last week, Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, requested $752 million in federal funding to maintain these services. In letters to the House and Senate Appropriations committees, Hobbs proposed paying for this amount through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Shelter and Services Program using funds requested from the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill.

Hobbs wrote that state services were “at their operational limits” and that without funding “critical services could be compromised.”

Pima County, along with other Democratic-run sanctuary cities like Chicago, New York City, and Denver, has been on the front lines of responding to the influx of migrants. As of February 29, the county had received more than 400,000 asylum seekers and families since 2019.

The number hovered around 20,300 in August 2023, but rose to nearly 26,900 the following month and nearly 40,000 by December, data provided to authorities showed. Newsweek By county.

Meanwhile, illegal immigration is one of the top issues ahead of the 2024 presidential election, with polls showing voters skeptical of President Joe Biden's response and former President Donald Trump promising tougher measures. CBP data shows that migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2023 rose by more than 2.4 million, up from about 1.7 million in 2021.

Pima County Administrator Jan Loescher wrote in a letter last month that the possibility of not receiving additional funding from the federal government in the near future has become a reality.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents meet with migrants at a field processing center near the U.S.-Mexico border in Lukeville, Arizona, on Dec. 8, 2023. Shelters in the state are scheduled to close soon…

John Moore/Getty Images

But communities will be affected either way, she warned, especially in the city of Tucson, where legally processed asylum seekers are being released by CBP every day, likely for another year.

“Pima County already has a challenging homelessness problem that we are working tirelessly to solve and alleviate,” Lesher wrote. “What we are about to experience by releasing people onto the streets is an even worsening of our homelessness problem.”

“But every dollar spent to help process asylum seekers relocate to their destination cities is a dollar that cannot be spent on county residents who are financially struggling to afford decent housing or who suffer from mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction.”

On Monday, a Pima County spokesman said Newsweek Lesher's letter and data on immigration across the county. Newsweek Tucson officials and the Casa Alitas shelter also responded to emails seeking comment.

In response, Governor Lesher directed local agencies and departments to complete contracts and logistical arrangements with shelters as part of a “total shutdown” that goes into effect March 31.

The county's shelter services contractor, Catholic Community Services (CCS), was also notified that 30 shelter support staff members would no longer be employed as of the same date.

“We want to be extremely careful not to try to stretch out shelter operations until the last dollar, only to find ourselves in a situation where, days or weeks later, contractors bill us for unexpected reimbursable fees that we have to pay without any more funds available,” Lesher wrote. “The end of federal funding and the reduction of our complex shelter and transportation support system means that unsheltered releases could begin in Tucson as early as April 1.”

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero (a Democrat) and Tucson 5th District Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said: Arizona Daily Star In January, he warned of a “humanitarian crisis” resulting from reduced federal funding.

“Once federal funding dries up, neither counties nor cities can continue to use local tax dollars to help asylum seekers make the safe journey; this is a federal responsibility,” they wrote. “It is critical that the public, members of Congress, and President Biden understand the devastating impact that the loss of this federal funding will have.”

Even without federal funding, federal border agents have warned they would release more than 500 people a day in Tucson, as well as in rural areas like Nogales and Douglas, which don't have the same resources as larger communities.

“Who will help asylum seekers book flights and buses when there is a language barrier? Where will they get food and water? Where will they use the toilet? Where will they sleep? 500 more will be added tomorrow as the 500 released today try to figure out how to survive,” they said.

According to Reuters, Casa Alitas began as a church operation in 2014 and helps migrants primarily from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American countries, but also from West Africa, India and elsewhere. By 2023, the center had helped more than 180,000 asylum seekers, mostly families, who were allowed to stay legally in the U.S. while their cases were still being heard.