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As funding runs out, Tucson could ask Border Patrol to drop migrants off at air force base

The Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector has seen a high share of the total number of migrants and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border over the last several months. 

Officials in Pima County are trying to find new ways to provide migrant care amid a funding shortfall from the federal government. 

Pima County officials have worked with the city of Tucson and aid groups since 2019 to provide migrant services like transportation aid and temporary shelter.

Mayor Regina Romero told City Council members this month that the collaboration has allowed the city to avoid street releases — where migrants are dropped off by the Border Patrol at places like bus stops.

"We have been really able to avoid catastrophe," she said. "But it really is not the responsibility of Pima County and city of Tucson."

Federal funding that sustains that effort is set to run out by March 31. Romero said local funds can’t fill the gap.

Councilmembers discussed several options for what could come next — including asking the Border Patrol to drop off migrants at a federal facility, like the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and getting more assistance from the state.

Aid groups brace for street releases

Those allowed to enter the U.S. and await immigration hearings are often helped by aid groups in Phoenix and Tucson. Aid groups in both cities say that process is threatened as the federal funding it uses from FEMA is running out.

Diego Piña Lopez is program director for asylum seekers at Casa Alitas —the Tucson-based aid group helping migrants processed along the border throughout southern Arizona. The group has been active since 2014 with various funding — including at one point with donations alone.

"We adapted and modified to support so many people, just having the resources of a five bedroom house, and we moved from there to hotel rooms, to a monastery for about five, six months," he said. "We’re not only supporting the guests that are coming to our shelter, the asylum seekers, who are legally processed here, but we’re supporting the greater Tucson community, preventing street releases of, you know, we’re talking about 500, 900 people a day in downtown Tucson," he said.

Pina Lopez says street releases would strain public services in Tucson, like medical centers, and would also put asylum seekers at risk. But they could happen as early as April without new FEMA funding.

Tomas Robles is the asylum seekers and families director with the International Rescue Committee, which runs an aid site for asylum seekers in Phoenix called the Welcome Center. He says funding shortfalls are a concern everywhere.

"The delay in the funding is going to have just ramifications throughout the country, especially in these shelters and locations like ours that service literally thousands of migrants per month," he said. "There's many shelters right now that are facing potential closures immediately because the funding has not come down."

Robles says the IRC has also been able to avoid street releases so far in Phoenix. But it’s facing its own potential funding cliff in June — as the future of the FEMA funds remains unclear.

More stories from KJZZ

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.