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Like in Tucson, groups that aid migrants in metro Phoenix face a funding cliff

Shelters that aid migrants who are arriving in Arizona at record rates are in dire straits as federal funding runs out. The people who run Casa Alitas in Tucson told KJZZ News they are worried that migrants who usually come to them would end up on the streets soon without more funding.

Here in Phoenix, the Border Patrol usually drops off migrants who have been processed and released at the International Rescue Committee’s Welcome Center to help them on their way. But, the center’s director, Tomas Robles, said the IRC is also facing a funding cliff — even as they have taken in thousands of people recently.

Full interview

TOMAS ROBLES: You know, in 2023 the Welcome Center was really incredible and meeting the moment that we were in, especially with the high number of folks coming, crossing the border as you were mentioning. And so for us at the Welcome Center, we saw 49,000 asylum seekers come through our shelters last year in 2023 alone. And so far this year, we're on pace to hit 9,000 for the first two months.

And so usually these asylum seekers are here for one night to seek shelter, refuge and then be on their way to the next destination.

LAUREN GILGER: And a reminder there about how the Welcome Center works. Like these are migrants who have been processed by Border Patrol, released. They are awaiting sort of immigration hearings, and you help them get on their way essentially.

ROBLES: Absolutely. I mean, many of them have been through a long traumatic journey, especially at the border waiting on asylum because of policies over the last few years. So what the center provides is really, one, it lets them know where they're at. And many times many of our clients who come in don't even know what city or state they're in. We provide some very basic services. They get a night's rest and usually by the next day, about 98% of all migrants that come in through the center end up going to a different state, with about 2% staying in Phoenix or in other parts of Arizona.

GILGER: Yeah. So very, very few. And the idea here, right? Like the, the role that you're trying to play is, is to avoid what's, what's been widely called now, street releases, right? Where people are just released at a bus stop or wherever and, and sort of have no idea where they are, like you said, or, or, or how to get where they're going.

ROBLES: Absolutely. I don't know if folks would remember, listening to The Show, about 2018 when we saw rampant releases and a high alert for community organizations, government officials and local municipalities trying to figure out what to do with these releases. And this has really helped tremendously and just in showing that there's not an even a higher exponential growth in, in homelessness that we see, but also to be able to adapt to what we're, what the country is experiencing from an asylum seeking standpoint.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. So I know that funding is becoming a big challenge for many groups like yours Federal funding is running dry for many services that are working with migrants and other social services, for that matter. Tell us what it looks like for you. Are you worried about losing federal funding as well?

ROBLES: Absolutely. We've already lost an amount of federal funding. We're not receiving nearly as much funding this year as Maricopa County as a whole received last year. In fact, we're only receiving about a third of the, of the funding that the entire county received last year. And so just to keep in mind this, this funding doesn't just go to IRC. International Rescue Committee. It goes to all the shelters within Maricopa County that's doing this very important and crucial work.

And so that means that cuts will have to happen. And so how those cuts happen, whether it's services, whether it's shelters closing completely or whether it's reduction of services, there's a lot of potential dangers to not receiving the funding that we're used to receiving. And also that leads to putting more pressure on local governments, especially if shelters cannot meet this moment. That mean street releases could likely return in Phoenix and potentially in April, they could start happening in Tucson and Pima County as well.

GILGER: Yeah, we've heard about what's happening in Pima County as well. What's the cause of this? Like, is, is this essentially like COVID federal funding that that is drying up because it's been used up, or is this the result of, you know, that, that bipartisan immigration package in Congress not making it through?

ROBLES: It's a combination of many things, including those two points that you just made. I think one, some of this funding was going to address shelter and safety in many parts of the country. And so a lot of this money was diverted to working with asylum seekers and organizations like ours who services. But also you have a very political year in which, you know, we have the presidency up for an election, along with our other elections happening throughout the state.

And with immigration as always been a central and divisive issue. It's also led to the typical division that we see at the federal level. And that's a big reason why funding not only has been reduced but also delayed as heavily as it's been this year.

GILGER: So the loss of funding you really attribute to this kind of political divide?

ROBLES: I don't know how much percentage, but it is definitely a large percentage. When you're having to deal with the political debate along with the very real humanitarian need that we have right now. It can lead to a combination. We're not, we're not meeting the moment both politically and humanitarian and so that's, that's the danger that we're in right now.

GILGER: So what would this look like if you lose more funding? How long do you have funding through at this point?

ROBLES: Right now, if things don't improve or, or and change, we could be seeing a significant reduction on our capacity in terms of how many people we can service in June. And so what that could lead to is, for example, in Pima County, they could see hundreds of street releases happening beginning in April. And so it's very possible that you could see the same number, if not higher number, of street releases happening in Phoenix.

And so we're doing everything we can to prevent that. We're having conversations, but we're looking at that happening potentially in June if we aren't able to meet the moment.

GILGER: Let me ask you about those conversations, those other other possibilities, right? Like, I mean, if federal funding isn't going to come through, are there other places you can look?

ROBLES: We're doing that right now, we're working to try to secure private funding. Our biggest obstacle is just private funding requires time just like any other kind of fundraising mechanism or, or project. So it's going to take time. And also there's an immediate need. And the biggest thing is the funding reduction from the government has been so significant that obtaining private funding to support the work probably won't be enough this year, because because the need is so immediate and costs have gone up tremendously, in part due to inflation but also again, due to numbers rising at the border.

GILGER: What's the worst case scenario look like here for you?

ROBLES: Worst case scenario, if funding doesn't happen, we're looking at potentially the Welcome Center not being around in a year or two, if funding like this continues. And that leads to thousands of street releases happening in the city of Phoenix, much like 2018. And that's, I believe, something that we at the Welcome Center want to prevent along with local and state governments. Because I think what it also does besides just providing this much needed service to asylum seekers who come into the country, what it also does, it saves tremendous value in terms of monies that the city would have to spend to provide at least some of these very basic services that we provide.

It would cause tension around other city services like the police department or other humanitarian or social work departments, because now we have a slew of migrants that we have to address here in the city. And so it runs deeper than just the Welcome Center operating. But how the city is able to function as a community as well.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.