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Federal funds are headed to Arizona-Mexico border. How they should be spent depends on who you ask

Congress passed a long-awaited spending package that includes money for more Border Patrol agents, ICE operations and FEMA’s Shelter and Services Program. If there’s one thing all of Arizona’s four border counties can all agree on, it’s that managing the border is a federal responsibility that needs federal money. But not everyone agrees on exactly what that means. 

On a quiet afternoon at a migrant shelter run by Casa Alitas, in Tucson’s southwest side, program director Diego Piña Lopez looked out at a sea of green cots. A string of flags from different countries hangs from the ceiling.

“We are at our Drexel location, where we’re able to shelter roughly 400 people a day here, and we also received all the guests from the surrounding counties as well as released in Tucson, in this location,” he said.

It’s a short but vital stop for thousands of asylum seekers and migrants released by the Border Patrol to pursue immigration cases in the US. Volunteers and staff are helping migrants with medical care, hot meals and travel arrangements to join family and sponsors.

This site is one of several run by Casa Alitas around Tucson, and the whole operation has been on the brink. Pima County officials estimate the program currently costs about $1 million a week to run, and they’ve warned that without more federal funding to keep it going, they’d be forced to dramatically scale back. 

Fears of street releases, closing migrant care programs

Piña Lopez says that would mean, for the first time in years, migrants might have to be dropped off by the Border Patrol at local bus stations, rather than at shelters like this one.

"The hard thing is how many families are we talking about on the streets here in Tucson, and not only just Tucson, in Nogales, Douglas. What does that look like for Phoenix, too. What does that look like when you have a mom with a 3-year-old dropped off at the bus station in downtown Tucson?" he said. 

In the lead up to an expected funding cliff on March 31, Casa Alitas had been brainstorming various cost-cutting measures, and had even begun the process of laying off staff members.

But a respite finally came over the weekend — when President Joe Biden signed into law a sweeping  $1.2 trillion spending package that included some $650 million for FEMA’s Shelter and Services Program, which local entities like Pima County use to fund migrant and asylum seeker care programs. 

Piña Lopez says they now expect the money to come through by April 1 — just one day after the previous funding cliff — and should be enough to fund the next three months. But, he says, it feels like renting month-to-month.  

“And in this operation, this scale, that’s what three months kind of feels like. So having more assurances and more resources to go for a prolonged period of time will help us all work through the challenges we’re facing,” he said. 

'Same situation in three or four months'

Pima County is set to get roughly $12 million of that fund. County Supervisor Adelita Grijalva says it’s welcome news, but it’s a Band-Aid. 

“This helps a lot, but I think that unfortunately what will happen is if we don’t figure out a more consistent and solid funding stream, then we’ll be in the same situation in three or four months,” she said. 

Grijalva says the only way for Congress to address these issues long-term is comprehensive immigration reform and work permit initiatives.

“I am a the granddaughter of a bracero, so I understand there used to be legal processes by which people come to this country and work, and now that system is broken,” she said. “None of us, unless we are Native American, are from here, so I think it’s important that we acknowledge that and have a Congress and Senate that is going to work toward real comprehensive reform and not these Band-Aids, because what it’s doing is villainizing migrants.”

Officials in Arizona’s southeastern-most Cochise County say federal funding helps. But it’s not paying for everything — state politicians have for years asked for reimbursements for border response efforts and come up empty. 

According to Cochise County Sheriff's Commander Robert Watkins, DHS released 39,000 people there since May. Without funding for busing — which currently comes from the state — he paints a dark picture.

“So, things are going to get Western here, we don’t know what's going to happen,” he said. “When the amount of people DHS releases from their facilities here exceeds busing capacities, they find shelters for them, or like churches open up their doors, sometimes the city of Bisbee will open up their council chambers and allow them to sleep in there.”

Short-term and long-term solutions

Watkins says he’s also concerned with what happens next for asylum seekers and migrants.

“Once they’re done being processed they are here legally in the country in the eyes of the federal government, but they’re not given a Social Security number and a shot at the American Dream,” he said. 

The new infusion of federal funds should push back the possibility of street releases for now. But aid workers say the clock will start ticking again at the end of June. 

Republican lawmakers say they have no confidence the funding will do anything to really secure the border. Arizona state Sen. Janae Shamp (R-Surprise) doesn’t want more busing at all.

“Well, it’s not a long-term solution at all, and you’ll hear me saying this very often as a nurse. If you put a Band-Aid on a bleeding wound, it is not going to stop bleeding. That’s what we’re looking at here,” she said. 

Shamp and other GOP lawmakers say what they really want is to finish the border wall and reinstate pandemic-era restrictions at the border. 

She says divvying $650 million to the border response is insulting when the federal government is spending billions on other causes. 

Gov. Katie Hobbs has also pointed the finger at the federal government this year for not doing enough on border security. 

Her spokesperson, Christian Slater, said the new funding is good, but it would have been better with some border security legislation attached.

“We would have liked to see this happen earlier. We also would have liked to see the bipartisan piece of legislation congress was considering about a month ago pass because we believe that would have been very important for securing our border,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and other lawmakers unveileda bipartisan bill in February that tied military funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan to a border security package that included changes to the asylum system, immigrant work permit processes and additional Border Patrol resources, among other things. But the package failed to get the votes to pass. 

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