By Steve Christy
Our country is currently in the throes of border, humanitarian, and immigration crises. Not since the Vietnam War have I seen such divisiveness and polarization beleaguering our society. Pima County is not immune to this emergent situation. The mid-town located and iconic former Benedictine Monastery has provided shelter and care for thousands of asylum seekers for many months now. The numerous stories of many migrants seeking asylum in America are horrific and heart wrenching, as they journeyed their dangerous and arduous pathways to get here. The work of hundreds of selfless volunteers to give them comfort and aid illustrates the absolute best in human concern and caring.
Yet the multi-layered costs and risks to Pima County taxpayers are not only daunting but also virtually incalculable, as we try to address this emergency – an emergency, in my opinion, not of our doing nor the responsibility of our county taxpayers. As the owners of the former monastery move forward with their redevelopment plans, the identification of a new asylum seeker processing location and the responsibility of running it came to a painful head during a special board of supervisors meeting called on July 22.
In a nutshell, there were three divergent positions taken by several different entities seeking some sort of acceptable resolution to this crisis. One approach was to utilize un-used space at the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center and re-purpose it to house asylum-seeking migrants. Much of the operational costs of this space would be borne by Pima County with Catholic Community Services managing both the facility and the humanitarian aid.
A second strongly voiced position was that this former detention center and jail was inappropriate to house those seeking asylum, as it was not a “welcoming” space optically and would further traumatize those housed there. Proponents of this position additionally felt the other humanitarian and faith-based groups deserved a greater “seat at the table”; rather than just allowing one organization, CCS, to run and be in control of all aid and sheltering efforts.
The third approach, which I promoted, was simply that Pima County, and more importantly, Pima County taxpayers, should not be in the migrant shelter business. If we were to ask residents if they wanted to pay with their tax dollars to shelter, feed, give medical care and other free services to asylum seekers as they transit through our community into our country’s interior, I believe their answer would be a resounding no.
Faith-based, not-for-profits and non-governmental organizations should take the lead and shoulder the responsibility of addressing this humanitarian crisis. It should be a collaborative effort among all not-for-profits, regardless of their individual missions, and not the predominant task of just one social service agency, even though Catholic Community Services is doing a magnificent job.
I called upon the not-for-profit and the non-government organizations (NGO) stakeholders to hold an emergency, region-wide summit. The best and the brightest members of our community serve on their boards and as their executives and I see no reason why, with all hands on deck, together, they cannot come up with a solution to this crisis that is not saddled on the backs of Pima County taxpayers. The not-for-profits and NGOs should be actively pursuing federal funding to address this – a federal issue. Asylum seeker processing is not the responsibility of Pima County government, nor should Pima County taxpayers be forced to foot the bill.
Additionally, included in the first approach was the manipulation of the Stonegarden Grants conditions of acceptance, which is most concerning. The recapture of expenses associated with the grant’s acceptance was a primary condition, and now magically is included in the humanitarian relief condition of acceptance. Nearly one-half of the Stonegarden Grant – ultimately rejected last year by this Board – some $530,000 would be spent on asylum seeker aid, rather than on law-enforcement. Humanitarian aid has never been approved from Stonegarden Grant funds by the Federal Government. All County efforts and plans are hinged upon the hope of reimbursement with no guarantees at any level, and discussion of lawsuits against the Federal Government is just what this County needs – another lawsuit.
Further, providing public property and services to asylum seekers raises the issue of the county’s potential exposure to legal claims resulting from possible illness, theft, injury, assault or even death, an issue that has yet to be fully addressed. I requested that the Pima County Attorney provide the supervisors with a legal opinion on this matter. It is a well-known fact that such litigation seeks out deep pockets, and in this instance Pima County and its taxpayers have the deepest pockets.
Unfortunately, the board’s majority passed the first approach and asylum seeker processing will be co-located with the Juvenile Detention Center, and now county taxpayers are responsible and will be exposed in so many different ways.