TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A deal is in the works to house asylum seekers inside Pima County’s juvenile justice facility.
The county has tentatively agreed to lease an unused section of the juvenile facility so Catholic Community Services and other charitable organizations can “continue to provide aid to asylum seekers deposited in Tucson by the federal government.”
CCS has been using the Benedictine Monastery for almost a year, but the owner of the monastery is redeveloping it and CCS has to leave by July 26.
For the last two months, Pima County, the city of Tucson and others have been working to find a new location.
The monastery operates as a way station for asylum seekers.
The migrants turn themselves over to federal agents at the border and are processed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many are released while the government processes their asylum claims and most then leave to live with relatives across the country.
While the migrants are waiting to arrange travel, they stay at the monastery for two or three days. Since fall 2018, CCS and other community partners have provided aid to nearly 10,000 people.
Rev. Edward J. Weisenburger, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, wrote a letter to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry on July 3, asking the county to lease a portion of the juvenile facility to CCS.
“The monastery was very attractive, but it didn’t have the proper plumbing system to take care of the people," says Weisenburger. It really didn’t have the right infrastructure to take care of people for a few hours of a few days. This is a facility made for that purpose. The monastery was a blessing at the right time seven months ago, but it’s being redeveloped, so Catholic community services has been scrambling to find a new home. The new facility, it seems, is a second blessing.”
The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote on the lease at its next meeting, which is set for Aug. 6. In his letter, the bishop said CCS needs to get its operations running before that meeting.
“We’ve already envisioned the transformation, so for us, it’s just knuckling down to the work. It will be welcoming and a blessed place for the people to be,” says Teresa Cavendish.
That’s why Huckelberry gave county staff approval to begin drafting the lease and preparing the vacant facility for use. He also notified the Board of Supervisors of Weisenburger’s request.
The lease will cost $100 per year. Pima County would pay for operating and maintenance costs, which include utilities, food and laundry.
The county said CCS, with the county’s assistance, will “modify the leased section so that it is a warm and welcoming place of refuge where its temporary residents will be treated with respect and dignity.”
Huckelberry said the county could be reimbursed by getting humanitarian aid funding from the Operation Stonegarden program.
“There’s really no taxpayer expense. There’s an eligible reimbursement, pursuant to a federal rule. We intend to apply for reimbursement of all costs so, therefore, there’s no local taxpayer commitment to this effort,” says Huckleberry.
In his letter to the board of supervisors, Huckelberry said he will request they support the proposal.
“It’s probably as ideal as any you can find to provide the level of service that’s needed at frankly, very little cost," says Huckleberry.
Weisenburger said there was a “moral imperative” to open a new shelter before the monastery closes as a temporary housing site for migrants at the end of the month.
“There is no sign that the DHS drop-offs of asylum seekers, primarily from Central America, is going to abate,” he wrote. "If the Tucson and Pima County community do not respond and provide aid to these desperate people then they will be left on the streets of Tucson to fend for themselves. We have no choice but to provide the much-needed aid, which is a moral imperative of our faith.
“As we make this request, we want to emphasize that the asylum seekers are in the United States legally and have been released by a DHS agency to Catholic Community Services or another partner in order to remain in the U.S. while their asylum claim is processed."
More than a dozen other locations were considered, but only the juvenile facility met the criteria set by the Diocese and CCS.
Those criteria are:
- A space large enough to provide safe, sanitary overnight quarters for at least 200 people with the potential to increase to 300 people assisted on a daily basis
- Capacity for at least 50 volunteers to provide humanitarian aid and travel processing
- Immediately available and in good condition
- Affordable leasing terms for at least one year
- A central location with proximity to the airport and bus station