Pima County racing to provide shelter for predicted surge of asylum seekers

Migrant welcome center is open and filling up
Published: Apr. 12, 2023 at 7:49 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - May 11, 2023 is an important day for Catholic Community Services of Arizona and Pima County.

It’s the day the COVID-19 health emergency officially ends, according to the White House.

That health emergency kept thousands of asylum seekers out of the U.S. under what is known as Title 42.

When Title 42 is lifted, more and more asylum seekers will be permitted to enter the country.

That’s bad news for CCS and the county because it means services that are already stretched, could possibly burst at the seams.

The number of asylum seekers who receive services in Tucson averages about 400 a day but sometimes spikes to 750.

Customs and Border Protection have told local officials that the numbers could exceed 1,500 a day.

“It’s difficult because we know 1,500 is not an obtainable number for shelter services in Tucson and there’s not much we can do to grow if it comes to that capacity,” said Teresa Cavendish, the Operations Manager for CCS. “Those resources simply do not exist.”

It was part of a conversation with Cavendish as she showed us around the new center for asylum seekers, Drexel Welcoming Center. It’s an old warehouse that is being converted into a shelter that is now housing single men.

It is being leased by Pima County for $330,000 for six months with an option to extend the lease if it becomes necessary.

“We receive everyone at this location, that includes families, that includes women and children and single men,” Cavendish said. “But we shelter overnight the single men at this location.”

Families are housed in local hotels or at Casa Alitas where they can have more privacy.

Drexel, which was formerly an abandoned warehouse is set up to hold 150 single men but workers are presently working to double the space.

“About 85% of the single men who are with us are from India,” Cavendish said.

Turmoil and religious persecution are causing single men to leave the country seeking asylum.

India today, Russia and Ukraine before that and Central America two years ago. Turmoil continues to shift the need for asylum. About the only constant is the continued increase in numbers coming to Pima County.

“I think we’ve tracked that 79 different languages have been spoken by the guests who come to us,” she said. “They have gone to all 50 states as part of their journeys.”

That calls for a nimble staff that will find the menu which best serves those who have journeyed this far.

“We’ve had big shifts in the type of food we’re serving because six months ago we had people who wanted to eat pork and beef and just a few vegetarians,” she said. “Now we have a shift.”

That shift is to feed the Indians who are largely vegetarian.

Many of those who reach the new south-side shelter will stay for a short time. For some it could be a few hours, for others a day or two at most.

Once they arrange transportation, CCS will get them to the airport or the bus terminal for free.

But before they leave, they must be COVID-free.

“The first thing is everybody who joins us gets a COVID test and those folks who are COVID-positive have the opportunity to go to a hotel for quarantine time in Tucson and medical oversight,” she said.

Some of them are quickly put on a bus and taken to Phoenix where their shelters are underutilized at the moment but it’s likely not enough if, or when, the numbers increase as predicted.