Board votes to fund transportation for asylum seekers leaving Border Patrol custody

Agent Edward Butron

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on March 24 to enter into transportation contracts to transport asylum seekers dropped off by Border Patrol at Ajo to Tucson. 

Border Patrol officials in Ajo had been releasing asylum seekers to the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), an Ajo nonprofit, which then asked asked Catholic Community Services to provide transport to Casa Alitas, a temporary shelter in Tucson, because ISDA has no facility to house them, according the County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry’s March 24 memo. In turn, Casa Alitas asked Pima County to provide the transportation to Tucson. 

The Border Patrol has also been dropping off migrants in Yuma and then the City of Yuma pays for transportation to Casa Alitas.

According to Pima County Spokesman Mark Evans, the county has since been included in communications between Border Patrol and NGOs, but Border Patrol continues to change the release date and times and the number of asylum seekers transported, which makes it “very difficult to plan for transportation.”

In an April 2 memo, Huckelberry reported that from March 19 to March 31, Border Patrol has released 315 asylum seekers at their station in Why, Arizona. He said the county has requested Border Patrol release asylum seekers awaiting transport at its Why station as they have been doing for the past week. The county is currently receiving proposals from transportation companies to transport individuals from Ajo or Why to Casa Alitas. 

In 2019, Border Patrol would transport asylum seekers to temporary shelters like Kino Event Center or El Pueblo Community Center, built in collaboration between the City of Tucson and the county, when they were processing about 1,000 individuals a day, said Huckelberry. 

Border Patrol officials informed Huckelberry that they would be unable to enter transportation contracts themselves with NGOS to transport asylum seekers directly to a temporary shelter, because it would violate the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from spending federal funds in excess of an appropriation, and from accepting voluntary services. 

When asked for clarification on when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would cite the Anti-Deficiency Act and why, a CBP official said the agency lacks the legal authority to provide or facilitate transportation of a person who has been processed for release, but will ensure that the release of any individual in their custody is done so safely while also ensuring that all operations are consistent with law. However, if CBP determines that the release of individuals directly from a specific facility is not safe, CBP will identify alternate locations in close proximity, which may include transportation hubs, government or Non-Governmental Organization facilities.

In June 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found CBP had violated the Anti-Deficiency Act when they used funds from the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Humanitarian Assistance and Security at the Southern Border Act of 2019, granted by Congress to respond to the surge of migrants in that year. GAO found CBP spent emergency funds for “consumables and medical care” on ATVs and a canine program and “did not provide any explanation as to how these items relate to the consumables and medical care line item.”

Huckelberry said the county is investigating the issue of the Anti-Deficiency Act. 

Transportation services provided on March 19-21 to move asylum seekers from Ajo to Casa Alitas cost $2,000, said Huckelberry, but he expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could reimburse the county for the transportation expenses. The contracts would also include rapid COVID-19 tests for asylum seekers, as Huckelberry was told Border Patrol only tests symptomatic individuals. Casa Alitas is providing rapid tests to asylum seekers. 

Of the 315 individuals released, only two tested positive for COVD-19 and were isolated. In his April 2 memo, Huckelberry said all individuals would be required to wear an N95 mask and go through temperature checks. If anyone’s temperature is above 100.4ºF, the individual and the family unit would be returned to Border Patrol, who would transfer them to their contracted medical provider. He stated drivers assisting with transport must be fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior and must wear a mask. 

Previously, CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller had said migrants are tested at the border before they are allowed entry into the U.S., but that is only for those being processed under Migrant Protection Protocols that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while awaiting court hearings. 

According to a CBP official, individuals processed in Arizona for release are not tested unless they display symptoms, but the overwhelming majority of encounters are being returned to Mexico through Title 42,  a public health emergency order that would allow CBP to expel those who may pose a health risk, using COVID-19 as the justification.

“CBP personnel conduct initial inspections for symptoms or risk factors associated with COVID-19 and consult with onsite medical personnel, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or local health systems as appropriate,” reads a statement from Customs and Border Patrol. “Onsite medical personnel can provide basic assessment and supportive treatment, but suspected COVID-19 cases are referred to local health systems for appropriate testing, diagnosis, and treatment. These COVID-19 procedures are consistent with longstanding CBP procedures for preventing the spread of communicable diseases.”

However, the number of migrants this year is higher than what was seen in 2019. Border Patrol had previously informed Pima County that they could see an increase of migrants of three times what was seen in 2019. In February CBP reported 100,441 encounters at the border, while in the same month in 2019 reported 76,545. 

In a briefing Friday morning, Deputy Chief of Border Patrol Raul Ortiz said the agency ended February with 380,000 apprehensions and said in 2019, when he was Acting Chief of the Del Rio Sector, they had over 859,000 apprehensions. Ortiz says he “fully expects to surpass that this fiscal year.”

Out of the 6,000 migrants processed Thursday, April 1, 1,900 were Title 8 while 300 were processed under Title 42, according to. Ortiz, who added that they continue to leverage Title 42 to expel individuals across the southern border, but this would not include unaccompanied minors.

Gov. Doug Ducey blames the current influx of migrants on the Biden Administration.

“Arizona’s southern border is broken. This is Joe Biden’s border crisis,” said Ducey at a press briefing on Wednesday, March 31. “Yet the Biden Administration has been anti-wall, and they have been absent without leave on this issue. Who couldn’t see this crisis coming when the policies of the previous administration were reversed willy-nilly, and the signals that have been sent into Central America has got the cartels as taking advantage of these people and these families and incentivizing them to make this dangerous journey?”

Ducey said that NGOs need help in housing the asylum seekers but urged the Biden administration to send a stronger message to discourage border crossers.

“These NGOs do need help,” Ducey said. “Second, we need clear communication from the Biden administration that the border is not wide open and there are not rooms available in America. And third, we need testing. The virus is still with us, it’s spreading. It’s certainly spreading in these close quarters of these communities and people are being infected, infecting others as they’re transported.”