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N4T Investigators: Migrant Money

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TUCSON (KVOA) - County and city leaders have been asking for federal money to help care for migrants. 

Some have worried that without immediate funding taxpayers, they will be in no position to help. 

FEMA announced it plans to give more than $100 million to groups helping migrants. However, some local leaders have said the money needs to come now. 

“We don’t have the volunteers, we don’t have the medical care, we don’t have the staffing,” Steve Kozachik, Tucson City councilman said. 

Kozachik said Tucson has not seen a dime yet. 

The Pima County Board of Supervisors called an emergency meeting last week to address migrant transportation issues. 

“This is a crisis of epic proportions," Steve Christy, Pima County Supervisor said during the meeting said. "It’s the current administration in Washington, D.C. that should be addressing and aiding this situation, not Pima County.” 

"This is a health crisis that we can potentially help mitigate,” Adelita Grijalva, Pima County Supervisor said during the meeting. 

The county has said it has not paid migrant transportation fees yet, but a county spokesperson told the News 4 Tucson Investigators it needs to be prepared, as more migrants are released throughout the area. 

“We will continue to apply for and I believe that we are eligible for ... full reimbursement of the transportation cost,” Chuck Huckleberry, Pima County Administrator said during the meeting. 

But Christy said he is worried those reimbursement requests, “... will be lost in the shuffle and delayed and denied.”  

Casa Alitas, a migrant shelter has just a fraction of the room it once did.  

Diego Javier Pina Lopez, a program manager at the shelter said, “... capacity certainly has changed with the pandemic.” 

“Which was about 300 is now reduced to probably in the range of about 70,” Huckleberry said, while referring to the shelter’s capacity cut. 

“We’re going to have to do things like turning to look to vacancies at hotels to house people," Kozachik said. "That’s dollars ... Dollars that we don’t have.”  

During the emergency meeting, Huckleberry said, last week about 72 migrants were brought there. 

Three migrants tested positive for COVID-19.  

“In our conversations with the Border Patrol, they do not routinely test those individuals for COVID-19 unless they are obviously symptomatic,” Huckleberry said. 

He said the county is providing tests to nonprofits. 

It is part of the free testing available to everyone in the community.

But a county spokesperson said ultimately, the cost of responding to the pandemic is the responsibility of the federal government, so it will be the federal government that is ultimately paying for any necessary testing of migrants if it is conducted by one of the county’s testing contractors.  

When the News 4 Tucson Investigators asked if the Pima County Health Department is concerned about a spike in COVID-19 cases due to the increase in migrants coming into Arizona, Dr. Theresa Cullen, Pima County’s Public Health Director replied, “We’re always concerned about what the virus is doing. Our current largest anxiety is the various variants, especially the UK variant. As for migrants, no, we’re not concerned. We believe the Department of Homeland Security, the non-governmental organizations involved in responding to migrant releases, and the County Health Department have an effective and responsive surveillance plan, to include adequate testing.” 

Where is FEMA’s funding? Grant program applications open in April and will then need to go through an approval process.   

So, we asked our representatives what they're doing to help. 

In a statement Congresswoman, Kirkpatrick told the News 4 Tucson Investigators, “This is not the first time our community has attended to an influx of migrants at our southern border — in the past, we have met this moment courageously, together, even in the face of the Trump administration’s cruel policies at the border. That said, it is the first time we are challenged by an ongoing health emergency, which adds complexities to the issue. We have met with FEMA, the Tucson DHS Sector, County representatives, the Border Counties Coalition and local humanitarian groups, and it’s clear that our local governments and non-profits need more federal help. I have a few visits planned to our border towns in the coming weeks to hear from stakeholders directly, and my office is doing everything we can to ensure the White House is staying abreast of the reality on the border. In Congress, I am working with other offices to ensure federal funds make their way here to help provide food, shelter, transportation, and adequate COVID protection like PPE and testing to keep everyone safe. In the long term, however, we need comprehensive legislation to fix our immigration system, and I’ll be doing everything in my power to get the U.S. Citizenship Act passed in Congress.” 

A spokesperson for Senator Kelly’s Office said, “Senator Mark Kelly understands that we need a secure border and to fix our broken immigration system, he has been working with mayors and partners along the border to ensure a response that prioritizes public health and safety and that does not fall on the shoulders of border communities. Sen. Kelly and Sen. Sinema successfully worked to secure $110 million in the COVID-19 relief bill that will support communities and organizations assisting at the border. Sen. Kelly continues to urge the Administration and the Department of Homeland Security to provide the communication and resources necessary to support our border communities.” 

A spokesperson for Sen. Sinema’s Office pointed to this letter she and Kelly wrote to DHS which asked it to, “take immediate steps to ensure it has sufficient resources in Arizona to keep our communities safe and ensure migrants are treated fairly and humanely.”   

Congressman O’Halleran’s Office has not provided a statement as of yet. A spokesperson told the News 4 Tucson Investigators, they have been out of the office and have had minimal cell service as they have been connecting with those in the rural communities the Congressman represents.

In an interview with the News 4 Tucson Investigators, Congressman Grijavala said, “Cities and counties have been under siege and I understand their paranoia and their need for urgency but uh I think one has to understand we have a new administration. The attitude is different, the support and the resources are different...” 

Some have said that is not paranoia, it is reality.  

“There is not adequate sheltering in the hotels and the motels...all that will do is create an extensive health problem,” Christy said. 

According to CBP Chief, John Modlin, on Thursday alone, more than 130 undocumented immigrants were brought to Tucson.  

“I’ve had meetings with Homeland Security and Border Patrol, they’re saying we’re going to drop people off whether it's at the Alita's Center or at your city parks or at the bus station, we’re going to drop people off, you figure it out,” Kozachik said. 

We asked for a response to those claims. CBP replied with the following statement, “The unique challenges of the pandemic require additional authorities, such as the CDC order known as Title 42, to allow DHS to effectively protect both the health and safety of migrants and our communities from the spread of COVID-19. The border is not open, and the vast majority of people are being returned under Title 42." 

The Department of Homeland Security never responded.   

Have something you’d like for us to investigate? Email investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.    

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Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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