As Pima County anticipates the imminent arrival of a significant number of asylum seekers who are expected to be released into the community, Dr. Theresa Cullen, the County Health Director, is pushing for an emergency declaration regarding the Public Health Emergency. The surge in arrivals, predominantly driven by legally processed asylum seekers, poses a substantial challenge for local authorities and public health initiatives.
Escalating Arrival Numbers and Financial Constraints
The County Administrator, Jan Lesher, highlighted the pressing issue in a recent memo dated December 7th. This communication outlined the county’s efforts to prepare for what has been described as the “inevitable” arrival of these asylum seekers, referred to as Legally Processed Asylum Seekers (LPAS), who will likely be released into the streets due to limited temporary shelter options.
Since July 2023, the Tucson Sector, encompassing a significant part of the Arizona-Mexico border, has experienced a staggering increase in Border Patrol releases of asylum seekers. The figures reported surpass the total numbers seen in both 2021 and 2022 combined, illustrating the unprecedented scale of this surge.
Strain on Financial Resources and Federal Aid Depletion
The burgeoning number of arrivals has strained the county’s financial resources, primarily reliant on federal aid to provide shelter, food, transportation, medical care, and travel assistance to asylum seekers. The exhaustion of FEMA funding, initially expected to sustain operations until 2023, has significantly impacted local efforts. Moreover, the newly introduced CBP/FEMA Shelter and Services Program (SSP) imposes restrictions on reimbursable hotel rooms and curtails transportation resources.
To mitigate the funding shortfall, Pima County has sought support from the state’s Immigrant Care and Testing program to compensate for the loss of other funds. However, the additional funding secured may not suffice, especially with the daily arrival of asylum seekers consistently exceeding 1,100 individuals.
Mitigation Strategies and Future Plans
In response to these challenges, Pima County is actively lobbying Congress for additional financial aid and seeking collaboration from the City of Tucson and other government entities to prevent street releases of asylum seekers. Efforts are underway to review program expenses, including meal costs, to find avenues for cost-cutting.
Jan Lesher emphasizes the need for proactive measures, stating that the county must prepare for the eventual expiration of federal funding and other financial sources. A proposed ad hoc committee comprising county staff and representatives from regional governments and non-governmental organizations aims to develop a plan to minimize adverse effects on border communities while minimizing the burden on local government budgets.
Public Health Emergency Declaration and Concerns
The specifics of Dr. Cullen’s proposed emergency declaration remain undisclosed in Lesher’s memo. However, Cullen’s concerns regarding the potential impact on public health due to the daily release of hundreds of asylum seekers in Tucson indicate the gravity of the situation.
Historical Context: Previous Emergency Declarations
This isn’t the first time Pima County has grappled with an emergency declaration. In March 2020, an emergency declaration was enacted amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the Board of Supervisors to implement stringent measures, including restrictions on public gatherings and businesses. Notably, Governor Doug Ducey’s state emergency declaration, lifted two years later, imposed various actions to address the pandemic’s impact.
In conclusion, Pima County faces a multifaceted challenge in managing the influx of asylum seekers while grappling with strained financial resources and potential public health risks. Mitigation strategies, lobbying for additional funding, and collaborative efforts are pivotal in addressing these challenges effectively.