On the eve of a major change in immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Green Valley Council sent a warning to residents Tuesday to stay vigilant about “individuals or large groups of individuals,” in their neighborhoods.
“If you encounter individuals or large groups of individuals in or near your home or in your HOA, please call 911 immediately. Please do not approach these groups or individuals. Call 911 immediately and allow our law enforcement officers to respond appropriately to the situation,” the warning continued.
The letter comes on the brink of an anticipated surge of immigration activity border this week following the end of Title 42.
Enacted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Title 42 is an obscure public health rule that allows the federal government to immediately expel some migrants from the country in order to limit the spread of communicable diseases.
But like many other COVID-era public health measures, the Title 42 public health order will soon come to an end, officially lifting at 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on May 11.
Debbie Kenyon, president of the Green Valley Council, said the warning letter to the community came about after local law enforcement expressed concerns and uncertainties during a recent GVC meeting about what exactly the coming days will look like when it comes to cross-border traffic and migrant activity.
“Our concern is always for the safety of our community… We have many people who are living alone, we have many people here who are quick to be alarmed, and we just want them to know that the important thing is that if they’re concerned, to call 911, to talk to a dispatcher and let the professionals assure you moving forward,” Kenyon said Tuesday.
“We don’t want people to be alarmist, but to assess the situation and if they feel it’s something they’re concerned with, just simply call 911. It’s just a situation where we don’t know what is going to happen, and the (Green Valley Council) would rather have people aware that if you see anything, just make a phone call,” she said.
Though the end of Title 42 comes with a lot of uncertainty about just how many asylum seekers will be released into the county, Pima County officials say local residents do not need to be concerned with large groups of asylum seekers wandering the streets.
“The problem is, we don’t know what’s going to happen after May 11, but there will not be large groups of asylum seekers wandering the streets of Tucson, and especially certainly not Green Valley, looking for assistance,” said Mark Evans, Pima County spokesperson.
“There’s no reason anybody should think that…it’s just not going to happen.”
Evans emphasized that the anticipated surge relates to an increase in the number of asylum seekers released into Pima County, which from time to time has been confused with those who might have crossed the border illegally.
“The people the county is dealing with are people that have presented to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have requested asylum and have been granted asylum hearings by the federal government,” Evans said.
Asylum seekers are in the country legally.
Since 2019, Pima County has helped coordinate transportation and respite care for asylum seekers along with its partners at Catholic Community Services, which operates the Casa Alitas Welcome Center and other short-term shelters in the community.
“What we’re trying to do is help them go to other parts of the country where they have sponsors, which they have to have in order to meet the conditions of asylum seeking. That’s a lot different than people who are sneaking across the border and being caught by Border Patrol and being immediately deported,” Evans said.
So, what is going to happen Thursday?
According to a fact sheet released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), when the Title 42 order lifts at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on May 11, the United States will return to using Title 8 immigration laws to process and remove individuals who arrive at the U.S. border unlawfully.
These authorities carry steep consequences for unlawful entry, including at least a five-year ban on reentry and potential criminal prosecution for repeated attempts to enter unlawfully.
According to DHS, the return to processing under Title 8 is expected to reduce the number of repeat border crossings over time, which increased significantly under Title 42.
Individuals who cross into the United States at the Southwest border without authorization or without having used a lawful pathway, and without having scheduled a time to arrive at a port of entry, would be ineligible for asylum under a new proposed regulation, absent an applicable exception.
How many asylum seekers are expected to arrive in Pima County?
Officials say they expect the end of Title 42 will lead to an increase in the number of migrants who attempt to enter the United States, but just how many remains unclear.
“May 11 is a day that is fairly frightening for some of us,” County Administrator Jan Lesher told the Board of Supervisors at the May 2 board meeting.
“With the end of Title 42, we don’t know what that spigot is going to look like, whether (the number of asylum seekers) will continue to trickle or will be quite large,” she said.
Since 2019, the Department of Homeland Security has brought and released more than 150,000 individuals seeking asylum from dozens of countries into the Tucson area, but the numbers have varied greatly from month-to-month, making logistics and resources sometimes difficult to align.
According to a memo from the county’s Office of Emergency Management, the Casa Alitas Welcome Center (CAWC) received about 1,200 asylum seekers in May 2021.
That number has since swelled to a record 15,217 asylum seekers in December 2022, and at its peak, Pima County was serving up to 770 asylum seekers in a single day, and 3,725 in a single week.
A snapshot report during the week of May 5, 2023, revealed that federal partners released about 2,943 asylum seekers in the Tucson area – averaging about 430 per day – but officials say the current daily release rate could more than double when Title 42 ends Thursday.
Evans said the U.S. Border Patrol estimates they could be releasing as many as 1,500 people each day in the Tucson area as soon as this weekend.
“Our greatest concern right now is that with the end of the emergency declaration for May 11…people who have previously been either denied the ability to receive an asylum status or who have been waiting in Mexico are going to start coming across the border,” Evans said.
“We’re looking at a marked increase, from what we’re being told by the Border Patrol, in asylum seeker releases in the coming days, and those releases may exceed our shelter capacity,” he said.
How much shelter capacity does Pima County have?
With the Drexel Welcome Center, Casa Alitas Welcome Center and several other hotels that Pima County operates or runs through partnerships with the City of Tucson, the county’s current sheltering enterprise is estimated to handle about 1,000 people when fully operational, according to a county memo.
But Evans emphasized there are a number of structures and other partnerships in place that would still allow the county to meet a surge in asylum seekers beyond that limit, and said they’re working to avoid the possibility of any so-called “street releases” of asylum seekers in Pima County.
“We have been working with the federal government and with the state to make sure that if people are released in Tucson that exceed our capacity, we are able to still account for them,” he said.
“We’re working with nonprofit organizations in Phoenix to possibly try to divert people to Phoenix, and we’re also working with the federal government on decompression, which is a system where if one community gets overwhelmed, they will then do the transports to other parts of the border, like El Paso, Yuma or San Diego.”
And while the county’s current shelter facilities have a bed capacity for about 900 migrants, Evans said the number of asylum seekers that are actually able to be processed in the county could be higher.
Not every asylum seeker needs an overnight stay, Evans said, and on top of that, most asylum seekers are processed and headed on to their next destination – a sponsor or host family somewhere else in the U.S. – within 24 to 48 hours.
“Some people who are released to us already have travel arrangements, and really all they need is a ride to the airport or a bus station, and those are usually single adults traveling alone,” Evans said.
“It’s really only when it’s either families who are trying to get a flight or a ticket where they all can travel together that…it can take several hours, and that could go into the nighttime where they might need a bed to spend the night, and that’s sort of the ebb and flow of all of this. We have people leaving every day. We have people arriving every day. People arriving sometimes exceed those leaving. People leaving sometimes exceed those arriving – it’s always a moving target.”
What could all this mean for the future of asylum seekers in Pima County?
During the May 2 Board of Supervisors meeting, Dr. Francisco Garcia, deputy county administrator, said that while the end of Title 42 signals a “seismic shift” in border policy, the changes could have a beneficial impact on the flow of migrants across the border.
In addition to instating punishments for migrants who don’t enter the U.S. legally through a port of entry, the federal government is also hoping that establishing new pathways for asylum seekers – like establishing regional processing centers in countries like Colombia and Guatemala – and launching aggressive anti-smuggling campaigns will further facilitate the safe, efficient and humane professing of migrants.
“I think all of these things – and again we’re still trying to understand and read these tea leaves – are actually really positive actions and I believe that we will be better served two to three months down the road,” Garcia told board members.
“The challenge for us will be, what happens on May 12? And all of us should be wary, be concerned and be keeping our eyes open…our goal is to ensure the safety and security of the folks across Pima County by trying to assist these asylum seekers. That is, at the end of the day, what we are trying to do.”