Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for Catholic Community Services, talks to the media Wednesday during a tour of the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center. 

The Pima County Board of Supervisors has given the OK to an operating agreement that would turn part of the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center into a shelter for asylum seekers.

But Monday’s special meeting also exposed divisions in how local faith and activist groups believe the influx of asylum seekers into Tucson should be handled. Many of the groups, who routinely collaborate on social issues, were upset they were shut out of the conversation.

The board voted, 3-2, to approve the deal after nearly two hours of public comment. The agreement with Catholic Community Services provides access to the detention facility for five years through CCS’s Casas Alitas program.

CCS, which has taken the lead at the Benedictine Monastery for months, was the target of several negative comments from speakers who claimed their organizations have been just as heavily involved in helping migrants but now have been shut out. The monastery in midtown Tucson is scheduled to close Aug. 6, leading to Monday’s emergency meeting to figure out a plan to house migrants passing through the area.

The monastery has served about 7,500 migrants this year, most from Central America. They have been cleared to pursue asylum in the United States and are in Tucson for a few days while transitioning to hosts and family around the country.

The opposition

Many of the speakers Monday said housing families, even for a few days, at a juvenile facility is inappropriate because of the stark conditions and potential chilling psychological effects. Others said using federal Operation Stonegarden funds — which boosts collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration agencies — is wrong, calling it “dirty” money.

“In no way can a state institution become a welcoming and humane facility,” said Billie Fidlin, Director of Outreach for the United Methodist Church’s Desert Southwest Conference. “These are vulnerable people who have already been through so much.”

But Blake Gentry, a UA researcher and Tucson advocate, said, “What we do is more important than the architecture itself.”

Peg Harmon, CEO of Catholic Community Services, said they had visited 25 potential shelter sites across the county since April 1 looking for a shelter.

Several other speakers said their longtime commitment to work with migrants was overlooked as the county sought a plan to deal with the influx.

“To make any decisions without having them (faith communities) involved in the conversation in a meaningful way is wrong,” said Pastor Efrain Zavala of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tucson.

Supervisors Richard Elías and Ramón Valadez apologized for not including more groups in the community in the talks, and Elías suggested that housing migrants at the juvenile detention facility could be temporary if a better plan is offered.

Elías acknowledged the division among groups “who have worked on issues together for years.”

Supervisor Steve Christy, who represents Green Valley and part of Sahuarita, opposed the county’s plan to offer the detention facility, saying he didn’t think taxpayers wanted their money to go for such work. He called for an emergency regional meeting of faith groups to deal with the issue outside of government.

The board vote was split along party lines, with Republicans Christy and Ally Miller opposing the plan, and Democrats Sharon Bronson, Elías and Valadez supporting — though not enthusiastically. Few in the audience of about 200 people appeared happy with the outcome.

Paying for it

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said Pima County has applied for three federal grants to cover the costs associated with the detention facility. Two applications for $530,000 each — the cost he projected to operate the facility through Dec. 31 — have been made to the Department of Homeland Security. A third application has been made through a recently approved congressional humanitarian aid plan for $1.5 million.

“We’re fairly confident that one or more of those grants will be approved,” he said Monday.

The monastery is the third-largest shelter in the United States, said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for CCS. The organization operates the monastery and two smaller shelters as part of its Casas Alitas program.

Last week, Huckelberry said supervisors should sign a cooperative agreement — not a lease — with CCS that would allow the organization to use 19,000 square feet of the Ajo Way facility to house immigrants. That was a switch from a $100-per-year lease originally put forward. Either side can opt out of the agreement with 30 days’ notice.

Dan Shearer | 547-9770

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