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City has not spent any of $250K allocated to help asylum-seekers

A family from Guatemala seeking asylum in the U.S. walks in a street in Ciudad Juárez after being returned from the U.S. to a Mexican immigration processing facility last month. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

A family from Guatemala seeking asylum in the U.S. walks in a street in Ciudad Juárez after being returned from the U.S. to a Mexican immigration processing facility last month. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Three months after the Albuquerque City Council approved spending $250,000 to help asylum-seeking migrants passing through town, the funds remain untouched.

Officials say they have not yet had occasion to spend the money as changing policies have reduced the number of migrants needing temporary shelter in New Mexico’s largest city.

Mariela Ruiz-Angel, coordinator of the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, said the flow of migrants into Albuquerque slowed to a trickle in early June, which she attributes largely to the Department of Homeland Security’s expansion of its “remain in Mexico” program. The initiative requires many asylum applicants who are processed at the border to wait in Mexico until their hearings in U.S. immigration court.

Previously, U.S. authorities would process migrants and release them into the country. In Albuquerque, a network of faith-based and community organizations emerged to host the migrants for a few days as they made arrangements to meet with relatives or other sponsors around the country while they awaited their hearings. Those waits can be more than a year.

Federal immigration agencies bused the migrants to Albuquerque to meet up with the groups.

Ruiz-Angel said the local organizations have collectively hosted about 4,000 migrants since February but have not had a full busload since mid-June.

She said that given the current situation, she doesn’t know whether the city will ever see similar numbers, noting that El Paso has increased capacity to help migrants, with a shelter that can accommodate more than 1,000 people.

“Just from understanding what’s happening in the news, I don’t anticipate we’ll be getting (more) busloads unless there’s a huge shift,” she said.

The Albuquerque City Council voted May 6 to approve the $250,000 expenditure. The money was intended to help organizations already providing support to the migrants, and the city subsequently reached reimbursement agreements with five of them: Albuquerque Interfaith, Catholic Charities, the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, Lutheran Family Services, and St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church. The contracts enable the city to pay the groups up to $2,000 per busload of asylum-seekers hosted.

But Ruiz-Angel said that by the time the contracts were completed a few weeks after the vote, the flow of asylum-seekers had slowed significantly.

“It was maybe 50 or 100 (people) a week, compared to our 400” previously, she said.

According to numbers from the U.S. Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which includes all of New Mexico, 13,508 families and 1,311 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody in June. That is down from 29,815 family units and 3,256 unaccompanied children in May.

In addition to the “remain in Mexico” initiative, Mexico in June deployed thousands of its National Guard troops to the border to stop migrants before they could cross the border to seek asylum in the U.S. The deployment happened after President Donald Trump threatened the country with higher tariffs on its products.

Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, who sponsored the resolution to allocate the $250,000, said this week that he thinks the money will eventually be needed to help asylum-seekers.

“There is no doubt the need will reemerge as long as the president keeps creating these crises,” he said in a written statement. “And, now, we’ll be ready instead of scrambling like we did before.”

The city’s contracts with the five nonprofits enable reimbursement through the end of 2019, but Ruiz-Angel said they could be amended to run through the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2020.

If the city has not spent the money at that point, she said, it would revert to the city’s general fund.

Catholic Charities CEO Jim Gannon said Monday that the nonprofit and its large roster of volunteers has served about 1,200 migrants since late February during their short stays in Albuquerque. Gannon estimated the effort had cost $250,000. The money came from donations from Catholic parishes and other Catholic organizations but also from individuals and congregations of many other faiths.

But Catholic Charities has not taken a busload in the past 1½ months, because of dramatically lower demand.

Gannon said the nonprofit is prepared to quickly mobilize again should the need arise, comparing the volunteer corps to “minutemen” ready for a call.

“We’re like a bear in hibernation right now,” he said.

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