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'Calm before the storm': How Valley cities are preparing to help migrants

Mesa mayor says border surge 2 years ago showed feds need to provide money. Refugee-aid group reports quadrupling number of asylum seekers it's helped this year.

PHOENIX — Valley cities are bracing for a surge of migrants as the Biden administration struggles to control the southwest U.S.-Mexico border. 

“This does feel like the calm before the storm, but it's deja vu all over again,” Mesa Mayor John Giles said in an interview Monday.

Giles was consciously mixing his metaphors as he looked ahead to what’s expected to be a historic number of migrants trying to cross the border, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Giles was also looking back to a border crisis two years ago, when he visited El Paso and lobbied the then-acting Homeland Security secretary for federal funds.

“I'm just afraid we haven't learned that lesson well enough,” he said. “People are justifiably concerned.”

Here are three things to know about the border surge’s potential impact on the Valley:

Cities seeking federal aid: Giles said U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement gave him a head's up three weeks ago that migrants were being dropped off in Mesa. 

“There were busloads of individuals being brought to the community to be released,” Giles said he was told. “So I know it is happening.”

Giles said he learned two years ago that cities need federal dollars right now to help Valley non-profits and faith groups care for migrants.

“To their credit, the Biden administration has sent folks out at the top levels to talk to the leadership of Phoenix and Mesa,” Giles said.

In Phoenix, the spokeswoman for Mayor Kate Gallego said Gallego had several conversations with ICE and DHS.

“They have not so far asked for any support from us” for housing migrants, spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer. 

Convention centers in Dallas and San Diego are being used to house migrants.

L’Ecuyer said the city was studying whether it could use money from the new coronavirus relief package for non-profits that help migrants.

“The greatest concern,” L’Ecuyer said, “is the specter of unaccompanied minors placed in hotels that we don’t know about.”

News reports last year revealed that a Hampton Inn hotel near Sky Harbor Airport was housing children that were in the care of an ICE contractor. The hotel chain banned the contractor. 

The same contractor had also used vacant Phoenix office space to detain migrant children. 

“This is something the mayor has kept a close eye on,” L’Ecuyer said. “The biggest issue there was we didn’t know children were being housed with people who are not their parents.”

What’s happening at the border: Most of the migrants are asylum seekers slowly being allowed into the country by the Biden administration, as well as unaccompanied children who show up at the border without guardians.

The International Rescue Committee is Phoenix reports providing humanitarian assistance to almost 3,000 asylum seekers so far this year, nearly four times the number - 825 - for the same period a year ago. 

“One of the biggest differences between what’s happening at the border today versus what happened two years ago is that in the four years of the Trump Administration they systematically shut down asylum,” said Laura St. John, legal director for the Florence Project.

Florence Project provides free legal and social services for migrants being held in federal detention centers at the border. 

Many of the organization’s current clients are asylum seekers who have been kept in limbo by the Trump Administration’s “Remain in Place” order.

“There is a certain level of desperation amongst a number of people who have already been forced to wait in Mexico for years and years,” St. John said, “and a lack of clarity about exactly when they will be allowed to enter the country. 

“People’s lives are very much in danger in these Mexican towns where they’re being forced to wait.”

The Biden administration has kept in place the Trump Administration policy of expelling adults under a public health emergency law, Title 42, invoked during the pandemic.

“The government is simply expelling people who attempt to enter the country at any place other than a port of entry,” St. John said. 

“Most people who do cross the border are being turned around very quickly.”

What members of Congress are saying: Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn urged  President Biden “to use your  full authorities to effectively respond to... the ongoing crisis at Southwest border." 

Republican Congressman Andy Biggs of Gilbert, leader of the House Freedom Caucus, called on the Biden administration to confirm whether it’s releasing undocumented immigrants without future court dates.