Gallego calls for migrant shelter law reform

Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego is putting forward a plan to overhaul the system that funds humanitarian migrant shelters in the wake of a public squabble with federal officials over border shelters.

Gallego, a 2024 Senate candidate, wants to codify how the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) new Shelter and Services Program (SSP) provides reimbursement or advanced payment to institutions that provide shelter to migrants, The Hill has learned.

“FEMA’s Shelter Services Program has been inadequate for Arizona’s border communities, nonprofits, and law enforcement since it was implemented. After examining all possible solutions, our office has determined the only path forward to make the program sustainable is through reform,” Gallego said in a statement.

SSP was created in the 2023 federal budget to replace the Emergency Food and Shelter Program-Humanitarian (ESFP-H) program, and Congress appropriated $800 million for the new program.

The change was deemed necessary as the Title 42 policy was wound down, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) could no longer quickly expel migrants under the guise of pandemic-era sanitary protections.

That change, and the ongoing migration phenomenon in the Western Hemisphere, meant CBP would have to release more people to the interior of the United States pending resolution of their immigration cases.

The end of Title 42 put border Democrats such Gallego, who is running for the seat currently held by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), in a bind.

On one hand, Title 42 was maligned by humanitarian groups that saw it as a violation of asylum rights and a Trump-era weaponization of the coronavirus pandemic against migrants.

On the other, the quick expulsions under Title 42 meant fewer releases of migrants into the interior by CBP, somewhat tampering the strain on social services caused by the onboarding of new arrivals.

Though Sinema has not yet announced whether she is running for reelection, she has taken a leading role in the Senate’s deliberations over border funding, an issue that’s been tied to aid for Ukraine.

Whether Gallego faces a three-way race with Sinema as an independent and a Republican — most likely former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake — or just a traditional red-vs.-blue contest, he will have to harmonize calls to protect migrant rights with calls to minimize the budgetary impact of CBP releases in border communities.

Gallego has often jumped into the fray since the end of Title 42.

In letters in May to President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and House Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger (R-Texas) and ranking member Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Gallego asked to streamline funding and cooperation with institutions providing shelter near the border.

Gallego’s new proposal would codify certain aspects of SSP, simplifying the processes to receive grants and removing red tape that sheltering institutions along the border have complained about.

In June, SSP received its first tranche of funding, starting the transition away from ESFP-H, which since 2019 had been administering migrant support funds, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

Through SSP, legislators hoped to streamline grants to local governments, law enforcement agencies, tribes and nonprofits providing shelter to migrants.

But according to Gallego’s office, the program has instead tangled up those grants in red tape, ironically due to a lack of regulations.

The statute governing SSP is little more than a few lines in the fiscal 2023 appropriations omnibus bill, transferring $800 million to FEMA to prevent overcrowding in CBP short-term holding facilities.

Though SSP manages shelter space related to CBP releases of migrants, the funding was directed for administration by FEMA because of that agency’s experience managing grant allocations.

Because SSP was new, Congress allowed FEMA to direct part of that $800 million back to ESFP-H, the precursor program, while SSP was fully set up.

In 2023, FEMA awarded $425 million to ESFP-H and $363.8 million to SSP, deliverable in two tranches, one for $291 million and another for $77.3 million.

Of that $291 million awarded in the first tranche in June, New York City received $104.6 million while Arizona received only $23.9 million.

Arizona legislators were irate.

In June, Gallego served FEMA with the first of several letters on the topic to administration officials, calling the agency’s funding choices “misguided.”

Arizona Sens. Mark Kelly (D) and Sinema in August complained to Mayorkas, Criswell and CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “has failed to establish a workable Shelter and Services Program (SSP) that adequately meets Arizona communities’ needs.”

The Hill has reached out to FEMA for comment.

Gallego in August called on Mayorkas to revise the funding model and in September asked Criswell to revise how shelter service recipients were accounted for to determine funding for individual shelters.

In that letter, Gallego invited Criswell “to see first-hand the different challenges faced in border states like Arizona as well.”

But FEMA officials declined the invitation in an email to Gallego’s office, saying the border is not in that agency’s “mission space.”

Gallego responded three weeks later with his six-point reform proposal, which would codify SSP more in line with the needs of shelter space providers on the border.

“Right now, FEMA is operating with little to no oversight, and that’s why my office is working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to draft legislation that holds FEMA accountable so we can do all we can to support Arizonans,” said Gallego.

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