In Absence of Federal Money, Local Governments Spend Millions to Help Asylum Seekers

President Trump's ending of the safe release program is costing cities and counties. Congress is debating a bill that would at least partially reimburse them.
by | June 28, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
Migrants standing near the border with a border patrol agent.
Migrants seeking asylum turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on the El Paso, Texas, side of the Rio Grande. (TNS/Los Angeles Times/Gary Coronado)

SPEED READ:

  • Since President Trump ended the so-called safe release program last fall, local governments have been picking up the costs of handling asylum seekers.
  • The expenses have cost San Diego County, Calif., an estimated $2.3 million so far.
  • The problem isn't just along the southern border.
 

As Congress enters a standoff over a $4.6 billion border aid bill, scores of local governments say financial relief can’t come fast enough.

Cities and counties, particularly along the border with Mexico, are spending millions of dollars screening people entering the country seeking asylum and placing them in a temporary home while they await their legal hearing. It’s a job the federal government used to do until last fall when President Trump ended the so-called safe release program that processed asylum seekers and set them up with housing.

“The feds need to step up,” says San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob. “They have federal property here; they have the resources. They need to work to take care of these people who are legally coming in here as asylum seekers -- not dump them on us.”

California's San Diego County has spent at least $2.3 million helping asylum seekers since the beginning of this year. More than half of the money is paying for health assessments to screen for infectious diseases that could present public health threats if gone undetected.

The actual cost to the region, says Jacob, is likely much higher when taking into account the expenses of local nonprofits and volunteers. At its peak in March, the county shelter was processing 835 people each week. This month, the average has been 410 per week.

A similar story is playing out in New Mexico, where U.S. immigration authorities were until recently releasing more than 1,000 refugees a day between El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M., according to local reports. Las Cruces shelters became so overwhelmed that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office helped coordinate bus transfers to Denver.

Not all asylum seekers are crossing the southern border. The Northeast, for example, is contending with an influx of migrants from Africa.

Portland, Maine, has screened more than 300 people since the beginning of the year, most of whom are still in the city’s shelter. How to pay for those costs -- and future ones -- held up passage of the city’s budget this week. Local lawmakers are appealing to the governor to reverse the previous administration’s policy that blocked the state from providing aid to asylum seekers.

Although Portland hasn’t tallied up its costs yet, Mayor Ethan Strimling estimates they are somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 so far. Some of that may be covered by donations that have been pouring in to help migrants.

Looking ahead, there’s still a good chance the feds could alleviate some of the costs to local governments. The aid bill pending in Congress includes $30 million in reimbursement funds. However, that money is spread across localities and nongovernmental organizations across the country.

Both the U.S. House and Senate passed measures this week allocating more than $1 billion to shelter and feed migrants detained by border patrol and nearly $3 billion to care for unaccompanied migrant children.

The House measure, which President Trump says he would veto, contains higher standards for the treatment of migrant children.

 

In Other Public Finance News:

 

Who Gets What in Oklahoma’s Opioid Settlement?

Oklahoma officials have agreed on how to divvy up the state’s $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceutical, ending a month-long squabble over who would control the money.

The deal announced Monday requires that the money be deposited in a state “opioid lawsuit settlement fund.” It gives power to the legislature to make specific appropriations solely to curb opioid abuse in the state.

The fight was largely a reaction to the state’s first opioid settlement. That case against Purdue Pharma was worth $260 million -- but very little of it went directly to states and localities that are bearing the financial cost of the crisis. Most of the money -- $200 million -- went toward establishing the National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa.

In both cases, attorneys' fees and payments were in the millions.  About $60 million of the Purdue settlement went toward legal fees; in the Teva case, attorneys will receive 15 percent of the total (or nearly $13 million), plus reimbursement for their expenses.

 

The Pension Funding Gap Widens

The disparity between well-funded public pension systems and those that are fiscally strained has never been greater. That’s one of the key findings from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ latest pension funding study released this week.

Overall, the report found that state pension funds combined for a $1.28 trillion deficit in 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available. While this is an improvement from the $1.35 trillion gap reported the previous year, total employer payments in 2017 still fell short of what was owed -- by nearly $28 billion.

The three states with the highest funded ratio -- South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin -- were, on average, between 97 percent to 103 percent funded in 2017. Kentucky, New Jersey and Illinois have the worst-funded retirement systems in the nation.

In the first three states, policymakers have consistently made their full pensions payments. In the latter three, they haven’t.

 

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