Gov. Katie Hobbs on Tuesday defended her decision to continue Arizona’s controversial program of transporting asylum seekers from the southern border across state lines, and the state may soon cover the cost of individual plane tickets for those migrants.
While Hobbs criticized the program under her Republican predecessor, she now looks to expand it by providing more travel options for migrants, citing humanitarian concerns and cost efficiency as top reasons for doing so.
“We just wanted to make sure that we were addressing this issue and, as I talked about many times in the campaign, in a way that was the best use of taxpayer resources and something that wasn’t a political stunt,” Hobbs said in an exclusive interview with The Arizona Republic on Tuesday.
“We wanted to make sure that we were getting these folks transported in a way that was efficient and humane, and actually provided relief to the communities on the border that have the influx of these asylum seekers and don’t have the resources to help them.”
Hobbs surprised some people when she said last week the program had merit and that the state would begin transporting asylum seekers on buses and in aircraft.
No air trips were scheduled, but three buses carrying 102 people have departed Arizona so far under Hobbs’ tenure, according to the Governor’s Office.
Her administration inked an updated contract on Jan. 14 that allowed air travel via chartered 737 aircraft, and removed a requirement that buses travel only to Washington, D.C., as was Arizona’s practice under Gov. Doug Ducey. Arizona’s program is overseen by the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs in coordination with the Regional Center For Border Health, a Somerton-based nonprofit that aids migrant communities.
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Many questions remain unanswered as changes are underway. A spokesperson for the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs referred questions from The Republic to the Governor’s Office.
The updated contract swaps out references to asylum seekers and replaces the term with “immigrant,” defining that as a person who crosses the border to “seek asylum or otherwise immigrate to the United States.” Josselyn Berry, the governor’s spokesperson, said that does not change eligibility. It is unclear how chartered flights would get asylum seekers to their final destinations, and whether the state is covering the total cost of transportation.
In an interview, Hobbs said that most asylum seekers have money with them to cover the cost of transportation. Asked why the state would pay for travel if that was the case, Hobbs responded: “That’s a good question.”
The answer, according to Hobbs’ spokesperson Murphy Hebert, is that $15 million in funding for the program was earmarked by Republican lawmakers last year. It wasn’t clear Tuesday exactly how much of that already was spent, but busing cost $82,000 per trip under Ducey’s administration. In all, 3,177 people were transported on 89 buses during Ducey’s tenure, according to figures released by the Governor’s Office. That would amount to over $7 million spent.
By continuing the program, Hobbs seems aligned with Republican governors Gregg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, whose similar efforts have received sharp criticism by members of Hobbs’ own party, including from the White House. Those governors also have sent migrants to cities like New York.
But Hobbs points to a key difference in her approach.
“They’ve been accused of human trafficking,” Hobbs said. “We’re interested in focusing on the humanitarian aspects of this and just putting people on a bus as a political stunt and sending them to Martha’s Vineyard or wherever they went is not providing any help or any solution to the actual issue. And we’re focused on how we provide support and help in these communities and to these folks who are legitimate asylum seekers.”
Hobbs’ aides have said flights may allow the state to address an influx of asylum seekers, and could cost less because the trip is shorter — hours versus days — and requires fewer other expenses like meals and medical support.
Republican lawmakers mixed on changes
Hobbs’ changes drew mixed reception, and even more questions, from conservatives in the Arizona Legislature.
Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, supported Ducey’s program as a way to highlight border security issues in Washington, D.C.
“Gov. Ducey was shipping them to D.C. to show the federal government what’s happening at our border,” Gowan said. “That is a stark difference to saying, ‘Hey, where do you want to go? Where’s your destiny? Let me get you a ticket to that.'”
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, who leads the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, supported Hobbs’ changes, noting the limited resources of small towns on the state’s southern border.
“I applaud the fact that she is going to continue to get these people moved to other destinations that can be better equipped to handle their humanitarian needs,” he said.
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