A coalition of nonprofits has been operating a shelter for migrants in San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Federal authorities have released thousands of migrant families in San Diego over the past two months, sometimes straight into the streets and otherwise leaving them to find their way as they await asylum proceedings.

Thousands more could be on the way, and the groups maintaining makeshift shelters for them in San Diego County are raising the alarm that they have neither the space nor resources to handle the numbers they have – let alone more.

Caught in the morass of the federal government decisions outside their power, local government leaders are grappling with how to shelter and care for vulnerable migrants at the center of a national political battle. The city of San Diego is monitoring how many asylum claims are being processed each day at the border so it can be ready if the number suddenly spikes. And many are warning of a major public health crisis if something isn’t done soon.

Local leaders faced a setback late Tuesday with word the state of California will not open a National City armory to migrants, as it did two years ago when an influx of Haitian refugees came to the region.

For weeks, the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, Jewish Family Service and the San Diego Organizing Project sheltered families and provided medical care, food and warm clothes. Most of the migrants spend only a few nights at the shelter before traveling to relatives or sponsors in other parts of the country, where they will remain until the completion of their asylum proceedings.

The organizations are now calling on local governments and the state to help – and say they aren’t getting the help they need.

“Yes, this is a problem created by federal immigration policy, but we have a local responsibility to act and stop pointing fingers at each other and find solutions, working with different sectors,” ACLU Executive Director Norma Chávez-Peterson said.

Following word that the National City armory is unavailable, San Diego officials are holding out hope the state may offer up another one. They are also now evaluating other potential shelter locations, including buildings or even a tent structure.

But each option brings complications. Advocates and state legislators acknowledge they are losing patience.

“I am watching with growing concern as thousands of migrants are released into the San Diego community in the middle of the night without so much as a meal to sustain them for one evening,” California Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins said in a statement. “Clearly, the federal government has abandoned all responsibility on this matter, and it is incumbent upon us to step in and find a solution.”

On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would start requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico until the completion of their asylum hearings, which could change the number of migrants being released in San Diego. The new policy is likely to be challenged in court, and Chávez-Peterson said even if asylum-seekers are required to wait in Mexico, a permanent shelter for migrants would still be needed in the region, since there are still migrants in immigration detention and criminal custody on the U.S. side who may be released and need a place to temporarily stay.

Atkins and a handful of others who have cited last year’s bureaucratic fumbling over a devastating hepatitis A outbreak are urging local governments not to repeat last year’s debacle.

Yet local governments are also caught in a situation they didn’t predict – and without clear protocols to follow.

In late October, the Department of Homeland Security changed how it releases migrants to sponsors due to an increase in families arriving at the border and limited its ability to detain them.

When families turn themselves in at a port of entry to request asylum or ask Border Patrol agents for asylum after they’ve crossed into the country illegally, they spend a few days in custody and then are released. There are only three ICE family detention facilities in the country – two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania – and due to a 1997 settlement, the government can legally only detain children who have traveled with their parents for 20 days.

ICE previously reviewed migrant families’ post-release plans, ensuring they had travel arrangements to connect with a sponsor elsewhere in the United States – typically a relative or friend willing to receive them and ensure they go to their immigration hearings.

But ICE has stopped this practice amid the uptick in families requesting asylum along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying that it no longer has the capacity to conduct those reviews.

While overall border crossings are far lower than they were decades ago, the number of families requesting asylum, particularly from Central America, are growing.

Along the total Southwest border, Border Patrol apprehended 107,212 family units in fiscal year 2018, up from 75,622 in 2017. In fiscal year 2018, 53,901 families turned themselves in to a port of entry along the border, up from 29,375 last year.

San Diego had the largest increase in families presenting themselves at ports of entry along the border. In fiscal year 2018, 15,772 presented themselves at a California port of entry, up 124 percent from last year. The local Border Patrol sector apprehended 4,408 families crossing illegally, a 50 percent increase from last year.

A Call for Help Is Met With Talk

The change in policy has meant that for the past two months, anywhere from 50 to 100 people – all families – who are new to the United States, don’t speak English and have just finished a weeks-long, harrowing journey through Mexico have been dropped off by DHS in San Diego with little guidance on what to do next.

One father from El Salvador, Raul, whose last name VOSD has agreed to withhold because he has a pending asylum claim, said when he was dropped at the shelter run by the ACLU and other nonprofit groups, the immigration official driving the bus asked everyone aboard, “Do you want to be left on the street or in the church?”

Raul is a father staying at a shelter for migrants being run by a coalition of local nonprofits. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Raul fled El Salvador with his wife and child after gang members beat him and threatened his family after he refused to join the gang, he said.

Everyone chose the church, where the shelter was located.

Chávez-Peterson said nonprofits have thus far spent about $300,000 a month to shelter those families. It’s not sustainable.

There are thousands of families in Tijuana waiting for their turn to request asylum at a port of entry or making the decision to cross between ports of entry and request asylum from a Border Patrol agent.

“This is really an all hands-on deck issues and we think all levels of government need to be involved,” said Nick Serrano, spokesman for Assemblyman Todd Gloria.

For now, there are only conversations.

Over the past few weeks, state representatives, the nonprofits, the cities of San Diego, Chula Vista and National City and the county have had weekly calls and meetings to discuss their response but nonprofits say the discussions haven’t led to action.

The most significant response so far, they say: a letter from the local officials to the state requesting that the state take on the burden.

“The only thing the city and county have done is tell us what we can’t do, how many people we’re limited to in a shelter and how we can’t feed people,” said Kevin Malone, executive director of the San Diego Organizing Project.

The city and country both said they are willing to step in and do what they can, but so far it’s mostly remained at the conversation level.

“Our federal government has to fix this abhorrently broken immigration system that is resulting in the crisis at hand,” said County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kristin Gaspar. “However, the state of California bears the responsibility to provide funding for basic necessities to migrants it has publicly welcomed. The county remains willing and prepared to provide appropriate care for these men, women and children, but we cannot do it alone.”

In the meantime, the burden of providing the shelter continues to remain on the nonprofits – a reality that Atkins declared could not continue.

“There is no excuse for inaction, it is the government’s responsibility to step in and solve this potential crisis,” said Atkins.

The Search for a Permanent Shelter Location

The most urgent need, service providers say, is for the state or local governments to provide a permanent location for a shelter.

The nonprofits are now on their fifth shelter location in two months. The permit at the current location was supposed to expire on Jan. 3, but was extended this week for another month, since city and nonprofit officials said all had concluded the building remained clean and up to code and everyone realized they needed more time to find another option.

“Do you know what it is to move an entire staff, volunteers, migrants – an entire shelter operation every couple of weeks?” Chávez-Peterson said.

The current location can accommodate 97 people, but on the busiest days, the organizations have seen up to 120, and they expect they may see even more.

Even city of San Diego officials are constantly in communication with border officials, so they’ll be aware if asylum-seekers are suddenly processed in higher volumes, said Denice Garcia, the director of international affairs for Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Everyone knows that any increase may be something the current makeshift shelter system can’t handle.

The only thing certain every day is that more people will be dropped off.

Chávez-Peterson said that what is needed is a more permanent location that could sustain around 250 people on any given night for at least a year.

There have been several options on the table – all with their own obstacles.

Leaders from the county plus the cities of San Diego, Chula Vista and National City sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown on Dec. 6, requesting that the state open one of its armories locally for the migrants.

They mentioned that in 2016, when a large number of Haitians were coming to San Diego, armories in El Cajon and National City provided temporary shelter.

State leaders including Gloria and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez followed up with their own letters.

The state denied requests to use an armory in National City late Tuesday.

“It is important we maximize appropriate shelters to temporarily house the incoming families. Unfortunately, the use of the National City armory is not suitable,” wrote Mark Ghilarducci, director of governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Ghilarducci wrote that the facility now houses an emergency response team and its supplies, including ammunition.

County spokesman Michael Workman noted another complication that could be stalling action: The Haitian migrants had protected status from the federal government following the 2010 earthquake that devastated their country. That meant they were entitled to public assistance that migrants now awaiting asylum proceedings are not.

Several other buildings have also been floated for the shelter: Golden Hall, a shuttered East Village skydiving center set to become a homeless service hub next year and the old Central Library.

Two of those buildings have been floated before – and the city is continuing to explain why those buildings won’t work.

Dan Shea, a restaurateur and philanthropist who last year helped fund two of the city’s temporary homeless shelters, said he pushed for Golden Hall in a recent meeting with advocates at City Hall.

Shea said Faulconer’s chief of staff, Aimee Faucett, said she’d prefer to take up that conversation at a later meeting he was left out of.

Robert Vacchi, a deputy chief operating officer for the city that the skydiving facility and Golden Hall are already committed to other leases and contractual obligations.

“We are looking at other places, but we are having difficult time. As you know we’ve been trying to solve our own problems for a long time,” Vacchi said, referring to the city’s large homeless population.

The idea of tents, similar to those being used for the city’s homeless, has also been raised.

“The city does not have a tent to provide and they are pretty expensive,” Vacchi said. “That hasn’t gone beyond a conversation standpoint.”

As a result, the discussion of a permanent shelter space for the migrants has remained just that for weeks – a discussion.

Chávez-Peterson said that’s not acceptable. As a border city, San Diego should have a permanent shelter for migrants, she said.

“The Haitians were sort of a dress rehearsal for what is happening now and these issues are going to keep occurring,” Chávez-Peterson said.

An Imminent Public Health Crisis

Service providers and state officials say the finger-pointing, the punting of responsibility and resulting inaction has reminded them of the bureaucratic stumbling over hepatitis A last year.

Some migrant families, who have arrived after long journey with inadequate nutrition and shelter, have also arrived sick.

Workman said health officials have tallied one case of Hepatitis A, another of tuberculosis and several cases of chicken pox.

In Tijuana, where thousands of caravan members await, Baja California public health officials have been trying to fend off a public health crisis. They’ve treated more than 3,700 cases of respiratory infections and reported 10 cases of chicken pox.

Workman said the county has also provided 600 hepatitis A vaccinations to Tijuana health authorities.

The risk factors don’t stop at the border.

“Soon incoming families will be left to fend for themselves on our streets,” Gonzalez wrote in her letter to the governor last week. “This poses public health risks in our community, which only very recently recovered from a hepatitis A outbreak that disproportionately affected our county’s homeless population, leaving hundreds sick and others dead.”

After turning themselves in at a port of entry or crossing the border in areas between the designated crossing and requesting asylum with Border Patrol, many spend nights in Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection facilities.

The facilities are commonly referred to among migrants as hieleras, or ice boxes, for their cold temperatures. Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol are currently facing a lawsuit over the conditions in the facilities, which in addition to the cold allege inadequate food, water, insufficient access to hygiene needs, like showers or toilet paper, and lack of medical care.

Buzzfeed reported that a 5-month-old who was dropped off at the shelter with her mother after five days in the holding cells was rushed to the hospital Tuesday, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia.

Such emergency room visits are “fairly regular” at the shelter, Malone said. Service providers have also had to quarantine families on occasion for chicken pox.

Right now, the San Ysidro Health Clinic and La Maestra Community Health Centers are conducting medical screenings at the shelter.

“We have two community clinics that have been out there screening people, because we want to make sure to prevent a public health crisis,” Chávez-Peterson said. “Why don’t we have a county public health person there to help us prevent the public health outbreak? Does someone have to die?”

Workman, the county spokesman, said the county is “arranging for health professionals and social workers to be on site daily at one of the shelters to address a gap in medical coverage and support services.”

He said the county has trained shelter staff on use of an intake medical screening form, to report infectious diseases to the county and to establish isolation areas for those found to have communicable diseases.

Chávez-Peterson and other advocates want to see a more dramatic response.

“It takes will,” Chávez-Peterson said. “It takes leadership. It takes innovation. It takes commitment. It takes some shared responsibility, so you’re not just pointing the finger at somebody else. We should’ve learned from hepatitis A.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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