A migrant peeks over the U.S.-Mexico border fence. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday over the federal government’s decision to end its so-called “safe-release” program in late October.

For years, immigration authorities worked with families who showed up at the port of entry or asked Border Patrol agents for asylum after crossing the border illegally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers reviewed migrant families’ post-release plans, helped connect them with family members in the United States and ensured they had travel arrangements to connect with sponsors elsewhere in the United States.

But as the number of families requesting asylum has exploded, ICE has said it no longer has the capacity to conduct those reviews.

Since the program ended, local governments and nonprofits, led by the San Diego Rapid Response Network, have scrambled to assist vulnerable families. A coalition of service providers including Jewish Family Service and the San Diego ACLU has provided more than 11,000 asylum-seeking migrants with temporary shelter and transportation to sponsors in other parts of the country. And San Diego County officials report they have spent more than $1.3 million providing medical care and other support to the service providers for the migrants. The county also recently began allowing the Rapid Response Network to shelter migrants in a former county courthouse.

Now the county is asking that a judge deem that policy change unlawful and require the government to revert to its old practices for asylum-seeking families.

“The county and its residents have relied on the Safe Release policy, and the adherence to that policy by defendants and the federal agencies they oversee, specifically to manage the safe and orderly release of asylum seekers and their accompanying family members by assisting them in reaching their final destinations outside the County of San Diego,” county attorneys write in the lawsuit. “The prior policy treated asylum seekers with care and dignity, and helped to prevent a dramatic increase in the county’s homeless population and accompanying public health concerns and related costs and expenditures.”

The lawsuit reflects a dramatic shift for San Diego County. Last April, supervisors voted to back the Trump administration’s lawsuit challenging California’s sanctuary laws.

Now, with two new board members, the board is challenging the feds.

In a Wednesday statement, Board Chairwoman Dianne Jacob emphasized that the lawsuit wasn’t focused on politically charged immigration issues or border security but instead about the escalating costs for San Diego County.

“The federal government’s negligent approach to those seeking asylum is taking a huge toll on San Diego County taxpayers. The county has already spent over $1.3 million to address health and safety issues at the asylum shelter,” Jacob wrote in a statement. “That figure is ballooning by the day. We are asking the court to require the feds to reinstate the Safe Release program and not leave local governments, nonprofits and taxpayers holding the bag.”

But County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, the board’s sole Democrat, took aim at the Trump administration.

“I am proud our county is stepping up to take on Trump,” Fletcher wrote in a statement. “I hope other jurisdictions will join us in this lawsuit.”

Indeed, the federal government’s decision to change its response to asylum-seekers has wreaked havoc in U.S. communities along the U.S.-Mexican border.

El Paso has faced the largest numbers, with 32,000 migrants being brought into the city just in 2019.

Annunciation House, a nonprofit that shelters migrants, has tried to shelter hundreds of migrants released there city each day. Annunciation House is currently trying to find a larger space to manage the influx and the city has funded a volunteer coordinator position to help.

Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva have raised concerns about releases in Arizona. Between December and March, border official have released more than 84,500 families into border communities 14,500 of which were in Arizona leaving nonprofits and local governments to ensure their safety.

It was not immediately clear whether other local governments or states could join the San Diego County lawsuit.

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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