The earlier site of a shelter for asylum-seeking migrants. The current shelter is located in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A year ago, the Department of Homeland Security changed the policies surrounding how it releases asylum-seekers into the country.

In the past, government officials would review migrants’ plans to connect with family members inside the country, and assist with travel arrangements. In October 2018, it stopped doing that work, leaving many migrants confused or stranded when they were dropped at America’s doorstep.

The policy change had a dramatic impact on San Diego, where local service providers — and eventually the county — had to step in to provide temporary shelter to thousands of asylum-seekers. As of last week, the organizations operating the shelter had assisted 19,015 asylum-seekers — all families — over the previous year.

Over the last year, the situation has completely changed again. The Migration Protection Protocols — or the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program — has once again shifted the burden of who must care for asylum-seeking families. Now Central American asylum-seekers are forced to wait in Tijuana and other Mexican cities across the border, where they face shelter shortages, public health issues and safety concerns.

Here’s a refresher on the shelter’s origins, and its uncertain future.

After the government stopped reviewing migrants’ travel plans, service providers from the San Diego Rapid Response Network began receiving calls about asylum-seeking families being dropped at the Greyhound bus station downtown or at the trolley in San Ysidro.

Volunteers began to meet the families and take them to make-shift shelters at churches in San Diego, so they’d have somewhere safe to regroup and figure out how to reunite with family members or sponsors living elsewhere in the country as they awaited their asylum proceedings.

By December, thousands of people had been dropped off — anywhere from 50 to 100 a night. But the weight of supporting those families fell on organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, Jewish Family Service, San Diego Organizing Project and others. They didn’t have the funds or a permanent location to house the families.

After some finger-pointing, county and state officials eventually stepped in. The county began conducting medical screenings and offered up an old family courthouse building as a shelter space. The state offered funds to help the organizations running the shelter, and the county even sued the federal government for changing its policies on how it releases asylum-seekers.

In May, the federal government began sending multiple flights a week to San Diego full of asylum-seekers from Texas, where far larger numbers were overwhelming border capacity. The shelter was used as an overflow facility for those asylum-seekers. The influx resulted in a flu outbreak in the shelter that month.

During the summer months, the shelter population dwindled as border crossings went down and the federal government began sending most Central American asylum-seekers back to Tijuana to await their proceedings. So far, roughly six people have won their cases out of the thousands who were returned to Mexico after requesting asylum.

The shelter still receives an average of 100 migrants a week, including people who aren’t eligible for the Remain in Mexico program and those coming from countries not covered by the program, including Mexico and Haiti, said Jean Walcher, a spokeswoman for the Rapid Response Network, in an e-mail. The Rapid Respond Network and Jewish Family Service are also providing legal services to immigrants, including those in the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

The shelter’s future is unclear. The courthouse space is only contracted to the nonprofits through the end of 2019.

“With the lease coming to an end at the current shelter location (provided by the County of San Diego for $1 through December 31, 2019), the search is on to secure a new facility to continue these critical efforts that assist asylum seeking families along their journeys,” Walcher wrote. “Without a shelter, these families may find themselves on the streets of San Diego with no resources and no way of reaching their final destinations, and may further strain capacities of service providers working to shelter and assist the region’s existing homeless population.”

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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...

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