Democrats and Republicans register new American citizens to vote outside Golden Hall on Dec. 19, 2018, following a naturalization ceremony. / Photo by Jesse Marx

One in four San Diegans is an immigrant. And in contrast to the Trump administration’s view of the border, as a place that needs to be walled off from the outside world, San Diego has long embraced its unique connection to Mexico.

The city recently released a five-year Welcoming San Diego strategic plan, which creates an immigration affairs manager position and offers several recommendations to help better integrate immigrant and refugee populations into the region.

The new position is being filled by Rita Fernandez, who used to be the associate director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs in Los Angeles. She’s also a Chula Vista native, a daughter of Mexican immigrants and previously worked on border and immigration issues in the office of Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas.

I sat down with Fernandez to talk to her about her vision for the position.

“We have so many immigrants and refugees in our city and we know that they contribute greatly to our economy,” she said. “The binational landscape is very helpful to the San Diego region and it’s very much part of its identity. We know that they’re our coworkers, our neighbors, so it’s very important for a global city like San Diego to be able to have someone that’s dedicated to immigrant affairs work exclusively.”

San Diego’s new immigrant affairs manager, Rita Fernandez / Photo courtesy of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office
San Diego’s new immigrant affairs manager, Rita Fernandez / Photo courtesy of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office

The city already has someone who manages binational issues, so Fernandez’s role will focus specifically on the recommendations laid out in the Welcoming San Diego plan, which include assisting business owners and bridging language barriers so they can access more services.

“The federal government is really the entity that creates immigration law and enforces it,” Fernandez said. “But cities across the country and around the world are realizing that migration is really an issue that cities will need to address. Many people are going to highly urbanized areas.”

One thing cities can do, for example, is promote the naturalization process, she said. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have devised programs that help legal permanent residents take advantage of fee waivers, and study for their exams. Once they’re naturalized, cities can help teach them how to set up bank accounts, and more.

San Diego has welcoming stations in libraries and provides community block funding grants to organizations that provide immigrant services, she said. That type of work is even more important under the Trump administration, she said.

“I think it’s very important for our city to really emphasize the fact that within our jurisdiction there is a lot that we can do for our residents and especially our immigrant residents,” Fernandez said. “We are on our own, taking actions that really enforce the fact that our immigrant residents are very important and that we’re supporting them as they’re creating new lives here in our city.”

Asylum Officers Speak Out on ‘Remain in Mexico’

Asylum officers told This American Life and the Los Angeles Times that migrants in the Remain in Mexico program were held to an impossibly high standard and that almost all were sent back to Mexico, even when the officers advised against it. Across the country, asylum officers are calling in sick, requesting transfers, retiring earlier than planned, quitting and refusing to conduct interviews because of the program, which is formally known as Migration Protection Protocols.

Michael Knowles, a former asylum officer who now leads a union of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement officers, told lawmakers that the policy is illegal and immoral, reports Roll Call. After his testimony, Knowles told Newsy he believes many asylum officers are quietly leaving the agency to work where they aren’t pressured to make decisions they feel are immoral. “They live in hopes that Congress and the courts will prevail and put an end to these injustices,” he said.

A team of senior Department of Homeland Security officials also found that U.S. border officials pressured asylum officers to deny immigrants entry into the United States under the program, according to a draft report obtained by BuzzFeed.

The program has worked as a deterrent, DHS officials say, as evidenced by the decrease in border apprehensions over the past five months and the fact that Mexicans have replaced Central Americans as the largest single source of migrants taken into custody along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Other Asylum News …

The Border Environment

KPBS looked at why Tijuana is planning wide-ranging water shutoffs for the next two months.

Over the past few months, a series of pump failures has limited the supply of water over the mountains to Tijuana. Adding to that problem, businesses in the Mexicali Valley upped their consumption of water during the hot, dry summer. As a result, water in the local reservoirs has dropped below the level where it can be efficiently processed.

  • Rainfall has led to more cross-border sewage-related closures in San Diego. County environmental health officials issued a closure last week along the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge and Border Field State Park due to sewage-contaminated water. (City News Service)
  • Scientists spotted a number of critically endangered vaquita porpoises, including mothers with calves, in the Gulf of California, raising hopes that the species will be able to survive. Vaquita are the most endangered marine mammal and live in shallow waters off the northern Gulf of California in Mexico. (Union-Tribune)

Border Surveillance

More Border News

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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