UT: Temp shelter for migrant families opens, organizers ask for help
Kate Clark stood at the street to greet an incoming bus of asylum-seeking families, 31 people in total, dropped off by immigration officials shortly before 4 p.m. on Monday.
She led the group, about half parents and half children, mostly between the ages of 3 and 8, to the building that has served as a temporary shelter for the past three weeks. The first emotion they showed her — relief.
"You can tell they're unsure about what's to come," said Clark, director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service of San Diego, one of the organizations in a coalition running the shelter.
A couple of hours later, a white van dropped off a mother, eight months pregnant, and her 7-year-old son. Clark carried the woman’s duffle bag and brought her water while a doctor interviewed her.
The San Diego Rapid Response Network, initially launched in December 2017 to respond to reports of immigration-related arrests inside the U.S., opened the shelter in response to the federal government’s decision to end a program that helped asylum-seeking families get to their final destinations in the U.S. after they crossed the border.
The new arrivals brought the total of people staying at the shelter to 117 with another busload expected later in the evening. Volunteers for the network also frequently pick up groups of families that have, for some reason, been dropped off in other parts of the county instead of at the shelter, adding to the total.
Clark worried that because of this, the network might not be finding every asylum-seeking family in need of shelter.
Under the old program, after families came to the border to ask for asylum, officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement would contact relatives in the U.S. and arrange travel plans before dropping the asylum seekers off at bus stations. ICE abruptly stopped doing this in late October, saying that the agency could not process the number of arriving families quickly enough if it maintained the program.
The families generally spend more than a month in Tijuana waiting in line to apply for asylum in a queue that is likely to backlog even more with the arrival of the most recent caravan. Before the caravan's arrival, just under 3,000 asylum seekers were already waiting to enter the U.S.
Immigration officials at the port of entry take generally between 40 and 80 per day, depending on how many ICE has been able to release or transfer to its detention facilities. Families often spend several days at the port before going to the shelter.
ICE releases between 20 and 30 families each day, which typically ranges from 50 to 70 total people, according to the Rapid Response Network. Most are from Central American countries — Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. One family is from Guinea, a country in West Africa.
Some of the children arriving with their families have been as young as three months old.
Appaswamy "Vino" Pajanor, executive director of the Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, an organization helping the new arrivals with travel plans, said the story of Enrique, a 22-year-old man from Honduras who arrived recently with his 4-year-old daughter, stayed with him after the two men met at the shelter.
Enrique told Pajanor that a gang had threatened to kill him and his daughter if he didn't sell drugs for them. They threatened his cousin in the same way, and after the cousin refused, he was found dead.
"These families are fleeing violence and repression in their home countries," Pajanor said. "Any of us would do the same thing to protect our children or loved ones."
The temporary shelter can hold about 150 people. Its main dormitory has about 70 green cots, and several other rooms in the building have cots stacked in the corners to convert into sleeping spaces at night. A few cribs are scattered throughout.
Because each adult is fitted with an ankle monitor by ICE, spare batteries charge in almost every available outlet around the shelter.
When families first arrive, they line up outside the building, and volunteers take turns interviewing them, flagging anyone with medical symptoms or separated family members.
La Maestra Community Health Centers and San Ysidro Health have mobile clinics onsite daily to care for the new arrivals, and at least a few each day end up in the emergency room, Clark said. On Monday, a volunteer drove a woman who broke her leg on her journey to the U.S. to the hospital for treatment.
Attorneys with Casa Cornelia Law Center offer daily legal orientations to help people understand the importance of showing up for court dates and finding lawyers to represent them when they arrive at their destinations.
Volunteers also flag anyone who crossed illegally into the U.S. since President Donald Trump's order blocking those who do so from getting asylum. Since the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego is one of the core partners of the network, it monitors these cases as part of its lawsuit over the issue.
Though a given family only spends one or two nights there, the shelter has remained at capacity in recent days. Just over 150 stayed there Sunday night.
Leaders at the organizations coordinating support for the arriving asylum seekers say they’re worried they won’t be able to sustain the effort without financial help from the San Diego community.
"It's been all hands on deck," said Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "This is what we do. We're not going to leave women, children and babies in the streets."
They’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to fund shelter operations, and another fundraiser to pay travel costs for those who can’t afford bus or airfare to reach their relatives in other parts of the country. Helping people get to their sponsors keeps the shelter from getting over-full, they said.
Their goal is to raise $150,000 for the shelter, which would keep it operational for about a month and a half. The shelter will likely be needed much longer than that.