Abandoned Asylum Seekers Find Help in San Diego Migrant Shelter

A colorful map of the United States with a sticky note which reads “Usted Esta Aqui,” or “You Are Here” with a red circle around San Diego. (Bianca Bruno / CNS)

SAN DIEGO (CN) – Colorful United States maps with handwritten notes “Usted Esta Aqui,” “you are here,” line the walls of San Diego’s migrant shelter where rooms full of diapers, clothes and shoes and a dorm with 200 cots has served as a temporary stop for some of the 11,000 asylum-seeking families passing through San Diego the past five months.

Courthouse News toured the migrant shelter with other news agencies on Wednesday before the shelter was slated to receive more than 260 men, women and children Wednesday night.

The shelter opened its doors earlier this month in a San Diego County-owned building that was slated to be demolished in March to make way for affordable housing in 2020. The opening follows a Board of Supervisors vote in January to temporarily house families in the unused facility in downtown and Gov. Gavin Newsom put up $5 million in this year’s budget and another $20 million over the next three years to fund organizations working with migrants.

The dorm room at the migrant shelter in San Diego can sleep up to 200 migrants in town for 24 to 72 hours before traveling to their sponsor destinations throughout the U.S. (Bianca Bianco / CNS)

The Board of Supervisors’ vote came after the federal government last fall abandoned its Safe Release program, which helped arrange travel plans for migrant families to travel to their sponsors throughout the U.S. after they had passed their credible fear interview by immigration officers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

After the program was eliminated, migrant families who passed through the San Ysidro Port of Entry were dropped off at bus stations and fast food restaurants in San Diego with nowhere to sleep or transportation to reach sponsors. The families were vulnerable to human trafficking – a concern San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephen raised in a letter of support to the board before it voted to lease the county building to the San Diego Rapid Response Network.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher on Wednesday said local officials and nonprofits had to step up to serve migrant families after “the federal government ended a humane policy that had worked for decades.”

A chart of bus destinations and the length of trips from San Diego to various states throughout the U.S. where asylum-seeking migrants will join their sponsors while awaiting hearings before an immigration judge. (Bianca Bruno / CNS)

He added: “[We have to] do right by these families who are all following the law, doing exactly what they are supposed to do.”

The organization – a coalition of nonprofits led by Jewish Family Service – started the shelter last October but didn’t have a permanent location and moved five times before leasing the county building for $1 through the end of 2019 and agreeing to pay for maintenance, improvements and security at the building.

The migrant shelter serves as the first stop for families before they make their way to their final destinations in the U.S. where their asylum cases will be adjudicated in immigration court. Their stay in San Diego is as short as 24 hours and typically not longer than 72 hours before they make their way to family or friends across the country.

Thank you notes from asylum-seeking families decorate a wall in a room where families wait to be picked up to travel to their sponsor destinations throughout the U.S. (Bianca Bruno / CNS)

Upon arrival, families receive a snack –usually apple or orange slices – while getting an introduction to the facility and where they are located in the U.S. Families then receive health screenings, fresh clothes and meals and arrange travel plans – usually via bus – to join their sponsors who will support them while their asylum claims get processed.

The 24/7 operation is run by dozens of staff and around 50 volunteers a day. It has a play room with toys for kids and living room with a TV where families gather. Families typically arrive around 5 p.m. and leave by early afternoon in the following days.

One of three diaper rooms at the migrant shelter in downtown San Diego, California, run by the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of nonprofits who have partnered to help asylum-seeking families. (Bianca Bruno / CNS)

Most families had already left the shelter Wednesday afternoon while Courthouse News toured the facility, though some families with young children were still present.

A map with push-pin marks indicating the final destinations for previous families who stayed at the shelter had lots of holes covering the states of Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Virginia.

The shelter is scheduled to stay open through Dec. 31.

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