Feds Sued for Abandoning Asylum Seekers on Streets

SAN DIEGO (CN) – San Diego County – authorized by its majority-Republican Board of Supervisors – sued Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the federal government for ditching its “Safe Release” program to help asylum seekers travel to sponsors across the country, a move that left the county and nonprofit groups to pick up the task.

In a 14-page lawsuit filed Wednesday in the Southern District of California, San Diego County asks for declaratory and injunctive relief over the Trump administration’s decision last fall to axe its “Safe Release” program. The program provided travel assistance to asylum seekers from 2009 to 2018 to reach sponsors across the country while they waited for their cases to be heard by an immigration judge.

The county claims the sudden – and unlawful – policy change violates the procedural and substantive provisions and protections of the Administrative Procedure Act as well as its due process rights, and has left the county and nonprofit providers on the hook for providing and paying for temporary accommodations, health care and travel assistance to asylum seekers already vetted by the federal government.

According to the lawsuit, the federal government’s sudden decision to ditch “Safe Release” violates the rule requiring the opportunity for public comment before the change was made. The county also claims the change was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law” because the federal government “failed to articulate a reasonable explanation for their actions.”

It seeks preliminary and permanent orders requiring the federal government to resume providing asylum seekers and their family members assistance with reaching their final destinations in the U.S.

“As a direct result of the subject, unlawful change in policy, under the direction and authority of defendants, the county has suffered, and will continue to suffer, immediate and apparent harms in combating the humanitarian and public health issues caused by the sudden, arbitrary and capricious change or termination of the Safe Release policy,” the lawsuit states.

Board of Supervisors chair Dianne Jacob said in a statement the federal government’s negligence when it comes to asylum seekers 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. 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. This lawsuit isn’t about broad immigration issues or border security,” Jacob, a Republican, said.

The Board of Supervisors voted in February to sue the federal government over the elimination of the program, becoming the first municipality to sue the Trump administration over its release of asylum-seeking families at bus stations and fast food restaurants near the U.S.-Mexico border and in downtown San Diego after clearing the families to pursue asylum.

In January, the board voted to use county property to temporarily house the migrants who are typically in San Diego for 24 to 72 hours before going to sponsor families and friends across the country.  It approved leasing an old courthouse to Jewish Family Service and a handful of San Diego nonprofits which formed the San Diego Rapid Response Network to help asylum-seeking families.

As of last week, the nonprofits have helped 11,000 asylum seekers since immigration officials ended the Safe Release program last October.

In its lawsuit, the county claims within 24 hours of the federal government ending the Safe Release program on Oct. 24, 2018, officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped off 40 asylum seekers at a San Diego bus station “to fend for themselves in a land that was foreign to them.”

Since then, between 20 to 30 families of up 80 parents and kids – some arriving in poor health and suffering from the flu, upper respiratory infections, injuries, scabies and lice – have been released in San Diego each day, according to the lawsuit.

The county began providing shelter and support last November and has been providing an average of 76 health screening assessments a day since December. Both the county and the nonprofits have been forced to respond to the “immediate and continuing fallout of defendants’ arbitrary and capricious actions,” the county says.

“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,” according to the lawsuit.

Multiple county agencies including Health and Human Services, the Department of Environmental Health, the Public Safety Group Office of Emergency Services, the Sheriff’s Department and Department of General Services have provided support services to asylum-seeking families.

The county is represented by senior deputy Timothy White.

An email to Homeland Security seeking comment was not returned by press time.

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