Two young men seeking asylum rest on cots while waiting to begin their journey to their sponsors.
Two young men seeking asylum rest on cots at a former shelter while waiting to begin their journey to their sponsors. Photo by Chris Stone

Sandra Alvarado of San Diego Rapid Response Network waited outside the shelter for the next busload of immigrants to arrive. A mother and daughter got off the bus and immediately went over and hugged Alvarado.

“I had to turn around and cry,” said Alvarado, the network coordinator. “The older woman reminded me of my grandmother.”

The newly arrived migrants had never met her before, she said last week.

“They didn’t know where they were going, but yet they felt so safe to hug a stranger,” Alvarado said.

SDRRN is a coalition of human rights, service and faith-based organizations including Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

An asylum-seeker from Guatemala and his three-year-old daughter speak with Sandra Alvarado, network coordinator for San Diego Rapid Response Network.
An asylum-seeker from Guatemala and his three-year-old daughter speak with Sandra Alvarado, network coordinator for San Diego Rapid Response Network. Photo by Chris Stone

As it settled into a new, larger facility near downtown last week, the network is seeing as many as 100 new asylum-seekers a day.

The county Board of Supervisor approved the $1 lease of a former county courthouse to Jewish Family Service, one of SDRRN’s partners and the lead operator of the shelter until Dec. 31.

The new facility allows for twice as many asylum-seekers, about 200, then it had in its previous building in the South Bay.

Gov. Gavin Newsom toured the new shelter last week, drawing attention from national cable news networks.

The new building has a children’s room, a health clinic and enough room to restart one-on-one assistance from attorneys with Casa Cornelia Law Center about legal rights.

La Maestra Community Health Centers and San Ysidro Health have assisted the migrants at the shelter.

To be successful in their asylum process, the first step is finding an attorney, Alvarado said.

The Rapid Response Network has aided 8,700 people since it opened its first shelter in October.

“It’s important that people are not lost onto the street,” Alvarado said. ”This is a space where people are treated with dignity and humanity to help them reach their destinations.”

The aim? “We want to set them up for success.”

An asylum seeker rests on a cot while waiting her time to travel to see a sponsor. Photo by Chris Stone

Asylum-seekers arrive by bus at the shelter, having traveled from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and as far away as the Caribbean, Asia, Vietnam, Haiti, Ghana and Russia.

“However people feel about immigration,” Alvarado said, “these people are here legally and are seeking their rights.”

The migrants are released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers as they await asylum proceedings.

ICE used to help asylum-seekers connect with relatives or other sponsors before releasing them.

But starting in October, ICE officials started releasing those families onto the street without resources. SDRRN stepped in to meet the needs of the newly released immigrants.

Once the migrants get to the shelter, they feel relief and see faces that look like them, Alvarado said.

“The families have hopes and dreams of a safe place to stay,” Alvarado said. “They are like my family. There really isn’t any difference between my family and theirs.”

One recent migrant was a 26-year-old man from Guatemala who had traveled eight days by bus with his 3-year-old daughter before reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

His brother was murdered by a criminal gang in his country, and his wife abandoned him and his daughter, he said.

The man, who didn’t want to give his name or his daughter’s, said he fled because of gang violence and wanted his daughter to have a better future.

The daughter was smiling because she got a cookie that day, her birthday.

Saying he was “feliz (happy),” he indicated he wanted to get a job as a barber in New York, where his aunt lives.

The migrants receive a medical screening to ensure they are able to travel, meals, clean clothing and a bags of food to stave off hunger through their travels. Many people travel on buses for days to reach their relative or sponsor.

Some migrants arrive at the shelter with upper respiratory illness and dehydration. Others have chicken pox or scabies. They haven’t had proper meals or water while in detention, Alvarado said.

Sponsors often pay for the transportation, and the Rapid Response Network lets them know when the immigrants are on their way.

The immigrants stay anywhere from 12 to 48 hours before moving on to housing with relatives or sponsors. Some head out the door hours before the sun comes up.

Volunteers take them to the bus station or airport, help them through TSA screenings and stay with them until they depart.

“We want to connect them to their point of contact as fast and safely as possible,”
Alvarado said.

About 99 percent of the immigrants have a named person who will be their contact and nearly 95 percent of them temporarily settle outside San Diego County.

Common destinations include Los Angeles, New York, Texas, Florida and New Jersey.

For the 1 percent who don’t have a sponsor waiting for them, the Rapid Response Network calls on local resettlement agencies to assist them.

Before the asylum-seekers are released by ICE, they must pass a credible fear screening — fear of persecution or harm in returning to their home country.

Adults who pass the screening are fitted with GPS-monitoring ankle bracelets and must report to ICE that they have reached their destination and verify their residence within a week or two.

Immigrants also leave ICE custody with a date on a notice to appear for an asylum hearing.

This procedure only is for “family units,” Alvarado said. Single men or women are sent to the Otay Mesa Detention Facility.

The Rapid Response Network needs an additional $500,000 to keep them operational through June, its coordinator said.

“The community response has been amazing,” Alvarado said. In addition to monetary contributions, people have donated diapers, clothing and shoes.

About 50 volunteers help daily and some have traveled from as far as Utah or New York to help out for a short time. The organization has about 100 “very committed” volunteers who assist throughout the county.

The volunteers put “so much heart and passion into it,” she said.

Asylum-seekers spend their day getting caught up on rest, getting medical screenings and being fed meals three times a day. They also must watch their monitors to make sure they are charged.

During their stay, some immigrants volunteer to help clean the facility.

In the new shelter, children watch TV and movies and can color and join in activities at the colorfully decorated playroom.

The SDRRN has a GoFundMe account and Amazon wishlist for those who want to help their efforts.

With Newsom’s support, the state Legislature approved $5 million in emergency funding earlier this year for the San Diego shelter and other migrant assistance efforts along the border.