A woman gives a little girl some TLC as she waits at the shelter with her family.
A woman gives a little girl some TLC as she waits at the shelter with her family. Photo by Chris Stone

San Diego Rapid Response Network doubled its room to help asylum-seekers when it moved into its new downtown shelter at the beginning of March. Now they’re beyond capacity.

Wednesday night, the shelter expected to help 278 people.

In recent months, the number of daily arrivals was 50-100. In the past couple weeks, Customs and Border Protection agents have bused in a couple hundred each day, said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

Fortunately, local churches offered to assist about 80 people Wednesday.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who toured the new home Wednesday, said: “The beauty of what we have here is a shelter to assess, to screen and then we have a network of churches and other nonprofits who take the overflow capacity.”

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.

Before October 2018, CBP processed asylum-seekers and made travel arrangements for them to link up with a sponsor as part of its Safe Release program.

Then CBP dropped the program and began leaving asylum-seekers at bus stops without means of further travel.

That’s when the Rapid Response Network stepped in to assist but had to change shelter locations a half-dozen times. The last was in South Bay.

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Since then, the SDRRN has aided more than 11,000 people.

“I believe San Diego is doing everything we can,” Fletcher said. “The federal government created this crisis. They had a policy in place for decades that worked well. They arbitrarily ended that policy out of a desire to create a crisis and we’re not going to allow that to happen.”

The freshman supervisor vowed the county would fulfill its obligation to “fill the void,” making up for what he called the federal failure to make sure the families are protected.

Fletcher also said the county would “make sure we don’t compound the homeless crisis our region faces or a public health crisis or a public safety crisis.”

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.

The SDRRN does a medical check of new arrivals to ensure they are healthy enough to travel, give them fresh clothes, a hot meal and make travel arrangements. Volunteers stay with them until they depart at the bus station or airport.

Some migrants arrive at the shelter with upper respiratory illness and dehydration.

The new facility has a medical room, dining room, portable showers, children’s play area, a dormitory with cots, a room similar to an airport gate area and screening areas.

Assistance from attorneys about legal rights also is offered.

About 99 percent of the immigrants have a named person as 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.

A list is posted in the shelter to show asylum seekers travel time to states by bus and plane.
A list is posted in the shelter to show asylum seekers travel time to states by bus and plane. Photo by Chris Stone

On a shelter wall is a list of states and travel time necessary by bus or plane, so people can understand the length of their upcoming trips.

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.

Hopkins said the new facility has two big pluses: expanded capacity and location.

“It’s close to the bus station. It’s close to the airport. In terms of accessibility, it’s ideal,” said the Jewish Family Service CEO on the day CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said
the immigration system had reached a “breaking point.”

Supervisor Greg Cox, also touring the facility Wednesday, called it a great example of collaboration between city, county and state governments and the nonprofit community.

He said the county was in a fortunate position of having a surplus property slated for future affordable housing, but construction won’t begin until spring of 2020.

It took about four weeks of work to ready the new shelter, including removing asbestos, Cox said.

Cox was concerned about an increase in arrivals.

“That could be a problem in the long run,” he said. “If the numbers are consistently upwards of 250-300 people, it begs the question that there may be a need for a second location to accommodate all of them.”

But he pointed to the assistance of churches for the overflow.

Fletcher praised the facility.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “I think San Diegans should be proud that their city, their county, their state, their nonprofits all stepped up to do right not only by these asylum-seekers but also by the people of San Diego.”

A Rapid Response Network worker said knowing that the shelter doesn’t have to move for the next nine months is a big plus.

What happens when the shelter needs to close Dec. 31?

The state has pledged to examine its inventory of buildings for a possible new home for the shelter, officials said.

Hopkins said: “It is clear that San Diego needs a permanent shelter.”

Fletcher said: “Hopefully we can find something remarkably similar to this.”

Speaking as a parent, Fletcher noted that children have traveled thousands of miles amid danger to seek safety and hope in America as they flee oppression.

“It’s vitally important that all of these folks followed the law,” Fletcher said. “They have legal standing to be here. They did everything current federal immigration law requires of them, and I think we have an obligation when you look into the eyes of those children to make sure that they are treated humanely and with compassion.”

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