County to look into shelters for asylum seekers

SAN DIEGO -- San Diego County Supervisors Tuesday took steps toward helping asylum seekers with shelter, after a lengthy public hearing and considerable debate.

The Board of Supervisors approved recommendations by Supervisors Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher to:

  • Direct the chief administration office to find armories or other state properties;
  • Establish a six-month task force to address both long- and short- term solutions;
  • Direct the chief administration officer to find other properties to house asylum seekers;
  • Have the county look into funding resources to provide health services to asylum seekers, while seeking federal and state reimbursement.

Any shelter proposal involving county money would need board approval first, as would any additional costs for health services.

Gallery members applauded the board's actions. While the board voted unanimously on three of the items, Supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Chairwoman Dianne Jacob voted no on the proposal to find places to house the asylum seekers.

Gaspar said the county should use existing properties, while Jacob was concerned about the refugees staying longer than they're supposed to.

Activists working with the asylum seekers said many are fleeing extreme violence in Central American nations such as Guatemala and Honduras.

Local human rights activists, along with service and faith-based organizations, say they have provided more than 4,200 migrants with critical humanitarian and transportation assistance since early November.

Cox said that over the holidays, he and Fletcher visited a migrant shelter run by San Diego Rapid Response Network, and learned about the "selfless work going on there." He pointed out that the federal government has granted the refugees permission to be in this country and then meet up with their sponsors.

Cox said Tuesday's action builds on the momentum started by Gaspar, who sent a letter to state and federal officials imploring them to solve the crisis.

He also added that having shelter and proper services can lower the risk of a serious health crisis.

Fletcher said Americans applaud immigrants who follow the law, and accused the federal government of failing to ensure that these immigrants have transportation and health care options.

The county, he said, should meet a basic humanitarian obligation -- otherwise, it could be a situation where immigrants are released but have nowhere to go.

"Let's ensure there's a humane way they can be brought in before they are reunited with their families," he said.

Board members heard from numerous public speakers, most of whom supported the shelter options.

San Diego "has a rich history of being a welcoming place for people looking for asylum," said David Trujillo, of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

"Every asylum seeker has the right to humane treatment," said Trujillo, who criticized federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement for releasing asylum seekers who don't have a place to stay.

"This is a leadership moment, and San Diego must provide leadership," Trujillo added.

Margaret Baker of SDRRN said she has seen refugees being exploited, and heard their accounts of mistreatment while in federal custody.

"Men cry and fall into my arms," she added.

Not all speakers were in favor, however. Jill Barto, a board member of the Cajon Valley Union School District, said the county should help American citizens first, adding that she has friends with family members who've been waiting here for years for legal status.

"The refugees should be helped, but volunteers should open up their homes," she said.

Barto added that years ago, her vehicle was struck in Georgia by an undocumented immigrant, something that affects her every day.

Jacob said she has a lot of compassion for the immigrants.

She added that as she listens to the volunteers helping families, she can't help but think of the many homeless veterans needing a place to live. The county now has 1,312 homeless vets, Jacob added.

"Our priority should be to take care of our own first," Jacob said. "We do have a potential health crisis with the refugee situation, but we also have to press hard on the federal government to fix this."

Supervisor Jim Desmond agreed with Jacob, saying, "The county is the doorway to California, but is treated like a door mat."

Gaspar said that in November, she wrote a letter to then-Gov. Jerry Brown asking for state help to deal with food, travel assistance, medical care and shelter for refugees here.

She said there was no response, so she sent another letter -- this time with support from mayors of regional cities, including San Diego and Chula Vista.

Again, Gaspar added, there was no response -- but she hopes that Gov. Gavin Newsom will have a different attitude.

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