Migrant girls start arriving at San Diego Convention Center shelter

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SAN DIEGO — Officials unveiled the San Diego Convention Center’s new migrant shelter Saturday, where 500 teen girls seeking asylum in the U.S. were expected to have arrived by the end of the day.

A handful of supporters with signs greeted one bus carrying a group of girls as it arrived at the convention center around 10 p.m. Mayor Todd Gloria said officials are expecting 250 additional young women to arrive Monday, then hundreds more in the days to come. The shelter will exclusively serve girls ages 13 to 17, according to Gloria, and will eventually house as many as 1,450.

“These are children, this is the right thing to do,” Gloria said. “We want to make it clear that we are a welcoming city.”

The convention center will temporarily shelter orphans, girls who were separated from their families and those who were sent to the U.S. by parents with hopes of delivering them to safety away from violence or extreme poverty in their home country, officials said.

The girls will be required to stay at the convention center until they can be paired with family members or other sponsors who will care for them while they await a hearing. They are being sent to San Diego from overcrowded border detention facilities where kids are not supposed to be held for more than 72 hours.

In Saturday’s news conference, Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, said it was particularly important to him as a “girl dad” that the convention center will serve young women, who face “particular dangers” and “experience trauma” during the journey to the U.S.

In a tour before the briefing Saturday, organizers showed local leaders cots, an outdoor recreation area and other accommodations, including one of the shelter’s kitchens. Convention center staff said they had prepared for serving large quantities of food in an emergency setting by working for Operation Shelter to Home, the homeless shelter established there during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials said the average stay for each teen will be 30-35 days. They will receive food, medical care, a place to sleep and showers. Gloria said there will also be providers offering case management, legal advice, educational opportunities and religious services.

The federal Health and Human Services department is funding the temporary shelter, though local government agencies, businesses and charities are directly involved in its implementation.

South Bay Community Services will serve as a key local nonprofit at the site, focusing on case work. Leaders urged residents Saturday to learn more about their organization and potentially donate on their website.

Rady’s Children Hospital will provide medical care. Other partners include FEMA, the CDC and the company that operates the San Diego Convention Center.

The shelter is expected to close by mid-July. The city had already planned to phase out the homeless shelter this month, Gloria said, with anyone still staying there now transferred to other city shelters.

The building would have otherwise sat empty until August, according to Gloria, when the first large events hosted there since the start of the pandemic are expected to resume.

The U.S. House of Representatives already passed two bills on immigration reform and is currently working on more. Lawmakers said the new shelter is not a long-term solution but a great start.

“Here today, and over the next few months, is not to fix all that. This is an act of compassion neighbor to neighbor,” Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, said.

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