By Edward Sifuentes / ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties
One night in late October, volunteers with the San Diego Rapid Response Network received the first of many reports of asylum-seeking migrant families being released on the streets of San Diego by immigration authorities.
Many of the families, which included women and small children, were disoriented, hungry and penniless. Most knew no one in our region. They were literally strangers in a strange land.
These new arrivals – primarily from Central America and from as far away as Africa – are being abandoned on our streets because the Trump administration discontinued the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program that helps asylum-seekers to coordinate their travel to loved ones throughout the United States. ICE says it no longer has room to hold migrant families long enough to finalize travel arrangements.
Consequently, ICE is now releasing asylum-seeking families into our communities without food, transportation or shelter – and without coordinating or even communicating with local governments or nonprofit agencies who want to help them.
Faced with this urgent and growing humanitarian concern, the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN), a coalition of more than 40 faith, labor and civil rights organizations, began pooling resources to help.
SDRRN quickly opened a shelter to house families until they find transportation. There, volunteer organizations also provide food, clothing, health services, legal aid, and airplane or bus tickets.
The shelter can accommodate only about 150 people, with average stays of 24 to 48 hours. It stays filled to capacity because as quickly as one group of families moves on, others are released by immigration authorities.
The need for migrant shelter and related services is expected to escalate in coming weeks as hundreds gather in Tijuana hoping to claim asylum in the U.S.
Migrants seeking asylum are not breaking the law and detention of asylum-seeking families is almost never necessary. The San Diego Rapid Response Network welcomes the release of these families so they may pursue their asylum claims.
At a November 19 press conference, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties joined with Jewish Family Service of San Diego, San Diego Organizing Project, Catholic Charities, Casa Cornelia, International Rescue Committee and other SDRRN members to make a public appeal for donations to sustain their humanitarian efforts.
They also called on immigration authorities to release asylum-seeking families in a caring and responsible manner and to proactively communicate with nonprofit organizations that want to provide them aid.
“In our proudest moments, America has been a safe harbor for refugees from around the world. Granting asylum to people seeking peace, freedom and opportunity exemplifies our long-standing national values of compassion, inclusion and justice,” said ACLU-SDIC executive director, Norma Chavez-Peterson.
“We urge the Trump administration, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE and CBP, to honor these values. We urge our federal government to follow the law. Migrant asylum-seekers should be promptly received and processed by U.S. authorities – not illegally banned for failing to cross at a port of entry, and not criminalized, scapegoated, or abandoned in this country.”
On November 8, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant v. Trump, charging the Trump administration with violating the Immigration and Nationality Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The suit was filed immediately after President Trump’s proclamation that non-citizens crossing the southern border would be ineligible for asylum if they do not present themselves for inspection at a port of entry. On November 19, a federal judge temporarily blocked implementation of this blatantly bigoted “asylum ban.”
The United States is a nation with tremendous means, power and capacity for compassion. There is no reason why asylum-seeking families who have endured unimaginable trauma to reach our land, should continue to suffer unnecessarily in our streets.
During this period of Thanksgiving and into the winter holiday season, the San Diego Rapid Response Network and partner organizations are determined to provide vital shelter and assistance to asylum-seeking families in need.
Edward Sifuentes is the Sr. Communications Strategist for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.