ESCONDIDO — The San Diego branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the city of Escondido claiming the city unfairly discriminated against unaccompanied migrant children last summer.
Last June, the Escondido Planning Commission denied a proposal from nonprofit Southwest Key to convert a former nursing home into a shelter for unaccompanied minors that illegally cross the border.
Escondido City Council upheld the planning commission’s decision and the issue drew national attention.
Mayor Sam Abed appeared on Fox News last August to explain his belief that the federal government, who contracted with Southwest Key, shouldn’t be involved in local land-use issues.
“The ACLU has no business interfering with a land use decision. It is our government that needs to make that determination,” Abed said on the news broadcast.
“I’m a proud immigrant coming to this country for the values, for the liberty, for the freedom,” said Abed. “I see myself fighting the ACLU because they are trying to attack these values that America stands for.”
Councilwoman Olga Diaz was the only councilmember in favor of the shelter and drew national attention from MSNBC.
The ACLU is suing Escondido claiming they denied children from Central America housing based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, immigration status and/or hostility to federal policy.
The proposed shelter was intended for children who were crossing the border in large numbers to escape violence and upheaval in Central America.
“This is what 21st Century discrimination looks like,” said David Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “Whatever the personal beliefs of individual officials, the City of Escondido capitulated to discrimination and xenophobia and unlawfully denied a home to traumatized children.”
Planning commissioners originally denied the shelter for a variety of reasons.
Some commissioners argued the proposed 96-bed shelter would negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood because of traffic and noise.
Others argued the shelter wasn’t large enough for nearly 100 children and was meant to house ailing seniors.
The shelter proposed was meant to be temporary. Children would stay there for a maximum of 30 days while staff located their family members.
The ACLU appealed the decision to city council last October.
Hundreds of residents attended the hearing, which got heated at times.
Opinionated residents on each side waved signs with provocative messages.
Some residents refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, drawing boos from those with opposing political views.
All of the council members, except Diaz, voted to uphold the commission’s decision denying the shelter.
Southwest Key originally tried to open a facility at the site of a former motel, but couldn’t because of changes to the zoning codes.
The lawsuit will be heard in San Diego federal court.
Southwest Key currently operates 23 immigrant youth shelters in Texas, Arizona and California.
Two of those shelters are in San Diego, one in El Cajon and one in Lemon Grove.