REGION — The County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to support leasing land to a local organization to temporarily shelter migrant families as they seek asylum in the United States.
The proposal by Supervisors Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher would allow the Jewish Family Service of San Diego to lease the former downtown family courthouse for one year for $1 to house asylum-seeking families as they make arrangements with families in the United States.
“It’s a practical solution for a problem we didn’t create,” Cox said.
The Board voted 4-1, with Dist. 5 Supervisor Jim Desmond voting in opposition.
A number of high-ranking officials have thrown their support behind the proposal, including newly elected District Attorney Summer Stephan, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis and Sheriff Bill Gore.
Communities on both sides of the border have grappled with how to handle the influx of Central American migrants legally seeking asylum in the United States, arriving in large caravans.
Previously, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement allowed for these families to make arrangements with families before their release, but the agency abruptly ended the program, known as “Safe Release,” in October.
This briefly led to what county officials called a “potential crisis” in which 60 to 180 individuals and families per night were being released without a place to go.
Fletcher and Cox said the county would potentially inherit the consequences of the federal government’s policy change if they didn’t act.
“This is a failure of the federal government,” Fletcher said.
The San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of local nonprofits that includes Jewish Family Service, stepped in to create a temporary shelter.
But the network recently received notice to vacate the site by Feb. 15, potentially resulting in hundreds of migrants having to turn to homeless shelters or the streets if they have no arrangements in place.
“This work is dependent on having a reliable shelter location,” said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service.
The Department of Homeland Security also announced it would return asylum seekers back to Mexico after their initial screening, exacerbating conditions across the border as the Mexican government struggles with how to shelter the migrants on its side of the border.
The proposed lease would expire Dec. 31, and Jewish Family Service would reimburse the County for any county-incurred expenses and pay for all operations and maintenance costs.
The family courthouse is slated for affordable housing, but construction isn’t expected to begin until late 2020, Cox said.
In letters of support for the proposal, both Stephan and Horn said failure to act would expose the families to crimes such as human trafficking and homelessness, which would cost the county more than taking action.
More than 30 people spoke at the Tuesday morning hearing, all but one in favor of the proposal.
Blaze Newman, a former San Dieguito High School Academy teacher and volunteer with the Rapid Response Network, said that her family is housing an asylum-seeking family.
“These are good people who are afraid for their lives,” Newman said, who urged the supervisors to support the action. “This is the right thing, the humanitarian thing, the American thing to do.”
One speaker, Roger Ogden, spoke against the proposal, saying that the action would attract more migrants and promote child trafficking, an unsubstantiated claim.
“You gave them the goodies to them,” Ogden said. “The idea you are not aiding the caravan is baloney.
Ogden expresses concern that migrants would bring potential diseases into downtown, which was ground zero of a major Hepatitis A outbreak in 2017.
“They’re carrying diseases and you want to put them in the middle of San Diego,” Ogden said.
Dist. 3 Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who supported the measure, said she would not support future actions by the county, arguing that the county shouldn’t be doing the state and federal government’s job of temporarily housing migrants.
“I have zero interest in being the piggy bank of the state of California, and I have zero interest in being the life preserver of the federal government when they don’t do their job,” Gaspar said. “We’re going to back in the same place in 2019. And…this is not going to be supported by me in the future.”
Desmond said he wouldn’t support the action until the state agrees to reimburse the county for costs associated with the health screening and translation services at the current site.
Desmond said the eight healthcare screeners the county has provided at the current shelter site has costed taxpayers $350,000 to date, and rising.
“I’m ok with the shelter,” Desmond said. “I’m not ok with leaving the burden on county taxpayers. Until I see that…I can’t support the action today.”
Fletcher and Cox said that the public health services are the county’s responsibility regardless of they are reimbursed. Fletcher said a working group of state and county officials are working towards that reimbursement, even though it is not the state’s responsibility to do so.
“We don’t get to not protect the public health, that is our charge,” Fletcher said.
Board Chairwoman Dianne Jacob said the county at its next meeting would be exploring litigation against the federal government to “get the federal government to do its job and reimburse the county and other organizations.”