Public outrage over the Trump administration's practice of separating immigrant children from their parents is spurring the creation of a network of churches and homes providing temporary beds for asylum-seekers across San Diego County.
A religious nonprofit in Normal Heights is formally launching the Safe Harbors Network this week after finishing up some last-minute details, such as hiring a background-checking firm for the vetting process of homes, pastor and director Bill Jenkins told KPBS.
"This is evil. This is evil to take a baby from a mother's arms. It's something people are seeing and saying, 'This is not what we are as Americans,' " he said.
The Christ United Methodist Ministry Center has helped about 6,000 asylum-seekers since a 2016 surge of Haitian migrants, Jenkins said. It is one of nine immigrant shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Jenkins said he is launching the network because so many people have offered to help amid an increased awareness about the plight of asylum-seekers.
He said he is mostly sheltering mothers with children from Haiti, Central America and various African countries, and is not yet housing any of the separated families.
But he said he expects to start sheltering separated parents released on parole now that a San Diego federal judge has ordered family reunification within 30 days. He said the center will work with immigration officials to reunite those parents with their children.
"There's this perception out there that asylum-seekers are 'illegal aliens,' as they call them — I hate that term," Jenkins said. "These are people who are trying as best they can, fleeing for their lives, being persecuted, being threatened, and they're coming across the border in accordance with U.S. and international humanitarian laws."
Already, about a dozen churches and homes have offered to join the network to help asylum-seekers while they await their days in court. Jenkins said those who can't provide beds can help with donations, including diapers, toys and hygiene items.
One of the asylum-seekers at the center is Isatu Mansaray, a 25-year-old woman who said she fled Sierra Leone after she refused an arranged marriage.
"The guy was 87 years old, and I say, 'I'm too young to get married to old person because of money.' I said no," she said.
Mansaray said that after refusing the marriage, her father threatened to kill her for not accepting the proposal because he believed the family needed the money. She showed KPBS some welts on her arms where she said her father beat her with a red-hot iron he had held over a fire.
She said she fled to the U.S. and asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Immigration officials released her on parole and dropped her off at the Christ United Methodist Ministry Center, where a church volunteer promised help.
"He said, 'I will do everything possible for you because I know you're a strong woman,' " she said.
Other women spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation. One Honduran woman said she's worried about the Trump administration's push to exclude gang violence and domestic violence from the U.S. asylum process because that's what she and a majority of Central Americans are fleeing.
"Every day they change the laws," she said, sighing. "I try not to watch the news anymore because it upsets me."
But she said she is grateful, at least, to have a place to sleep. The network has also connected her with human rights organizations that have pro bono attorneys.
"When I entered here, I had nothing," she said. "I didn't have anywhere to go. I had nothing ... they've helped me a lot."