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San Diego Migrant Center Overwhelmed, Border Patrol Resumes Street Releases

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Several people wearing face masks stand in line next to a bus.
Migrants arrive at the Iris Avenue Transit Center after being dropped off by Border Patrol agents in San Diego on Feb. 25, 2024.  (Adriana Heldiz/CalMatters)

As one volunteer said, it feels back to “zero” in San Diego after a migrant reception center ran out of money, leading federal Border Patrol officers to begin dropping off hundreds of people at a trolley station over the weekend.

The so-called “street releases” in San Diego have touched off disagreements among federal, state and local officials about how to assist the new arrivals and who should pay for it. They also reflect a broader challenge President Joe Biden faces trying to manage unprecedented numbers of people arriving at the US-Mexico border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported nearly 2.5 million encounters with migrants along the southwest border from October 2022 through September 2023. More than 80% of those encounters occurred between official ports of entry — in remote desert areas or mountains in southeastern San Diego and elsewhere in California, Arizona and Texas.

In the past six months, nearly 100,000 migrants have arrived in the San Diego region, county officials said, though most have moved on to other U.S. cities.

Many of the migrants who arrived over the weekend had been in Border Patrol custody but were released on what the federal government calls “humanitarian parole.” Some were disoriented and unclear about where they were as they got off buses Saturday and Sunday at the Iris Street trolley station in San Diego. Some weren’t sure if they were still being detained.

They had no place to charge their cell phones, use bathrooms, eat a meal, or arrange travel to other parts of the United States. Many had received notices to appear in immigration courts in other cities, some they had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce. Others had been separated from family members during the detention process and didn’t know what to do next.

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“Where am I?” asked Juan Carlos Ortiz, a 28-year-old from Nicaragua, as he rummaged through his backpack for shoelaces that had been removed from his shoes while in custody. With a shoelace halfway through one shoe, he raced with his group to catch the next trolley heading for the San Diego International Airport.

Another man who spoke Arabic called a friend in Egypt and pressed his phone into a reporter’s hand: “Is my friend still in custody?” asked the man on the phone, half a world away.

Several people stand around a parking lot, with one man kneeling to tie his shoe.
Migrants arrive at the Iris Avenue Transit Center after being dropped off by Border Patrol agents in San Diego on Feb. 25, 2024. (Adriana Heldiz/CalMatters)

Border Patrol officials said they had no choice but to release the migrants on city streets because its holding facilities were overcrowded and understaffed. The agency said it was working with local and federal partners to find a solution to the humanitarian challenges at the southern border.

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The welcome center, which opened in October, closed Thursday night because of a lack of funds. Previously, it bused people from a federal detention center to a former elementary school in San Diego, where migrants were given basic services, connected with loved ones through translators, and allowed to rest and arrange for the next leg of their journey.

Since October, San Diego County has awarded $6 million to SBCS, the nonprofit formerly known as South Bay Community Services, which ran the center. The funds came from what’s left of $650 million the federal government sent San Diego County for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nonprofit provided transportation, Wi-Fi, phone-charging stations, food, travel advice and other services. The group aimed to keep the center open through March, but Thursday was its last day because its “finite resources have been stretched to the limit” amid a significant increase in migrant arrivals, CEO Kathie Lembo said last week.

County officials said the center served 700 to 900 people a day last week. In total, it provided services to more than 81,000 migrants since October, Lembo said.

“This temporary support was vital and prevented tens of thousands of individuals from being stranded in San Diego without the support needed to continue their journey, as 99.5% of the migrants we served traveled on to destinations outside of the county,” Lembo said in a statement.

What newly arrived migrants will do now that the center is closed is unclear.

Migrants who arrived last week came from China, Ecuador, Mexico, Egypt, Nicaragua, Guinea and Georgia.

“If you speak Spanish, please walk down the sidewalk this way,” volunteers shouted as group after group of migrants left the federal buses. “English, over here!” waved another volunteer.

Volunteers from nearly a dozen local and state nonprofits spread out from the Iris trolley station to the San Diego airport, trying to help direct people on the next leg of their trip.

“I’m going to show you a diagram of the trolley’s route. You guys are here at Iris,” volunteer Robert Vivar explained to a group of Spanish speakers, showing them a map. “Where you’re going to go is where the star is — at the stop called Old Town. That’s where you’re going to get down.”

Volunteers used translation apps on cell phones to try to communicate with those speaking languages other than English, Spanish or French.

It was the same routine volunteers followed last fall before the migrant welcome center opened.

“It feels like we’re starting from zero again,” said volunteer Patricia Mondragon, who stressed the need for continued government assistance. Mondragon said local or state governments could provide bathrooms, cell charging stations and Wi-Fi to help disoriented migrants figure out where they are and where they’re going next.

“We really feel strongly there is a continuous role here for a whole-of-government approach, so we can be the welcoming region that we are known to be. We need to help people in a dignified manner,” Mondragon said.

Five people wearing face masks walk next to a bus.
Migrants arrive at the Iris Avenue Transit Center after being dropped off by Border Patrol agents in San Diego on Feb. 25, 2024. (Adriana Heldiz/CalMatters)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said California cannot continue providing the same level of humanitarian services along the border it has in the past, not while facing tens of billions in projected budget deficits.

In the fiscal year that ended in June, the state allocated $150 million for sheltering services for migrants. That money is “fully committed” for the year, a spokesman said.

But Monday, Daniel Lopez, the deputy communications director for Newsom’s office, said  California will continue “serving as a model of partnership for a safe and humane border.

“The state remains committed to supporting counties as they develop contingency plans to provide sheltering and other essential services for migrants,” he said.

California funds nonprofit organizations that temporarily house migrants who are separated from family members during the detention process. Lissette Gabelanez, 19, from Ecuador, was in that situation Saturday afternoon as she waited for her mother, father and 4-year-old brother to be released from detention.

“Should I just go back to the detention center,” she asked a volunteer, who told her she was free to make her own decisions, but they recommended she wait at the trolley station.

“I’m just very worried about my family,” she told CalMatters.

At the Old Town trolley station on Saturday morning, migrant travelers could take a free shuttle to the airport. But by midday Saturday, airport officials stopped migrants from boarding the free shuttles unless they could show proof that their airline tickets had already been purchased.

A couple from Colombia said they could only purchase their tickets in cash and decided to take a taxi from Old Town to the airport. About a dozen people gathered around a T-mobile booth at the train depot to ask the attendant to charge their phones as they tried connecting with loved ones to purchase airline tickets. “We’ve been slammed all day,” said the cashier.

Several people standing or sitting outside in a parking lot.
Migrants arrive at the Iris Avenue Transit Center after being dropped off by Border Patrol agents in San Diego on Feb. 25, 2024. (Adriana Heldiz/CalMatters)

A spokesperson for the San Diego airport said migrants should not be arriving at the airport without tickets or more than eight hours before their flights are scheduled to take off.

“The airport is not set up to provide services,” said Nicole Hall, an airport spokesperson.

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond, a Republican, opposes using county funds to manage the street releases.

“The federal government must manage the mess they’ve created,” he said. “We need the border to be secure and the laws to be upheld, including asylum cases to be heard on a case-by-case basis, not just mass released. But, in the meantime, if the federal government allows this to take place, they must fund the chaos they’ve created.”

Some advocates have raised concerns about how funds at the migrant welcome center were spent and are calling for the county to investigate.

Invoices obtained by CalMatters through a Public Records Act request show that from October through December, the organization spent $750,000 on personnel costs, $368,000 on transportation from the border patrol detention center to the welcome center, $461,800 on onward travel for migrants, $151,000 on operating expenses, and $330,000 to subcontractors, among other costs.

“It’s astounding that $6 million have been spent in less than four months’ time, and, as a region, we have absolutely no enduring welcoming infrastructure to show for it. This is unacceptable,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, which had volunteers at the trolley station.

Toczylowski said her organization must “fulfill the mission that has been abandoned by the organization that received all of the county funds.”

Funding transparency is crucial, said Erika Pinheiro, executive director of Al Otro Lado, another nonprofit that sent volunteers last weekend.

“Nothing can be done to get that money back, but we hope it serves as a lesson for the management of future funding so that it’s spent in a way that actually serves the community and focuses resources on the most vulnerable, ” Pinheiro said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Friday it would continue to “surge personnel, transportation, processing, and humanitarian resources to the most active and arduous areas throughout San Diego’s border region where migrants are callously placed by smuggling organizations.”

It added it would coordinate as much as possible with state, local and nongovernmental partners, but “this situation is the latest example of the pressing need for Congress to provide additional resources and take legislative action to fix our outdated immigration laws.”

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