SAN DIEGO — A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the streets of San Diego and Imperial counties, sparked by a lack of funding and a spike in immigrants seeking asylum at the border.
Catholic Charities of San Diego continues to respond to this emergency, fulfilling its mission to welcome and help the stranger, as the Gospel calls all people of faith to do.
For more than two years, the organization has been helping immigrants who are legally in the country seeking asylum. Its staff has received them when immigration authorities released them; provided them with a warm bed, food, and medical care if needed; and assisted them to travel within a day or so to connect with family and friends elsewhere in the country.
The organization became the largest provider of assistance to asylum-seekers in Southern California, providing humanitarian and trauma-informed help in an efficient, economical way, said its chief executive officer, “Vino” Pajanor. The operation grew to three shelters in San Diego and Imperial counties, with the largest one having a capacity of 1,100 beds in San Diego.
In the last 28 months, the organization has helped more than 252,000 asylum-seekers from 131 countries, one-third of them families with children, the CEO said.
That all has changed.
Funding for operating the shelters has been drastically reduced by the federal government. The state of California, which has supported the shelters, is facing a budget deficit after several years of surplus.
At the same time, immigration authorities are seeing a high number of immigrants asking for asylum at the border. Immigration officials began to release hundreds of asylum-seekers a day in the streets of San Diego and Imperial counties, instead of taking them to shelters, which could no longer receive a high volume due to the budget cuts.
The migrants are being dropped off near transit centers in cities such as San Diego, Oceanside and Escondido. They generally only have the clothes on their backs and do not speak English. County and city officials fear they will join the thousands of people already living on the streets.
Catholic Charities will now focus on assisting vulnerable asylum-seekers, such as women with children, the elderly, or disabled. The agency has closed two of its shelters, leaving only one in Imperial County, which has 300 beds available, and one in San Diego with 550 beds.
The organization is coordinating with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security only to receive vulnerable asylum-seekers if there is a surge of migrants. If there is not, the agency will receive any other asylum-seeker needing assistance to connect with family or friends elsewhere in the country, up to its capacity.
“It’s not morally right for us to have open beds and migrants are being dropped off on the street,” said Pajanor.
The state government is handing off the operation of the shelters to non-governmental organizations instead of running them itself. Catholic Charities will be the lead organization in Imperial County starting Sept. 13, and in San Diego County starting Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, the federal government continues to provide a small amount of funds to help the nonprofits assist the migrants, through FEMA.
Inundated with sensational headlines, Catholic Charities’ CEO wants the Catholic community to know the fundamentals.
“Everyone who comes into our care, released by the Department of Homeland Security, is a documented individual,” he said. “These migrants are legally in the country.”
He said that these individuals crossed the border and turned themselves in to immigration officials. After processing them, the U.S officials decided that they could be eligible for asylum. They gave the immigrants a notice to appear in immigration court, and transported them to Catholic Charities shelters. Nearly all will leave within 36 hours, assisted by the organization, to connect with loved ones and to press their case for asylum.
How You Can Help
Catholic Charities is seeking volunteers, donations of lightly used clothing and shoes, and financial contributions to assist the effort to help migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Those interested can call (619) 323-2841 or visit the website ccdsd.org for details.