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Roundtable: Arrests For Feeding Homeless, Detention Center Expansion, Tijuana’s Soaring Homicide Rate

January 19, 2018 2:26 p.m.

Roundtable: Homeless Food Arrests, Detention Center Expansion, Tijuana’s Soaring Homicide Rate

PANEL:

Sandra Dibble, reporter, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Maya Srikrishnan, reporter, Voice of San Diego

Claire Trageser, reporter, KPBS News

Lyndsay Winkley, reporter, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Related Story: Roundtable: Arrests For Feeding Homeless, Detention Center Expansion, Tijuana’s Soaring Homicide Rate

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

EM: Arrest for feeding homeless people in El Cajon. The action is getting national attention and the dilemma for local churches. Detaining immigrants is big business. One of the deadly city in the world, is just a few miles away. The reasons behind Tijuana sky wrecking -- sky rocketing homicide rate. KPBS Roundtable starts now.
EM: Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Ebony Monet in for Mike Sauer. Joining me at the KBS Roundtable -- KPBS Mid Day Edition are 2 guests. Let's begin with El Cajon feeding the hungry is not a crime. That was a message from break the band, a homeless advocacy group that is now threatening to sue the city of El Cajon after the police arrested about a dozen group members for feeding the homeless in a public park. Lindsay, you covered the fallout after the arrest? Can you talk to me about how the police handle the rest?
LW: I think that the -- this wasn't an unexpected reaction from the police. Break the ban said they were hoping for some kind of enforcement action so that would allow them take their clothes into court. When the police arrived, it wasn't a surprise, they were very upfront about why they were there. They explained that the city had passed an ordinance that banned food sharing on city-owned properties and they said if they continued, they would be subject to arrest. They did and they were arrested.
EM: So, you talk more about the strategy about bringing this to court. Does the group think there's a good chance of support?
LW: I think they do. There were 2 rural areas they were hoping to FOCUS on. They wanted to challenge that this was an unconstitutional ordinance and they also wanted to challenge that this was something that was discriminatory towards a very specific population of people, the homeless. They were ready for it.

EM: They weren't taken off in handcuffs, what happens next?
LW: They will have a court date and they will have to show up. They will have representation, they will try to get the charges dropped and they will be filing a lawsuit in order to say that this was an unconstitutional ordinance. That will be separate from the criminal charges that will be filed.
CT: There are questions about citations, arrests or what was it?

LW: Essentially, certain citations in California are deemed to be misdemeanor arrest. But these individuals were not taken away in handcuffs to jail. It was a very formal but short arrest. They are arrested, they're cited and they are released all in the span of about 15-20 seconds.'s
>> That's interesting.

EM: The day after the arrest we spoke to one of the organizers of the event, Mark Lane, he is a homeless advocate who organize event and here's what he had to say about the ordinance.
[Clip] Why is it okay for you to have a birthday party in the park but it's unsanitary for me to have a food chair in the park. It's ridiculous on its face. It's them scratching at whatever they can.

EM: El Cajon has gotten a lot of publicity for the story especially because it coincided with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Many people felt like the arrest completely countered what Doctor King stood for. KPBS Mid Day Edition spoke to the mayor of El Cajon and he responded to the criticism. Here's what the mayor Bill Wells said to KPBS Mid Day Edition. He said a lot of cities have ignored these kinds of issues because they didn't want BAP publicity. I feel our responsibility to the public is more important than worrying about publicity or bring about the political ramifications. While El Cajon has been the practice, they are not the only place where people are experiencing pushback for feeding people or the homeless. Claire, you spoke to some church leaders who are experiencing pressure to stop the programs which feed the homeless. Can you tell us where this is happening and why?
CT: Is happening in several places, churches are saying that there has been resistance to them feeding meals to homeless people for a long time. Hepatitis a was added. It increase concerns. There was one church in Ohio that did cancel its dinners and I spoke with the priest at the church and he said hepatitis A's was part of the reason. He didn't want to be blamed for bringing hepatitis into the community. I talked with Tricia Souza who was organizing the meals at the church, here is what she had to say.
[Clip] We need stand strong. I believe that you have to help people. I don't believe you are enabling people their human beings. I don't believe that. I believe your helping people, they need to eat. They say don't feel people, don't give the money, celebrating the start them out? Were going to treat them like they are not humans. How fair is that? To saturate one part of the city with the same population? It's not right.

EM: Claire and Lindsay, it sounds like that there is an idea of undesirables. As if if -- as part of the pressure to stop these programs. It's being fueled by some people who feel that people who are homeless are not desirable peoples and they don't want them in the communities. The reason is actually because of hepatitis A. Are you getting the same feedback from these advocates?

LW: Brake the ban feels that this ordinance is not necessarily something designed to keep the community safe but in fact, it is designed to keep homeless people away from the community. They don't feel like it addresses the underlying issues that lead to homelessness, it attempts to make homelessness something that you came in he doesn't have to experience rather than solving it.

CT: Some of the churches said that, people have long resisted these meals because they feel like it may mean that people are likely to hang out in the areas that they are in. They want churches to stop feeding them for a long time. And then hepatitis A push that up into the forefront. I mean one of the things that came up in my story is the church says is part of our religion. We are serving people, it's one of the things that we feel called to do. We really can't stop doing it.

LW: I think you'll see that repeated in the lawsuit filed by break the ban. I think you will see religious rights brought up.
CT: The church was involved in El Cajon also.

LW: I think when we are having conversations about homelessness, these protesters don't necessarily think that this is happening in a silo. They're very concerned that other cities who are grappling with homelessness are watching how this ordinance is being received in El Cajon and are concerned it will then apply -- be applied to other areas.
EM: You expect that break the ban will take this to court, but in the meantime, do you think there will be more of these feedings and more these groups?
LW: Absolutely. The name of the group is called food not bombs and they will be partnering with break the ban. Rake the band will be hosting another food of in front of city Council in El Cajon.

EM: This is interesting, we'll be following the story. The Obama administration instructed the Department of Justice to phase out the use of private prisons. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has since rescinded that order. There are 4 evidently owned immigration detention centers in California. The only one permitted to expand is right here in San Diego County. The old-time Mesa detention center directly contracts with eyes -- ice. Can you share more information with us?
MS: Yes, the detention center will be expanding and add nearly 1000 beds. -- What is the makeup of the population?, The majority of the detainees are asylum-seekers and they are people who don't have any criminal convictions but they have immigration -related offenses. They are nonviolent. There are some that are high level and high risk the 1880s -- detainees that did commit violent crimes.

EM: In your report you talked about the noncriminal detainee, how long are they being held there?
MS: So, there is a huge range. It can be anywhere from 2 weeks to years. It depends on if they can get out on bond and it depends on their immigration proceedings. Sometimes the court cases can take a long time and if they're not able to get out on bond, they can be there for a very long time.

EM: How did he go from San Diego County not having immigrant detention centers until the late 1990s to now being near capacity?
MS: A lot of it has to do with national immigration policy. There was a huge surge in immigration enforcement over the last several decades. That has resulted in expansion all over the country of immigration detention. In this County, this company was very astute and in 1997, they leased land from the Sheriff's office and they built a facility there. They started contracting with immigration and held detainees there. That was very smart because we are near the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. And once a contract was ounce, they purchased the property they are currently on now and build that facility.
CT: I was curious from your story, is it that they knew there is going to be does need or did they get lucky? Can you tell?
MS: I think they're very savvy businessman and you can see that all over the country. They saw that there would be a need and they contracted with private countries -- companies. It's an affordable way for governments to be doing many things. They saw that as opportunity and went after it. It has been paying off so far especially with this ministration.

EM: Any idea about what percentage of this detainee population are asylum-seekers?
MS: Immigration did give me an exact percentage. But they said that a vast majority of them are asylum-seekers. They are mostly coming from Central American. A vast majority of these people that are detained have not committed violent crimes.
EM: Reporter: Tell me about this facility. Is is a high security prison?
MS: Yes. Is still a detention facility. Immigration will say, for example, the lower-level risk detainees have more recreational hours and they are in these housing units where they don't have to spend all their times in cells. There are some open spaces. They will kind of say they have a little more freedom than someone who is in a federal prison and stuck in the cell all the time. At the end of the day, they are still unable to come and go as they please or communicate with people. They have had their freedom taken away.

EM: California lawmakers have taken steps to stop the expansion of these private detention centers. Still, this one here in San Diego County, it is the only one in the state that can expand. How did that come to be?
MS: It's actually started a few years ago when the sheriff decided to not renew its lease with this company and they went and purchased property themselves and built their own facility. They now directly contract with immigration as a result of that. The state intended to halt its expansion was using his powerful local agencies saying you cannot expand or modify these contracts. But now, this facility does have a contract with any local agency as intermediary. As long it has the property, it can expand.
SD: With the argument against having these private facilities?
MS: In California, I think they think that people shouldn't be profiting over imprisoning people. There is also a bill passed last year to stop local agencies and state agencies to from -- from using private agencies. I think states have different philosophies about those things. I think if you're going to be in prison, should be the state were Everett responsibility.

EM: In your report, you include a statement from the Mesa detention center which speaks to what it calls high-quality, humane conditions. Yet, there been complaints and lawsuits.
MS: There have been a lot of complaints for this facility. Specifically there have been complained about medical care, pregnant women being detained, and then the most recent class-action lawsuit talks about forced labor saying that the private prison company is making detainees work while there he -- they are held there.'s

SM: Is very interesting. Shifting gears now, for a second year in a row, Tijuana breaks a record for homicides and 2017. 1744 people were killed and 2017. That's nearly double the 2016 total which is also a record-breaking year. At the same time, there is a continued push for tourism in Baja California. Sandra, you reported that the drug trade is fueling this violence. What has happened in the recent years that has caused this record-breaking violence?
SD: I think what has happened is there is a new drug trafficking organization called the Nueva cartel. It has been making a bid for many parts of Mexico including Baja California. If you think about it, it's one of the most lucrative corridors for crossing drugs into the United States. What has been happening on a street level is people are fighting over the neighborhood drug trade. There really 2 things at play here. The smuggling corridor in the neighborhood drug trade. The violence right now is over the neighborhood drug trade according to the DEA.

EM: So this new drug cartel, is its tactics different than cartels in the past?
SD: I don't think terribly. I think we are a different period then in 2008. 2008 was a period of a lot of violence, even though the numbers are lower, it was spookier, it was sent a law versus the Arianna organization. There are a lot of extortion and kidnapping going on. This is more neighborhoods, just one guy here, one guy there, it's kind of crept up on people. It doesn't feel like the security crisis of 2008.

EM: What is the recommendation from the U.S. State Department which as you know gives recommendations for travelers when it comes to Tijuana and Baja?
SM: Baja California is a level 2 alert. Is just basically using caution. France has that same alert, Spain has the same alert, Mexico wide is a level 2. Just be careful is basically it. In the case of Mexico, the gone region by region, there are 5 states where the state department has recommended no trouble at all. Baja California is not one of those.

CT: You get asked about people going to the border?
SD: I do, it's a hard question to answer. It's so relative. Where are you going? What are you going to do? Are you going to buy drugs? Are you just going to a restaurant? I think you're pretty okay going to a restaurant or hotel for the weekend.

MS: Has the violence been concentrated in certain neighborhood -- neighborhoods are area?
SD: Yes, it's generally targeted violence. You might not go to certain neighborhoods in U.S. cities. These are neighborhoods where you might not go at night especially if you don't belong there.

LW: To business owners feel the effect of the level 2 warning? Do they say that everything is running smoothly?
SD: Do you mean tourism promoters? I think tourism has really changed. I think it used to be we thought of tourism as the American family coming down for the day or Marines coming down. Tourism is also many things, there are convention tourism, there's medical tourism, there are groups that go down to study, I think we really are seeing a change tourism effect. I think tourism has continued, it is always a struggle and people are concerned about the state's image.

EM: Opening it up to the entire group, since we are so close to Tijuana, does anyone else venture to Tijuana. Do you take any other precautions?
MS: I feel like that when I am traveling in general, I'm cautious. I don't walk down abandoned streets at night, I tried to wear flashy stuff. In that sense, it is different. But I'm certain that most of the places in Tijuana are probably some of the safer places. I've gone down quite a bit to cover the woman issues in Tijuana, a lot of places are middle-class areas who are looking to invest into people. I'm assuming those are neighborhoods that are less impacted by some of this violence.

SD: Right.
CT: I feel like people from outside San Diego, parents are just here visiting and they said I would never cross the border. I would never go there. But for people who live in San Diego, they have more of a realistic view of the issues.

SD: I'm still surprised by people who say they would never go there. You read those headlines and your story, highest murder rate in years. You think it's dangerous.
SD: These are targeted killings, they are in well identified sections in the city. If you go down for a nice meal or concert, your chance of being heard is very low.

LW: We have really seen a long history of violence in Mexico as people continue. This feels different than 2008.
SD: The economy was at a very different point. There was just recessions, people are losing jobs, where were these guys going to work? There was fear that a lot of people would get recruited for drug trafficking groups. I think it's a different time economically for the state and the border.

EM: While other people are going to Tijuana may be able to stay within a tourist areas, I know your report had some corresponding video which was pretty gruesome. It shows some of the crime scenes. You don't have the same luxury as a journalist, you have to get right in their. Was a like for you going into the neighborhoods where these crimes have happened? Our journals well received?
SD: I think I was careful. There was only one where I felt nervous. I went the day after, we were with the Red Cross. So, we were just wondering in on our own. I would not want her in on my on -- own. We took measures to protect ourselves.

EM: What is a separation from the areas where the chores are typically drawn to and where these crimes are taking place?
SD: A lot of these crimes are in these working-class outlying areas. Tijuana is a huge city of 1.8 million people. I read an interview with the police chief who said a lot of the violence is taking place in Eastern Tijuana. That is true, there are certain identified neighborhoods. It doesn't mean it does not happen, but the tendencies are these in these poor neighborhoods.

EM: And we talk about the victims for a moment of this violence? 1700 people who were killed last year in Tijuana. Their narrative often is when you deal with cities that are high crime, coming from the police and coming from the government, the people who are victims in this case were also some way involved in the crime aspect is that narrative accurate? Do you believe that narrative? What did local say?
SD: Is a good question. I do believe the police have said over the years that 85-90% of the victims have criminal records themselves. Their part of the drug underworld and it's part of the settling of scores. I think big picture, I believe it, I believe you look case-by-case, you will find that it's that world, maybe it's a guy's brother who happened to be standing there. I know there was a 12-year-old child at market who was shot. So, it's a world. It's a criminal underworld and if you're near it, you are in danger, I think.

EM: What is the government doing to stop the bloodshed?
SD: I think the government has, well, I know the city is trying to hire more police officers. I think there are calls for the federal government to come back and be more involved because it more resources. I also know that Mexico for -- foreign relations history put out a statement saying that a lot of the violence has to do with drugs which are headed for the United States. If Tijuana was not in this corridor, supplies -- maybe it would not be so violent. If all these weapons from the essays were not going to Mexico, there might not be so many killings. So, I think we got away from the narrative that this is a joint responsibility. There been more finger-pointing's. For many years, I think U.S. and Mexico working together. Crime is not Mexico's problem, crime is a joint problem.

EM: Very interesting. Thank you so much. That wraps up another week of stories at the KPBS Roundtable. Thank you to our guests. A reminder to all, the stories that we discussed here are available at CVPS.org. Thank you for joining us at the roundtable.