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ACLU Considers Legal Action Against Escondido Over Migrant Shelter

Aired 7/23/14 on KPBS News.

The ACLU says the city of Escondido may have violated fair housing and land use laws when it rejected a permit to open a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children caught crossing the border illegally.

The ACLU is considering legal action against the city of Escondido after its Planning Commission refused to allow a shelter there for immigrant youth caught sneaking across the border.

“We are conducting a full-scale investigation of the city’s entire decision-making process,” David Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties, said Wednesday.

The Planning Commission voted 7–0 on June 23 to deny a permit to open a 96-bed temporary shelter for unaccompanied immigrant minors in a former nursing home. It upheld the decision, again unanimously, on Tuesday.

The shelter was to be run by Southwest Key, under contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Loy said Escondido may have violated state and federal laws regarding fair housing and land use. Loy said the ACLU was investigating, among other things, whether the official reasons for denying the permit were “just a pretext for discrimination.”

City spokeswoman Joyce Masterson said Escondido had provided the ACLU with all of the information that the organization requested, “and we’ve not heard anything further from them on legal action.” She declined further comment.

The shelter issue is the latest in Escondido’s history of contentious debates — and ACLU intervention — around illegal immigration.

In 2006, the city attempted to ban landlords from renting to people without legal immigration documents. In 2012, Escondido police tried to keep people from protesting at DUI and driver’s license checkpoints.

In both cases, the ACLU threatened legal action and the city backed down.

Last year, the city was forced to change from citywide elections to district elections to comply with a lawsuit alleging that Latino voters were disenfranchised under the old system.

The Planning Commission's vote last month against the migrant youth shelter came after nearly three hours of public comment — most of it opposed to the shelter. Many speakers cited broader concerns with the federal government’s immigration and enforcement policies.

Loy indicated that these concerns may have unduly influenced the commission’s decision.

“People have a right to heckle, certainly, but we do not believe that that should create a veto on the community’s ability and moral duty, if not legal duty, to show compassion to frightened and vulnerable children,” he said.

Anyone can appeal the Planning Commission’s decision and have it brought before the City Council. That's one of the options the ACLU is exploring, Loy said.

Limited shelter space for immigrant children has become a major problem since unprecedented numbers began flooding into the Rio Grande Valley earlier this year.

U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended 55,420 unaccompanied children from October 2013 through the end of June — a nearly 500 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Most of the children are coming through South Texas.

San Diego’s section of the U.S.-Mexico border has seen some of the lowest numbers of unaccompanied immigrant children compared to other areas. A total of 1,360 children have been apprehended along San Diego’s border since last October, a 15 percent increase over the previous year.

Still, child advocates say there’s a desperate need for more temporary shelter space in San Diego for immigrant children. The county has just two shelters in the with a total of 25 beds.

When no beds are available at those two shelters, children are often bused or flown to shelters in other parts of the country.

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