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Border & Immigration

San Diego Convention Center To Hold Asylum-Seeking Unaccompanied Minors

The San Diego Convention Center is seen in the background in this photo taken March 4, 2018.
Milan Kovacevic
The San Diego Convention Center is seen in the background in this photo taken March 4, 2018.
According to HHS plans, the site will be used for approximately three months with an average stay for each child from 30 to 35 days. Plans are to provide the children with food, medical care, a place to sleep and showers, as well as a recreation area.

City and county leaders announced Monday that the San Diego Convention Center is being made available for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children seeking asylum.

According to HHS plans, the site will be used for approximately three months with an average stay for each child from 30 to 35 days. Plans are to provide the children with food, medical care, a place to sleep and showers, as well as a recreation area.

However, the children will not be allowed to leave the facility until reunification with family occurs.

"These are children. And they have a legal claim and right to be here," Board of Supervisors' Chair Nathan Fletcher told KPBS. "And just as we would want for any of our children, we can do everything we can to ensure a safe and compassionate location to facilitate them through what is a very difficult time in their lives. We have the space."

Fletcher said that the county's experience with helping to create a migrant shelter over two years ago has helped prepare the county for the task. He pointed out that was done without the help of the federal government.

"In that case, the federal government was literally dropping on the street with no communication or coordination or collaboration. In this instance, the federal government is saying 'this is our responsibility, can you help and partner with us'? It's a fundamentally different situation," he said.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and Fletcher released a joint statement on the decision Monday.

"When HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra requested our help to house some of the unaccompanied minors at the border, we knew it was the right thing to do," they wrote. "Over the weekend, we agreed to open our convention center to the federal government for use as a temporary shelter.

"The city and county will support this federally funded effort by providing vital services to these vulnerable children who came to our country seeking safety. We are working closely with our federal partners to finalize the details for preparing to receive these young people and provide them with care, compassion and a safe space to transition while they are reunited with families or sponsors," the statement continued.

RELATED: Number Of Unaccompanied Minors Entering U.S. Soared In February

No date is set yet for the convention center to become a temporary holding site for unaccompanied migrant children up to age 17.

"Every child in our care deserves a safe place to rest and to know their well-being is addressed," Becerra said. "Our task is to protect the health and safety of unaccompanied children, who are under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, while they go through their immigration proceedings."

The Health and Human Services Refugee Resettlement Program will fund the temporary facility. Additional collaborators include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the San Diego Convention Center.

Two years ago, the county and Jewish Family Service of San Diego, the San Diego Rapid Response Network and the state provided services and temporary shelter for families seeking asylum at a closed county courthouse after the Trump administration began releasing migrants in border communities.

On Monday, Jewish Family Service and the SDRRN's Migrant Shelter Services put out a call seeking volunteers and additional staff for the current effort.

"The last two weeks have been exceptionally challenging," said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service. "In order to serve the hundreds of asylum seekers in our care, more volunteers and staff are needed.

"We continue to work with all levels of government and our partners to determine how we can all best meet needs. It is critical that the federal government continue to work to rebuild and reimagine our country's broken asylum and immigration systems, including the processes for migrant shelter services across the border region," Hopkins continued.

Since March 1, SDRRN Migrant Shelter Services has assisted more than 1,700 asylum seekers, compared to 490 migrants served for the month of February.

This week, city and county officials, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and San Diego Housing Commission are winding down Operation Shelter to Home, a program hosted at the convention center to protect people experiencing homelessness from COVID-19. The effort has served more than 4,000 people and helped nearly 1,300 individuals and 43 families find permanent or longer-term housing in the year that it's been open. All remaining residents are being offered beds in the city's shelter system.