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Border & Immigration

Supervisors OK $3M to help migrants, asylum-seekers

County Board of Supervisors Chair Nora Vargas describes the flow of asylum-seeking refugees into the San Diego region over the last month as an unprecedented crisis. Today, the Board stepped up with millions in financial assistance for groups trying to help. But KPBS reporter John Carroll says support was not unanimous.

On a 3-0 vote, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors agreed today to spend $3 million for services to help migrants and asylum seekers with various needs, such as translation assistance and transportation.

The board's vote came after an hour-long public hearing, during which many speakers, including some from immigrant-rights groups, voiced support of the program.

Board Chairwoman Nora Vargas, along with colleagues Joel Anderson and Terra Lawson-Remer, voted yes. The proposal was a timely one, just weeks after thousands of migrants and asylum seekers were brought into San Diego County — many of them dropped off at transit stations by U.S. border agents.


Supervisor Jim Desmond was absent from Tuesday's meeting due to a long- standing family commitment, according to his office.

Proposed by Vargas, the $3 million —provided through the American Rescue Plan Act — will also help migrants and asylum seekers to help them move beyond San Diego County with geographic information, access to equipment and Wi- Fi to contact sponsor relatives, food snacks, water, hygiene kits, restrooms and other services.

Before the vote and public input, Vargas mentioned the board recently declared the migrant situation a humanitarian crisis, and asked the Biden administration and Congress to help. She also praised various nonprofits for their efforts to help new arrivals in the United States.

"People can have their political opinions about what this is or this isn't, but we have a responsibility once people are here in our communities to make sure they're treated with dignity and respect," Vargas said.

"This is not a long-term solution — there's still a lot of work for us to do."


Anderson said the funding wasn't his first choice, but he couldn't "sit idly by and allow people to be victimized."

Lawson-Remer said it was important to welcome immigrants to the United States and noted that she wouldn't be here were it not for her great- grandparents leaving Ukraine for a better, safer life.

For those crossing the border, nonprofits have taken on much of the responsibility. Casa Familiar served more than 8,000 people in the past month at a now-closed shelter in the San Ysidro Civic Center. Casa Familiar President and CEO Lisa Cuestas told NBC7 the nonprofit has spent more than $200,000 since Sept. 13 on staff and services.

During the board's public comment period Tuesday, dozens of advocates stressed that volunteers helping migrants were already stretched thin, and the $3 million was badly needed.

Father Scott Santarosa, of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Logan Heights, said his church is providing safe place to sleep for 15 to 35 migrant men each night, along with meals.

"We do it because of our Christian faith," he said. "It calls us to act with mercy towards our brothers and sisters in need. ... Your investment in us is a good investment."

Several opponents criticized the board for approving money for non- citizens, especially when so many already living in the county desperately needed help.

San Diego resident Chris Stoddard said while he acknowledged the tough journey migrants make to get to American soil, "it is not our responsibility to take care of people that chose to immigrant to our country illegally."

While the immigration the system could be simplified, "an open border is not the answer," said Stoddard, who was a Republican candidate for the 53rd District congressional seat in the 2020 election. "If the recent events in Israel have not concerned you enough about who exactly is walking across our border, then I don't know what will."

Other opponents of Tuesday's item said the matter shouldn't be handled at a local level, but by the state or federal government.

"In the past three weeks, we've witnessed a staggering influx of over 13,000 individuals into San Diego County," said Amy Reichert, Republican candidate for the vacant supervisors' seat. "This unprecedented situation is a direct result of the ineptness displayed by the federal government in addressing our nation's immigration process.

"Now, the county of San Diego's Board of Supervisors is proposing to allocate $3 million of your hard-earned tax dollars towards addressing a federal issue, putting our community at risk," she said.

Vargas earlier said the funding was intended as a stopgap measure until federal funds can take the burden off local governments and NGOs.

"This fiscal commitment is necessary to keep the humanitarian crisis from deepening, and to secure the health and safety of our region while maintaining the human dignity of asylees fleeing oppressive regimes," she wrote in a letter to the board. "The funding is expected to provide these services for up to three months while continuing a relentless pursuit for a long-term funding source from the federal government."

In a statement after the vote, Desmond called the board's decision "deeply disappointing."

"While I recognize the humanitarian aspects of this issue, I firmly disagree with its implications for our community," Desmond said.

He added the $3 million "should be used to address pressing issues within our county. Our community faces challenges such as homelessness, deteriorating roads, and mental health crises that demand immediate attention and resources."

Later in the meeting, the board failed to advance a separate proposal that would have ended taxpayer-funded deportation defense for criminal non- citizens through the $5 million-per-year Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program.

Supervisor Joel Anderson's motion on the proposal died for lack of a second from his colleagues. He balked at the county footing the bill for non- citizens with criminal records, citing an estimate from the Department of Public Works that $250,000 was going toward representation for those with criminal convictions.

The San Diego County Public Defender Office operates IRLDP in collaboration with ABA Immigrant Justice Project and Immigrant Defenders LawCenter and 23 panel attorneys.

According to Anderson, taxpayer-funded attorneys have represented convicted felons with rap sheets including drug and/or trafficking, aggravated felonies, crime involving moral turpitude, money laundering and other convictions. He said the county has more pressing needs than defending convicted felons.

Lawson-Remer, who authored and supported the policy in 2021, said it is working as intended and has provided "free, constitutionally afforded access to an attorney to represent them in removal proceedings," according to a statement from her office. Nearly 800 people have been provided representation through the program with case results ranging from dismissal to deportation, she said.