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Border & Immigration

Migrant advocates say county-funded center is mismanaged and lacks transparency

Every night for at least a week more than 100 asylum seekers and other migrants have been sleeping in the baggage claim areas of the San Diego International Airport, according to volunteers helping the migrants.

Some were stranded at the airport for as long as 36 hours before their flight departed, the advocates said. Others showed up without tickets and nowhere else to go.

This was not supposed to be the reality after San Diego County last month gave $3 million in taxpayer dollars to the nonprofit SBCS to establish the Migrant Welcome Center to help this specific migrant population.


Leaders of other nonprofits say the money is not being spent wisely.

“Despite the influx of funding, there are over 100 people sleeping in the airport every single night,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center, or ImmDef. “People are arriving with no food, no water.”

Volunteers are distributing more than 200 meals each day to the asylum seekers and other migrants, Toczylowski said.

She added that some migrants are being sent to cities where they have no sponsor or support system. They are ending up in shelters or on the streets.

“That is no different than what Governor (Greg) Abbot does in filling buses in Texas and sending them to other places around the country,” she said.


SBCS said they work very hard to avoid buying tickets for people without sponsors, but staff acknowledged to KPBS that it has happened multiple times.

Leaders of SBCS, formerly known as South Bay Community Services, defended their work in the welcome center.

“If you look at this center and you spend any time at this center you will know that the migrants are getting good services,” said SBCS CEO Kathryn Lembo.

San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas pushed for the money to be given to SBCS, for the welcome center. The center is located near downtown San Diego, but officials don’t want to provide the exact location for fear that migrants will be harassed.

Most people at the center do not plan to stay in San Diego. They have a final destination in mind, often a place where they have friends, family or a sponsor who can help them adjust to life in the United States. Many are heading to big cities like New York, Chicago, Seattle and Denver.

The center offers free food and access to wifi, phone chargers and volunteers who can help migrants with travel arrangements. In some cases, SBCS puts people with limited means in hotels and even pays for their airfare. To date, the center has provided services to more than 22,000 people, according to SBCS.

Dwindling funds

On Nov. 10, Vargas hosted a media tour of the center and called it an example that other cities should follow.

“I think this should be the model for the United States,” she said during the media tour.

But the county’s $3 million, which was originally part of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief program, is running out fast. The funds were supposed to last three months but will likely be depleted in two, according to SBCS and Vargas.

And that is setting off alarm bells among a number of immigrant-serving nonprofits who believe SBCS is mismanaging the money.

KPBS interviewed staff and volunteers from Universidad Popular, Al Otro Lado, Immigrant Defenders, Haitian Bridge Alliance, American Friends Service Committee and PANA.

“The fact that they’re saying that they’re going to run out of money in early to mid-December doesn’t make any sense,” said Erika Pinheiro, executive director of Al Otro Lado. “I would like to see an accounting of actual expenses.”

Lembo said SBCS has a proven track record in the community.

“You can talk to organizations around San Diego that will tell you how we are as a partner or how we are as an organization in how we provide services to people,” she said.

KPBS interviewed staff from two nonprofits working with SBCS in the welcome center.

“I have complete confidence in them,” said Lisa Cuestas of Casa Familiar.

Nonetheless, Pinheiro said she is perplexed by SBCS’s decision to cover the cost of transporting migrants from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities to the Welcome Center.

CBP used to cover transportation expenses when they dropped migrants off in transit centers throughout San Diego. Nonprofits like ImmDef, Casa Familiar, Haitian Bridge Alliance and Al Otro Lado helped set up makeshift welcome centers at those locations.

But recently SBCS has spent approximately $350,000 of the county money on buses that bring migrants from CBP custody to the welcome center, according to a budget reviewed by KPBS.

“That has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars that should have gone to nonprofits instead going to transportation, which falls under the purview of the federal government,” Pinheiro said.

Apart from eating up more than 10% of the $3 million, covering CBP’s transportation costs also threatens to rollback hard-fought gains, advocates say.

For years, immigrant rights organizations have tried to convince CBP to drop migrants off in shelters or places where they can receive aid instead of in transit centers, said Guerline Jozef, executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance.

“They have undone that fight,” Jozef said.

More than a dozen staff members and volunteers interviewed by KPBS said they felt left out of SBCS’s decision-making process.

“From the beginning, there was no willingness to work collectively,” Jozef said.

Lembo said the decision to cover transportation costs was a financial one, arguing that it would have been much more expensive to keep the welcome center at the Iris transit center in San Ysidro.

"Anyone who was at Iris and is here today can say that this is a better site," she said.

Elizabeth Rodriguez, of the International Rescue Committee, agreed. The organization has experience working at both sites.

"A lot has changed," she said. "We have it better here."

Lembo acknowledged tension between SBCS and the other organizations. But she said she doesn’t understand where it is coming from, and disagrees with the notion that others are being pushed out.

She said SBCS does not need to consult the other nonprofits on every decision.

“I don’t think we need to have a meeting every time we ask a church, ‘can you do sheltering for us,’” she said.

Conflict between the organizations began shortly after the $3 million was distributed. SBCS asked organizations to submit budgets, but the other organizations wanted to collaborate on a long-term strategy.

“They wanted to have a strategic planning process,” Lembo said. “We were like, we don’t have the time.”

The other organizations have spent years working together to help immigrants in San Diego County. Over the years, they have developed protocols that ensure their limited resources are spent as efficiently as possible.

Most are members of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium — a collaborative network of organizations that serve migrants in the region. SBCS is not involved in that work.

“We have networks and coalitions that have been doing this work for many years,” said Aracela Nunez, co-director of Universidad Popular. “We have protocols, structure, we know each other and have worked really hard to create that culture of collaboration for the benefit of the community.”

The other advocates say the problems started when San Diego County awarded the funds to SBCS in a no-bid contract.

“By having the county government step in without really taking into account the infrastructure that is already there, it really undermines decades of work,” Nunez added.

Vargas did not respond to questions for this article. Her spokesperson, Jose Lopez directed all questions about expenditures to SBCS.

When San Diego County announced the $3 million allocation to SBCS, they touted the nonprofits previous work providing social services to unaccompanied migrant children in the San Diego Convention Center in 2021.

Transparency issues

Advocates also raised concerns over transparency. SBCS provided nonprofits with a budget that allocates $1.2 million to staff. But the organization hasn’t said how many people are on staff, how much they are getting paid, or what their roles are.

Mauricio Torre, SBCS’s vice president of program operations, went over the budget with KPBS. Regarding the $1.2 million for staff, he said there is no set number of staff members but that there is an average of 60 people on staff at the center every day.

Staff include the kitchen crew, people who assess migrants for specific needs, and people who help finalize and even purchase flights out of San Diego, Torre said.

The lack of specific information is galling to nonprofits with shoestring budgets who spent the last several months helping migrants at open-air encampments in Jacumaba and San Ysidro, and at the CBP drop off sites.

“I think it’s ridiculously frustrating to know the SBCS received $3 million and they’re going to spend it in two months,” said Flower Alvarez Lopez, co-director of Universidad Popular. “We run off volunteers and donations. We could have made that $3 million last way longer than two months.”

There is no clear plan for what will happen after the $3 million runs out.

During the media tour, Vargas said she will continue to ask the federal government to provide more resources. She did not rule out trying to secure more county funding.

The nonprofits on the ground said they planned to continue serving migrants wherever they are even after the money is gone.

“We were here before and we will be here after,” said Jozef. "We are not here for the money."

Lembo said there are ongoing efforts to find additional funding through public-private partnerships. But if they don’t find alternatives, the welcome center will have to close.

“We go back to Iris (transit center) and do whatever we can,” she said.

Corrected: November 22, 2023 at 4:15 PM PST
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said SBCS was "formally" known as South Bay Community Services. This story has been corrected to indicate SBCS was formerly known as South Bay Community Services.