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Border & Immigration

San Diego County approves another $3 million for migrant aid

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has now set aside $6 million to help migrants being released into San Diego.

And they say it’s not enough.

“I want to make sure that this is clear,” said Board Chair Nora Vargas. “The county can’t sustain this. We must continue to implore the federal government to take responsibility.”


The board voted Tuesday to allocate $3 million to its migrant welcome center. This is on top of another $3 million the board spent in October. That money comes from the federal government’s COVID-era American Rescue Plan.

Tuesday’s 4-1 vote came after 90 minutes of tense public debate.

Some speakers didn’t want public funds to go toward non-citizens. Many argued that the federal government, not county taxpayers, ought to fund humanitarian programs.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, the lone “no” vote, said the county doesn’t have a long-term plan.

“There is no end in sight,” he said. “We’ve already given $3 million two months ago, and here we are again.”


Migrant drop-offs

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has released more than 42,000 migrants into San Diego County since September. Most migrants only stay in San Diego for a day or two, enough time to secure travel arrangements to their final destinations in other parts of the country.

Originally, CBP agents would drop migrants at bus and trolley stops throughout the region. Nonprofits set up makeshift welcome centers nearby.

In response to these drop-offs, County Supervisors set aside $3 million to open a migrant welcome center in a centralized location. That money was given to the South Bay nonprofit SBCS.

Migrants at the center get free food, access to phone chargers and Wi-Fi. People in particularly vulnerable situations also receive temporary shelter and money for onward travel. However, most have the resources to pay for their own travel.

Nonprofit tensions

SBCS CEO Kathyrn Lembo told Supervisors on Tuesday more than 30,000 migrants have been through the center since it opened in October. Currently, they receive as many as 800 people each day.

“All in all, I am proud of the work of SBCS and our many partners on site,” she said.

The County’s Chief Administrative Officer, Helen Robbins-Meyer, praised SBCS’s work. As did the nonprofits Casa Familiar and Chicano Federation.

However, Tuesday’s meeting also made public growing tension between different nonprofits. Representatives from 10 different organizations criticized SBCS for lack of transparency, collaboration and accountability.

One of the main criticisms is that the original $3 million was meant to last three months, but SBCS and Vargas have previously said it would run out in two.

“I believe that approving an additional $3 million without a full accounting of the first funding is very concerning,” said Paulina Reyes of Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

The nonprofits Al Otro Lado, PANA, Survivors a Community of Healing, Detention Resistance and American Friends Service Committee echoed those concerns.

Before the meeting, the organizations submitted a letter to the supervisors asking the board to require SBCS to provide “a full and accurate accounting of all expenditures.”

Transparency concerns

Mixed messaging from county officials is contributing to confusion over how public funds are being spent.

During a Nov. 10 site visit to the welcome center, Vargas was asked if the county could provide a breakdown of the costs so far.

“We can do that,” she said. “Happy to do that.”

When KPBS followed up, a spokesperson said those records are unavailable because financials on the agreement are not due to the county until after the funds are expended.

During Tuesday’s vote to allocate another $3 million, the Chief Administrative Officer Robbins-Meyer said she receives weekly reports on how much money is being spent.

She described them as “regular reports of what is happening – how many migrants are being dropped off at what time, what’s happening, when they’re shutting down, how much we spent that day.”

When KPBS requested copies of those reports, a county spokesperson said they, "are verbal either in person or on the phone." The spokesperson added that this second round of funding will require formal updates on expenditures.

The $3 million approved Tuesday is meant to last until March 2024.