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Record-breaking migrant arrivals bring San Diego shelters to capacity

Men from Venezuela wait outside of a homeless shelter in San Diego, Oct. 5, 2022. The group first stayed at a shelter run by Catholic Charities after they were allowed to enter the United States but are now looking for work and living on the street.
Men from Venezuela wait outside of a homeless shelter in San Diego, Oct. 5, 2022. The group first stayed at a shelter run by Catholic Charities after they were allowed to enter the United States but are now looking for work and living on the street.

Two temporary shelters for recently arrived migrants in San Diego County reached capacity last week, raising concerns that immigration authorities could begin processing and releasing migrants into the streets as happened in 2018.

Last Thursday, the California Department of Social Service confirmed that the shelters it manages across three counties near the U.S.-Mexico border, including two in San Diego, cannot accept more migrants “due to an increase in arrivals from federal processing from neighboring states, including Texas,” said Scott Murray, deputy director of public affairs and outreach programs for the agency.

“Hurricane Ian has also recently impacted the ability of some migrants to travel onward to family or friends and to pursue their immigration proceedings.”


Some migrants have been moved from the state migrant shelters to local homeless shelters amid capacity issues, putting more strain on efforts to provide resources to unhoused San Diegans.

Migrant arrivals at the southern border reached an all-time high last month, surpassing more than 2.1 million arrivals in the last 11 months, according to data from Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.

Arrivals in the San Diego Sector have been on the rise since 2020, but are low compared to historic highs in the 80s and 90s. However, federal immigration authorities are processing hundreds of migrants daily sent here from other parts of the border, including Arizona and Texas, to relieve pressure in those states.

“We are receiving four to seven buses a day, about 50 people per bus, from Yuma over here so that we can process them,” Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke told inewsource last month. “We're also receiving a flight a day out of El Paso, Texas, because they are inundated as well.”

The San Diego-area shelters, which are operated by the nonprofits Jewish Family Service and Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, house migrants who have just been released from CBP custody. Those migrants typically stay in the shelters for 72 hours before being reunited with their sponsors, usually a family member somewhere in the United States who has agreed to house the person while they await immigration proceedings.


CBP normally releases migrants from their custody into the care of nonprofit organizations. If those organizations cannot accept them, CBP works with local governments to determine where to release migrants where they can easily access transit or accommodations, according to the agency.

Gerrelaine Alcordo, a CBP public affairs specialist, said the agency has not yet begun releasing migrants into transit centers, but that “San Diego will coordinate with NGOs and state and local partners to be prepared for the potential to provisionally release migrants into the community who are pending their next step in their immigration proceedings.”

In April, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to identify county-owned property to use as a temporary migrant shelter. Those plans are “still in progress,” Chair Nathan Fletcher and Vice Chair Nora Vargas told inewsource through a spokesperson.

“It is difficult to site these type of locations, but our work is ongoing” they said, adding the county is talking with federal and state agencies about how to assist locally. Most migrants who are processed through Border Patrol and filtered into the state-run shelters locally have sponsors to receive them after their stay at the shelter, which is why they only stay a few days.

But Catholic Charities San Diego CEO Appaswamy "Vino" Pajanor noticed more migrants, especially from Venezuela, arriving recently who do not have sponsors –– which means they don’t have a more permanent place to stay while awaiting immigration proceedings.

Public funding that Catholic Charities receives to operate the shelters limits the support they can provide to 30 days per migrant. Some of those who do not have sponsors have been moved into local homeless shelters as they time out of the migrant shelter.

Pajanor said his team is doing its best to prioritize families and is putting up extra beds in common areas to accommodate more people. But, he said, it’s a “precarious situation.”

At least 10 migrants who were formerly staying in the migrant shelters in San Diego are now living at Father Joe’s Villages or Alpha Project homeless shelters, Pajanor said.

“We need to fix this. This is just not tenable.”

He signed onto a letter from Catholic Charities USA demanding urgent assistance from the federal government in addressing migrant arrivals at the southern border. The letter, sent to President Joe Biden and several high ranking elected officials, asked the government to establish “humanitarian reception centers in border cities,” increase anti-trafficking efforts and provide additional funding.

“This crisis is not theoretical,” Catholic Charities leaders wrote in the letter. “It shows up on the streets and in the neighborhoods in Arizona, California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Washington, DC – and numerous other communities.”

Jewish Family Service said in a statement to inewsource that it is working to accommodate more migrants under capacity restraints but that the organization is “calling on the federal government to prioritize rebuilding our country’s broken asylum and immigration systems, including improved processes for migrant shelter services across the border region.”

Last week, two Venezuelan migrants, Gregory Hernandez and Alejandro Montiel, waited outside of Neil Good Day Center, a basic services hub located on 17th Street near Imperial Avenue in downtown, after being assessed for placement at a shelter.

Hernandez said he had been treated very well by staff at the migrant shelter, but recently left to figure out what’s next for him and is now living on the streets while he looks for a bed at a homeless shelter.

Local homeless advocate Michael McConnell has been raising awareness about migrants being brought to local homeless shelters. He first tweeted about the issue last month and said the homeless community and migrant community each have different needs and cannot be adequately supported by the same shelter.

Ruben, who did not wish to use his last name, has been living on the streets in San Diego for nearly two decades. He tried for a month to get a bed at the Neil Good Day Center, but eventually gave up.

“I hope it works out for them,” Ruben said. “But I hope it works out for the people here too,” referring to people living on the streets in San Diego.

It’s the best way to stay connected with the latest news from the award-winning investigative team at inewsource.