Supervisor Anderson to introduce measure to help those stranded, seek funds from FEMA – and asks public to sign petition in support
By Miriam Raftery
View video of interview with Sup. Joel Anderson
Hear audio of our interview aired on KNSJ Radio
December 31, 2022 (San Diego’s East County) – With extreme cold gripping much of the nation and shelters for asylum-seekers full, the federal government sent hundreds to San Diego County. Border Patrol agents dumped at least 880 asylum seekers off at transit stations, including 140 abandoned at the El Cajon Transit Center last weekend starting on Christmas Eve.
“We’re a great nation. We can do better,” Supervisor Joel Anderson told East County Magazine in an interview aired on KNSJ radio. “These people should not be political pawns and our communities should not have to suffer,” he says, citing strains on local resources and potential for some migrants to become homeless. Abandoning asylum-seekers with no resources or advance notice to local officials is “not fair to our community and it’s certainly not fair to the people being dropped off,” Anderson says.
Since he needs support of at least two more Supervisors, Anderson urges the public to sign his petition to support his proposal and prevent asylum seekers from becoming homeless on our streets. While many of the asylum seekers merely need short-term help to join family members in the U.S., it remains unknown how many of the recently dropped off arrivals need longer-term assistance. Some lacked winter clothing, or even cell phones.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that employees at a car dealership in El Cajon came to the aid of asylum seekers dropped off Christmas Eve at a transit center across the street, helping some make phone calls to family members in Los Angeles to get rides, or to get to the airport in hopes of catching flights. But Anderson notes that car dealership workers should not have to be the first responders coming to the aid of asylum seekers, many of whom don’t speak English.
“East County has welcomed more immigrants than any other community in California and any community west of the Mississippi,” says Anderson. “We’ve opened our arms, but we’ve always had support.” Those immigrants have included Iraqis and Syrians fleeing war, many of whom have started successful businesses here, as well as 25% of the Afghans admitted by the U.S. after the Taliban takeover last year when U.S. troops pulled out. But lately, there has been no federal support for housing recent refugees and asylum seekers, until the Dec. 23 passage of FEMA funding.
“I am grateful to President Biden for giving FEMA over $785 million to help us with settling these asylum seekers,” says Anderson, who previously wrote letters to Biden as well as to Governor Gavin Newsom asking support for a funding plan submitted by the County to the state. But the state rejected that proposal, so Anderson says signatures on his petition will help show public support for efforts to keep asylum seekers off the streets, where they are at risk of not only homelessness, but becoming victims of crimes such as human trafficking.
A network of local agencies allied with the Rapid Response Network customarily handles up to hundreds of asylum seekers per day. But with hundreds of flights out of San Diego cancelled over the holidays, the Network issued a statement announcing, “Due to the extreme weather conditions impacting outbound travel, our resources and the current infrastructure have ben stretched to capacity,” adding that it could shelter only the most vulnerable asylum seekers. The group indicated it will resume welcoming asylum seekers as capacity and weather conditions improve, adding, “We call 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. All levels of government must work together to welcome and meet the needs of all asylum seekers arriving in San Diego.“
Anderson says, “We wish to continue to be generous, but we need to put a plan together, which I’m working on, with the state and federal government—and it needs to be funded not with our local tax dollars, but with everybody’s tax dollars. This is a federal issue.” He adds that he’s in touch with our area’s Congressional leaders but doesn’t expect action there until after staff returns from the holiday break.
ECM reached out to the San Diego Border Patrol office with a long list of questions. We reached Hector Quintanilla by phone, who asked that we submit questions in writing, but we never received responses. Our questions included how many asylum seekers were dropped here, where they were from, whether they had gone through background checks or health checks, and whether any tracking is being done to find out what happens to them.
The county lacks resources for such tracking, Anderson has said.
Confusion, concerns abound over Title 42
Title 42 is a Trump-era policy put in place in March 2020 during COVID-19 that has allowed Customs and Border Patrol to expel migrants quickly, including asylum seekers who claim that their lives are in danger if returned to their homelands. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced in April that there was no longer a need to keep the policy in place, but a lawsuit prevent it from being lifted in May as planned.
In November, a judge ruled that the policy needs to end, now that vaccines and effective COVID treatments have allowed all other travel to resume. It was set to be lifted Dec. 21, but after Republican-led states appealed, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in February – and ordered that Title 42 restrictions remain in place until the high court issues a ruling sometime next year.
Confusion over when or if the ruling would end, allowing asylum seekers to again cross the border to request safe haven in the U.S., has led to a surge of migrants encamped along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Title 42 has been used over 2.5 million times to expel migrants to Mexico or their homeland, the New York Times reports, though this includes some repeat border-crossers. Some officials, including Anderson, fear that lifting Title 42 could mean an influx of asylum seekers again dumped onto the streets of San Diego and East County. He says he’s heard estimates that between 400 to 1,500 people per day could wind up in our region when or if Title 42 is lifted.
With Title 42 blocking access for most asylum seekers, who is being admitted?
Many San Diegans are asking how asylum seekers could be dumped on our streets when Title 42 is still in place. The answer is complex.
The Biden administration has exempted over a million people from Title 42, but who gets exemptions is not always consistent.
In fact, being left in Mexico is dangerous for many asylum seekers and migrants, not just children. Human Rights First documented 13,480 reports of rape, kidnapping, torture, murder and other violent attacks against people who were expelled from the United States under Title 42 since January 2021.
Others who are eligible for exemptions include asylum seekers with serious medical needs, as well as any whom designated aid agencies assert would be in particular danger, such as families with young children and transgender people facing persecution.
In addition, Mexico has refused to take back asylum seekers from some countries, such as Brazil, and strained diplomatic ties with countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have prevented the U.S. from being able to return individuals back to their home countries. One experimental program has been successful and the Biden administration may replicate it in the future; that program allows Venezuelans to apply before coming to the U.S. for a humanitarian parole program, an action that led to a decrease in Venezuelans crossing the border illegally.
Corruption forces some asylum seekers to pay for exemptions to Title 42
Troublingly, a San Diego Union-Tribune investigation published on Dec. 11 found corruption has resulted in many asylum seekers pressured into paying thousands of dollars to obtain exemptions to Title 42 -- although requesting asylum is supposed to be free under the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This extortion and corruption has arisen after the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security partnered with local nonprofits earlier this year to identify the most vulnerable asylum seekers in Tijuana and other border areas in Mexico. Those identified are given a date to appear at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where 180 people a day are allowed to enter the U.S.
While some groups are providing services free to aid asylum seekers to get exemptions to Title 42, others are reportedly charging exorbitant amounts – and there are fears that organized crime such as cartels could be profiting. Customs and Border Protection provides no official website or tip sheets to asylum seekers who approach the border, leaving them on their own to find out how to seek exemptions.
That’s left them vulnerable to predatory practices. Russian asylum seekers in particular have been forced to pay for gaining access or being moved up higher on the waiting list for exemptions, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Pastor Phil Metzer at Calvary San Diego church, called the situation “scary” in a YouTube video aimed at helping Russian and Ukrainian asylum seekers.
Those who are granted exemptions must test negative for COVID-19 the day before they enter the U.S., a procedure that could of course be used for all asylum seekers now, if Title 42 is lifted. The policy was put in place before widespread testing was available, let alone vaccines and treatments for COVID.
What happens if Title 42 is lifted?
If Title 42 is lifted, it’s likely that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement will revert back to other means of expelling some migrants, which were used before COVID but are more time consuming. They will also likely admit more migrants with tracking devices, as has already been done with over 358,000 migrants awaiting hearings in the U.S., according to the New York Times.
Anderson isn’t the only official to voice concerns locally. Supervisor Jim Desmond, who had asylum seekers dropped off at an Oceanside transit center in his district, has said, “Dropping migrants seeking asylum at our transit centers without critical resources to manager them puts the asylum seekers at risk, and it places people of this region at risk.”
El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell told ECM, “Local governments bear the brunt of failed policies at the Federal and State levels, typically in the form of costs to its taxpayers. Whenever funds from the federal or state governments can be made available to local governments because of policy decisions that cities had no control over, it is a good thing.”
Mitchell also suggests that members of the public who want to help can donate to aid agencies that help asylum seekers, such as Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services.
Anderson calls the dumping of asylum seekers “federally supported homelessness” though it’s unclear how many are at risk of winding up permanently on the streets, since it’s unknown whether the federal government is keeping track of those it’s released at transit stations.
Anderson takes pride in his efforts to reduce homelessness in East County, including spearheading the addition of a safe parking area for people living in vehicles, a motel voucher program to temporarily house homeless people (of whom 30% have found permanent housing, but 20% were kicked out for rule violations including crimes), and holding a series of community forums in Lakeside and El Cajon on homeless. Anderson voices frustration that while everyone wants the homeless off the streets, many residents oppose having a homeless shelter built in their neighborhood, though Anderson believes shelters with wrap-around services are needed.
He also participated in last year’s Point in Time Count of the homeless, and notes that before the count began, there was no way to track how many homeless people were here.
“I’d have to have these folks, these asylum seekers, as part of our Point in Time Count (homeless) because we failed to do our jobs,” he concludes. “My job is to provide for these people, and more importantly, to protect our communities.”
Never in my 80 years have I seen the media become the propaganda arm of a political party. Sorry folks they are still illegal's.
These are people who presented thmselves legally to ask asylum
as is allowed and mandated under international law. They are not "illegals." They did not try to evade officials. They sought them out. This wave of asylum seekers includes Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion of their country, for instance.
. . . from 1950: "Have You No Sense of Decency?"