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The U.S. is releasing hundreds of migrants in San Diego every day. The city isn't responding

Last month, the funding situation for many migrant aid programs in southern Arizona looked dire.

Federal funding was set to run out, and many communities were bracing for large numbers of migrants being released on the streets — a worst case scenario advocates were trying to stop. That is until a last-minute infusion of federal dollars staved off the crisis.

But that didn’t happen in Southern California. There are three shelters in the area that serve migrants, and the one run by San Diego County had to shut down two months ago. Since, they have been dealing with large-scale street releases of migrants — exactly what we were trying to avoid in Arizona.

KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis has been covering the story in San Diego. The Show spoke with him more about it.

Full interview

GUSTAVO SOLIS: The drop-offs happened literally the day after funding ran out and that shelter closed. And they’re happening at the San Ysidro Iris Avenue transit station. San Diego has a trolley system, and this is one of the bigger stops in the South Bay. And every day, every morning starting at 7 a.m., you get a bus full of migrants being dropped off at this transit center.

And the buses really don’t stop. I mean, volunteers are there on hand from 7 in the morning to 8 p.m.. Just bus after bus, I think on average between 400 and 600 migrants are being dropped off there every day.

And one of the criticisms is that this place is not built to host these large groups of migrants. At the transit stop, there’s no public restrooms, no shelter. And it was raining here a little while ago. No access to Wi-Fi or phone chargers. Iit’s not an ideal place to have hundreds of people who are unfamiliar with the U.S. transportation system, who may not have money, who may not speak the language just to kind of figure it out on themselves.

LAUREN GILGER: Right, right. So these are folks who have been allowed to stay in the U.S. while their asylum cases play out, we should say, when that can take years. They’re on their way, almost all of them to somewhere else, right? To stay with friends or family elsewhere in the country. Talk a little bit more about the concerns about dropping them off, kind of in the middle of this city where they might not even know where they are. What are volunteers saying? What are advocates worried about?

SOLIS: The main worry is that these are very vulnerable people, almost by definition. If you’re seeking asylum, you’re among the most vulnerable people in the world. They’re exposed. Like you said, they may not understand the language or the customs, and they’re seeing people already trying to take advantage of this population.

Even when I was there, I saw three gentlemen were selling SIM cards that people can put on their smartphones for $35 a SIM card, which is something you can get $10 at a store. Unlicensed taxi drivers are charging as much as $75 to $80 for a ride to the airport. People are selling water bottles, coffee. I’m not sure what the prices are on those, but there is a very legitimate concern that they’re getting ripped off.

Another big concern, and one that we’ve seen before, is that this migrant population will just kind of wander the streets of San Diego and essentially get funneled into the homeless population. So we’ve seen a couple of asylum-seeking migrants show up in the city’s homeless shelters.

GILGER: And that’s obviously something the city might have an interest in trying to stop from happening. What has the response been from the city there, Gustavo?

SOLIS: There hasn’t been one. And that’s the big point of the story that San Diego is a border town. The city has a Democrat, progressive, Latino mayor. And they’ve been very quiet on this issue. They’ve been very silent on this issue. Not even a statement of support to the volunteer efforts, let alone any promises of financial support or anything like that.

So advocates on the ground are feeling like the city is really lacking leadership on this issue. The county has stepped up a little bit, but kind of as a middleman between the federal government and the agencies, because the county is the one receiving some of the funding to keep these shelters open and help.

But in terms of on the ground, in terms of an actual “welcome to the U.S.” for any of these migrants, the only person welcoming them are folks affiliated with nonprofits, mutual aid organizations and different activist groups. There is no government response, at least in the local level.

GILGER: It sounds like there is some federal funding coming down. It’s off to a rocky start in terms of collaborating with some of these nonprofits to help these migrants. What’s it look like?

SOLIS: Yeah, it’s tense. It’s a tense situation. I think anytime you’re talking about money and how to best allocate it, it’s a little bit tense. I will say that with the advocacy organizations, we kind of have a sample of what San Diego has done in the past.

Last time the county had a welcome center, they allocated $6 million — and ran out of that $6 million in about four months. And throughout that entire process, all these advocacy groups, organizations you may or may not have heard of — Haitian bridge Alliance, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, Al Otro Lado — a lot of them operate in Arizona as well.

But their stance the whole time has been, “Hey look, San Diego County, we’ve been doing this work on our own on a shoestring budget for years now. We have developed best practices. We know what works. We know what’s not very efficient. And I think it’d be on your best interest as a steward of taxpayer money to include us in the process of how you plan to distribute this money.”

Now, in the first round of funding last year, the county kind of acted unilaterally, and the organization that received the money didn’t really play well with the other organizations. And what their concern was actually happened. The $6 million came and went. The center opened and it closed. And once that money was gone, there was no long term plan. There was nothing to kind of show for that money. It’s almost like they went back to before with the street releases.

So this time around, all those groups are trying to get ahead of it. And before the money is even given from the federal government to the county, they’re saying, “Hey, bring us in. Let’s talk about this. Let’s work together and find out how we’re going to spend this money in a way that is sustainable, so that if and when it runs out, we have something to show for it and we’re not back to square one.”

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.