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San Diego Convention Center to shelter first 500 migrant girls this weekend

At San Diego Convention Center on Saturday, Congressman Juan Vargas takes a close look at one of the sleeping cots
At the San Diego Convention Center on Saturday, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) inspects a cot for unaccompanied migrant teenage girls. With Vargas are San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-San Diego) and County Supervisor Nora Vargas.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego Convention Center, repurposed as a temporary overflow facility for unaccompanied migrant children, will house girls between the ages of 13 and 17, federal officials said Saturday, hours before the first 500 arrivals were expected from Texas and Arizona.

Finding shelter for girls at facilities across the country “is a great need right now,” said Pete Weldy, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who will oversee the site.

The convention center will have capacity for 1,450 girls, Weldy said. Some 350 are scheduled to arrive by charter flight Saturday from a Border Patrol facility in the south Texas town of Donna, and 150 will come by bus from Tucson.

Officials expect the convention center, converted to what is called an “emergency intake site,” to reach full capacity by the end of next week.

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A similar scenario is playing out in Dallas, where a convention center has been outfitted to shelter migrant boys.

“Our main goal tonight is to get these girls into beds, get them showered, get them new clothes and make sure that they’re OK,” Weldy said as he took San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, county Supervisor Nora Vargas and a congressional delegation of San Diego-area Democrats on a tour of the facility. The convention center will serve as a temporary home through July 15.

The venue is one of several facilities established by the Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, to deal with a recent increase in border crossings that has seen unaccompanied minors detained in Border Patrol holding cells for longer than the legal limit of 72 hours.

Last month, the Border Patrol detained nearly 9,300 children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. About 5% of those children were encountered in California; the largest percentage crossed in Texas.

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The number of children crossing without authorization has been increasing steadily since it dipped in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. The most recent peak was in May 2019, when Border Patrol detained just over 11,500 children.

The Border Patrol continues to receive more children into its custody than it releases. According to the latest data available from Health and Human Services, on Thursday, 605 migrant children were detained along the southwest border. The same day, 388 were transferred out of Border Patrol custody. That put the total number of children in Border Patrol custody at nearly 5,500.

Health and Human Services had 12,551 children in its custody after releasing 280 children to sponsors.

In 2019, the Trump administration also struggled to transfer children from Border Patrol custody to ORR custody within the required time limit.

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A senior Border Patrol official speaking on background Friday told reporters he anticipates the trend to continue into the summer.

The Biden administration is working on creating more long-term licensed facilities to hold children in ORR custody. In the meantime, it is relying on places like the San Diego Convention Center for temporary space.

Once at the convention center, the girls will be reunited with family members or placed in longer-term facilities in the custody of ORR.

Heidi Staples, a federal field specialist with Health and Human Services, said officials will look to “verify relationships, to make sure kids are going to a safe person who has their best interests at heart.”

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“Some kids are coming to be with a parent or a close relative, like a sibling, grandparent or an aunt or uncle,” Staples said. “We want to make sure they have a bona fide relationship.”

Some of the cots at the San Diego Convention Center for the 1,450 unaccompanied migrant girls.
Cots for the 1,450 unaccompanied migrant girls who will live at the San Diego Convention Center until mid-July.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The move to adapt the convention center for migrant children comes one week after U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra approached Nathan Fletcher, chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Sitting empty for about a year due to the pandemic, the convention center just wrapped up being used as a temporary homeless shelter.

The center is scheduled to host conventions starting in August.

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“We do have a book of business for August,” Gloria said. “There are lead-in times for those kind of events to happen. But what we know right now is there is no use for this facility [until August], and this is a public asset. People in this city own it. It can sit here vacant, doing nothing, or it can do something on behalf of thousands of kids who need it.”

Weldy said the convention center site will receive help from San Diego-area agencies, nonprofits and healthcare providers. Costs incurred on the local level, Weldy said, will be reimbursed by Health and Human Services.

“It’s a herculean contracting effort,” Weldy said. “There are 11 separate contracts in place, including numerous subcontracts.”

Convention center kitchen staff will feed the girls three meals a day, plus snacks. During the tour, cooks were making hamburgers for the arrivals.

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“We’re very proud of being involved in a humanitarian effort,” said Bobby Ramirez, general manager of food services for the convention center.

Upon arrival, the girls will be placed into a cohort group of 50 to follow pandemic protocols set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each girl will be given a backpack and a new set of clothes, and the clothes they bring with them will be washed. The girls will sleep on assigned cots.

Officials were given a tour of the convention center's main kitchen that will prepare lunch and dinner
Officials were given a tour of the convention center’s main kitchen, where lunch and dinner will be prepared for the girls in the temporary shelter. A second on-site kitchen will prepare breakfast.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego County Board of Education will provide classes for the girls. Ping-pong tables and soccer balls, among other recreational items, will also be available.

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“We’re really excited by the wealth of service array that’s available here,” Staples said. “It’s really great for the kids.”

Additionally, the girls will be provided with one-on-one legal services, pro bono, Weldy said.

The children will be tested for the coronavirus every three days. Staff will be tested every week, and efforts are being made to get staffers vaccinated. If children test positive, they will be quarantined with others at the facility who have the virus.

A phone bank will be installed for children to contact family members or sponsors.

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“They’re literally flip phones,” Weldy said, “and the case managers and youth care providers help them with that process to contact their families.”

As minors leave, other unaccompanied girls will be sent from other parts of the country to take their place.

“That process will happen very quickly to get them out of the custody of Border Patrol,” Weldy said.

After touring the facility, Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) said opening the convention center “is an act of compassion, neighbor to neighbor…. Everyone involved here is trying to do the right thing for these kids.”

Some Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have blamed President Biden for the recent increase in arrivals, saying rollbacks of Trump administration policies have encouraged migrants to cross the border.

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But academics who study migration, including UC San Diego’s Tom Wong, have argued that the increase in Border Patrol detainments are part of a normal seasonal shift, paired with a backlog of asylum seekers who were stuck in Mexico due to President Trump’s restrictive asylum policies.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the lone Republican among the San Diego-area congressional delegation, took to Twitter on Wednesday, saying, “As the flood of migrants passes through our open borders, the Biden Administration should stop looking for the next convention center and start working with us on a long-term solution to the humanitarian crisis it caused.”

Migrant children and teenagers are processed on March 14, 2021 in front of a bus
Migrant children and teenagers are processed March 14 after entering a temporary holding facility south of Midland, Texas.
(Associated Press)

The Biden administration has proposed funding programs in Central America to work toward addressing the root causes of migration, as well as setting up refugee processing centers closer to the countries from which the migrants flee.

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A small group of protesters gathered Saturday outside the convention center, criticizing the Biden administration for what they called in a statement “asylum fraud and the restart of massive child/human trafficking to our border by the Mexican smuggling cartels.”

Meanwhile, Gloria defended using the convention center as a temporary shelter for migrants.

“Even without the commitment of this facility, plenty of folks were coming,” Gloria said. “We are doing our part as human beings to make sure that those children are as safe as possible.”

San Diego County already has a few ORR facilities for unaccompanied children, run by nonprofit service provider Southwest Key.


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