The panicked relay of telephone calls began when volunteers found out late Saturday that immigration officials would be releasing two more busloads of families before the night was over.
The shelter that opened seven weeks ago to temporarily house families released by immigration officials was already full.
Volunteers from the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a collective initially organized to respond to interior immigration enforcement activity, dropped what they were doing and raced to the Greyhound bus station in San Ysidro. The first busload of about 40 people, made up of families seeking asylum from countries like Honduras and Guatemala, was supposed to arrive around 6 p.m., they were told.
The families released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement have come to San Diego either through the asylum line at the San Ysidro port of entry or by going over the border barrier and asking for asylum by the agents who catch them. They spend several days in holding cells at the port of entry or Border Patrol stations while they’re processed, fitted with ankle monitors and then released with orders to appear in immigration court.
The volunteers brought blankets in case the new families needed to stay the night. It’s not the first time this week volunteers haven’t known where they were going to put everyone, said Kevin Malone, executive director of the San Diego Organizing Project.
“Every day it looks like we may have to leave people on the street,” Malone said. “We’ve been patching this thing together minute by minute. Everyone is really stretched.”
The second bus with another 23 people pulled in after 8 p.m. As volunteers worked to organize both groups, a call came in that changed everything.
The families would have a place to stay that night, announced a visibly relieved Kathy Stadler, a volunteer coordinator for the effort. A church had offered to take them until space could be made at the temporary shelter the next day. It was midnight before all of the families had been transported.
“We’re doing our best to keep the inn open for as many people as possible,” Stadler said, sitting at the shelter on Sunday. “Last night was one of the most intense nights.”
Among those facing the possibility of sleeping outdoors at the bus station overnight were Marco, a 40-year-old man from Guatemala, and his 6-year-old son. Marco quietly handed his son a cookie from a bag given to him by volunteers as Stadler tried to explain to Marco’s nephew in Iowa over the phone that he would need to buy his uncle bus tickets. The nephew asked Marco to call back the next day.
Several others hoping to go to Miami quickly learned that all of the buses were full until Monday.
Kateri, a 29-year-old from Guatemala traveling with her 12-year-old daughter, 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, was luckier. She had family in Los Angeles who agreed to drive down to pick her up. She stood close by her children, her fingers bandaged from when she injured them crossing the border near Tecate.
She tried to ask for asylum at the port of entry, she said, but was told to leave. The next morning, she decided to go over the fence with her children though she worried they would get hurt.
“Thank God it was me and not them,” she said, holding up her fingers.
Malone and other organizers from the groups coordinating the shelter have asked local and state government officials for help. They met with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office last week.
The city of San Diego, along with the county, Chula Vista and National City, sent a letter to the state on Friday requesting state-owned armories be opened for the families as they were in 2016 when a large number of Haitians arrived at the border from Brazil, according to Ashley Bailey, spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.
People in the San Diego area have donated a lot of supplies, Malone said. What the Rapid Response Network really needs is a permanent building with a larger capacity, he said, as well as cash to help those whose families can’t cover the cost of travel.
In October, immigration officials stopped helping arriving families contact relatives in the U.S. to arrange travel and began releasing families en masse without plans.
“Family units continue to cross the border at high volumes and are likely to continue to do so as they face no consequence for their actions,” said Sarah Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “ICE continues to work with local and state officials and NGO partners in the area so they are prepared to provide assistance with transportation or other services.”
Since it opened, the shelter has moved five times.
The shelter’s current location has a capacity of just under 100. Organizers have been trying to negotiate with the city, arguing that because the shelter is for short-term stays and in response to an emergency, they should be allowed a higher capacity.
The fire marshal has already reduced the square footage required per person because of the situation, Bailey said.
Volunteers with the Rapid Response Network worried that ICE has dropped off families at bus stations around the county without alerting their group.
When asked, ICE said it doesn’t routinely notify NGOs unless people are being dropped off at their shelters.
“The safety of those in ICE’s custody remains the agency’s highest priority with special attention paid to vulnerable populations,” the agency said.