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Asylum Seekers Awaiting Court Proceedings Turn To Volunteer Organizations For Help


Along the Southwest border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is no longer helping with travel arrangements for asylum-seeking families once they're released from detention. The agency says it has to release migrant families quickly to avoid violating a court order on how long they can be detained. Now in San Diego and other border cities, families are left on city streets with no way to get to relatives or sponsors, so a network of community organizations has sprung up to help them. Max Rivlin-Nadler reports.

MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: At the end of October, the San Diego Rapid Response Network started receiving alarming reports from its members. The network is a coalition of community groups that aid immigrants and their families. The reports were about dozens of asylum-seekers released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement being dropped off at Greyhound stations or trolley stops in the city. They had no money, no way of reaching their relatives.

NEAL JOSE WILKINSON: We didn't have this in mind when the Rapid Response Network was founded.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Neal Jose Wilkinson is a Jesuit priest who goes by the name Father Pepe. At a press conference last week, he explained how the Rapid Response Network was founded last year to provide immediate support to immigrant families facing arrest and deportation. They had never imagined a crisis like this one.

WILKINSON: These people asking for asylum - very few of them have family in San Diego.


WILKINSON: So we're trying to get them transportation to other parts of the country so they can be with their family.

RIVLIN-NADLER: In the past, ICE had coordinated that transportation, helping asylum-seekers reach family and sponsors. But now the Rapid Response Network has had to step in. They quickly reached out to volunteers to set up an emergency shelter to help. Volunteers like Denise Harder, a retired school administrator, were given a moment's notice to spring into action.

DENISE HARDER: At 6 o'clock in the morning before sunrise, I was cleaning bathrooms.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Since October, the temporary shelter has rotated through five different locations in the city. As one site becomes unavailable because of scheduling conflicts or capacity issues, volunteers scramble to find another one. So far they've helped over 1,700 asylum-seekers. Harder had never worked in a shelter before, but she soon saw what she thought was going to be a small commitment explode into a full-time job.

HARDER: I said to myself, OK, Denise - balance in your life. Four hours - you're going to commit to four hours a week. But, you know, the need is so great. You can't just do four hours.

RIVLIN-NADLER: The shelter offers medical assistance and counseling to asylum-seekers who rarely spend more than a night or two there. They've served up to 125 people a night, all of them families, most from Central America. But after six weeks of providing services, the nonprofit organizations behind the shelter, everyone from the Jewish Family Service to Catholic Charities and the ACLU, are dipping deep into their reserve funds and need help. At last week's press conference, Norma Chavez-Peterson said they were running out of capacity to help migrants and may start turning some away. She's the executive director of the local ACLU.

NORMA CHAVEZ-PETERSON: We are at this critical moment where the NGOs, the community organizations, the faith community and all these folks that you see representing the organizations can no longer do it alone.

RIVLIN-NADLER: She called on the city and state governments to step up and fund a stable shelter system for the asylum-seekers stranded in San Diego. The city is already dealing with a record number of people living on its streets, and with some 6,000 Central Americans waiting for their turn to ask for asylum just across the border, the shelter crisis looks to only intensify. For NPR News, I'm Max Rivlin-Nadler in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Max Rivlin-Nadler