By Daniel Trotta
OCEANSIDE, California (Reuters) -Overwhelmed by record numbers of asylum seekers from around the world, U.S. border officials have released thousands of migrants on streets in the San Diego area the past month, including about 1,400 in the beach town of Oceanside.
Twice a day, Customs and Border Protection vans or buses drop off asylum seekers at the transit center in Oceanside, a city of 172,000 about 50 miles (80 km) north of the border, say humanitarian organizations and volunteers who welcome the migrants and help them reach destinations elsewhere in the U.S.
They are among some 18,500 people released on the street in the San Diego area since Sept. 13, according to local government officials and legal and humanitarian organizations that have been in contact with CBP.
CBP said in a statement to Reuters that when non-governmental organizations that normally receive migrants are over capacity, the Border Patrol coordinates with local governments to identify “alternate safe locations where migrants can conveniently access transportation services or accommodations.”
Most of the street releases take place in San Ysidro, the district of San Diego that borders the Mexican city of Tijuana, but they also take place in suburbs such as Oceanside and El Cajon, just east of San Diego.
The arrivals farther from the border show how communities in different parts of the United States can find themselves directly involved in the immigration crisis. Local leaders are clamoring for more federal funds to help absorb the migrants, while the political debate over immigration is certain to intensify ahead of presidential and congressional elections in November 2024.
“California has an overwhelming amount of the homeless crisis. Now we’re dealing with the burden of the migrant crisis. Do we displace our homeless? I’m not displacing our homeless. The federal government needs to address this,” said Ryan Keim, Oceanside’s deputy mayor.
U.S. Representative Mike Levin, a Democrat whose district includes Oceanside, said in an email to constituents the street releases were “deeply concerning” and that he was fighting for more funding to “provide critical relief for our district.” He did not respond to an interview request from Reuters.
Last week the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a $3 million plan using available federal money to create a formal service center to receive all migrants released on the street in the county. Once operational, it would replace the makeshift operation cobbled together in the parking lot of a San Ysidro train station.
Oceanside had been operating a makeshift operation out of a city parking garage next to a transit station where the migrants are released. With the county attempting to consolidate services in one location, the city of Oceanside and the nonprofit group leading the effort, Interfaith Community Services, said on Tuesday they are now relocating migrants dropped there to San Ysidro.
The makeshift service centers help orient migrants who often have no idea where they are when they are released. The centers also provide services such as finding temporary shelter and booking airline flights to unite with family and sponsors elsewhere in the U.S.
Last week, about 65 men, largely from the West African country of Guinea, arrived in Oceanside. Each had a manila envelope containing their notice to appear in immigration court at locations around the country. Most were bound for New York City or Columbus, Ohio.
Finally reaching the United States after long, arduous journeys, many of the migrants bypassed offerings of bottled water, fresh fruit and snacks and headed to tables of phone chargers so they could connect with family back home.
U.S. border officers picked up more than 204,000 migrants in the San Diego sector in the 11 months through August, up 27% from the same period of the previous year. Many of the new arrivals are seeking asylum status, which requires they prove they need protection from persecution in their home country. Asylum immigration courts are granting fewer than 15% of petitions.
‘WE CAN’T HELP YOU’
When Iranian asylum seeker Hanieh Sadat Siadati arrived on Oct. 8, she said the American border officer dropped her at the Oceanside transit center with the words: “We can’t help you, just go.”
Siadati, 34, said she faced police repression in Iran for taking part in street protests in which she and other women removed their hijabs. She said she arrived scared and crying after a three-month journey that included a flight from Iran to Brazil and an overland expedition through nine more countries.
Once in Oceanside, volunteers “helped me and I thought, ‘I’m saved. Thank God,'” said Siadati, who now volunteers at the center while awaiting her immigration court hearing.
Asylum seekers typically turn themselves in to U.S. officials at the U.S.-Mexican border and are assigned a notice to appear in immigration court. Sometimes border officials will try to coordinate releases with nonprofit agencies that can help them get to their destinations, but with capacity overflowing, they are being released farther afield and in greater numbers.
The releases are now happening multiple times a day, leaving an average of nearly 600 people a day on the streets in the San Diego area, according to Immigrant Defenders Law Center.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Donna Bryson, Cynthia Osterman and David Gregorio)