April 23, 2024

$3 million spent, $3 million to go: Here’s how county funds are being used on migrant services

The South Bay nonprofit contracted by the county to spearhead migrant services will continue to run a temporary welcome center in central San Diego through the end of March, despite ongoing calls from other local aid groups for increased transparency and accountability from the organization.

SBCS — formerly South Bay Community Services — was first contracted to run the center in October and put in charge of $3 million for migrant services so nonprofits could continue to provide resources to new arrivals seeking asylum after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The county recently renewed its contract with SBCS after the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted in December to allocate an additional $3 million to the effort.

The first round of funding, which was intended to last through Dec. 31, was used to relocate the temporary migrant welcome center from the parking lot of the Iris Transit Station in Otay Mesa to a new, undisclosed location in central San Diego and provide services at the center — everything from access to Wi-Fi, phone chargers and food to assistance with transportation and temporary shelter.

SBCS CEO Kathryn Lembo said that the nonprofit estimates it will have spent $3.135 million by the end of the year.

The second round of funding is expected to last through March to provide services at the welcome center — intended to be temporary resources to help get asylum seekers on their feet before they continue on to their final destinations.

In its first three months, the welcome center has settled into a rhythm, establishing more services as it better understands migrants’ needs.

But after spending every penny of the $3 million it was allocated — something other nonprofits have raised concerns over — SBCS is looking to continue managing cost efficiency in the next three months to ensure the center can operate as long as its needed, Lembo said.

It’s unclear how the county plans to address the situation once the second $3 million funding allocation runs out, though it has said repeatedly it continues to ask the federal government for additional assistance. Lembo said SBCS is also searching for additional funding avenues of its own through private partnerships.

Since mid-September, Border Patrol has processed more than 60,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, who have then been released into San Diego County before the majority depart for other cities in the U.S.

From Oct. 11 through Dec. 18, the migrant welcome center served a total of 43,340 individuals — an average of 637 per day. About three-quarters of the asylum seekers have been men.

Asylum seekers deemed most vulnerable — typically families with young children, pregnant women, and sick and elderly people — are sent directly to shelters operated by Jewish Family Service of San Diego and Catholic Charities, Lembo said.

Of those who agreed to be surveyed, most have come from Colombia (23 percent), China (15 percent) and Guinea (6 percent). New York is the most common final destination, while only 0.43 percent of migrants said they’d be staying in San Diego.

Budget breakdown

Since SBCS started managing funds in October, other nonprofits have raised concerns over the no-bid contract and with how SBCS has spent the funds and cooperated with other groups providing migrant services.

In a letter sent to supervisors in December, nearly a dozen nonprofits — including Al Otro Lado, Immigrant Defenders Law Center and others — listed their concerns and criticized a breakdown of SBCS’ budget that had been shared with the groups.

However, Lembo said that the budget was a rough estimate created before SBCS was contracted by the county.

A chief concern among the nonprofits was what they described as insufficient spending on direct aid to asylum seekers, such as subsidized travel, shelter and food, while they say over half of the funding was budgeted for staff and transportation.

Border Patrol was previously dropping off the majority of the migrants when the impromptu welcome center was located at the Iris Transit Station.

Since moving the center to the new location, the county says that Border Patrol has declined to bring migrants directly to the new center. Instead, SBCS is now picking up migrants in rented buses each day from the Brown Field Border Patrol Station.

About 600 migrants daily are offered a warm meal, charging port and other services at a migrant welcome center run by SBCS

Migrants receive services at the temporary welcome center in central San Diego on Dec. 6, 2023.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Immigrant Defenders Law Center Executive Director Lindsay Toczylowski said that she wishes the other nonprofits had been consulted that decision. She said the practice is in direct conflict with years of work the advocacy groups have done to push Border Patrol to drop migrants at locations where they can receive aid rather than at transit centers. By agreeing to pick up the migrants from Border Patrol directly, it has “essentially has made it so that CBP can say that they’re not releasing anyone to the street in San Diego,” Toczylowski said. “That really was a huge concern for us in terms of becoming a formal part of these funds themselves.”

Border Patrol did not respond to the Union-Tribune’s questions about why it no longer handles migrant transportation.

SBCS said that in the first three months, it estimates it will have spent a total of $561,000 on transportation, which includes all bus rental costs, including trips to and from the airport or train stations, where migrants depart for onward travel, and other migrant transports.

Mauricio Torre, SBCS’s vice president of program operations, noted that even with the cost transporting migrants from Border Patrol processing centers, SBCS is spending less than it previously did at Iris. The pop-up migrant center required generators, lighting and portable restrooms, whereas those utilities are already available at the new center’s location, Torre explained.

Torre says SBCS saved over $100,000 — $3,900 daily for bathrooms alone — in moving the center.

After the move, SBCS has continued to add services, including adding more permanent signage and a prayer room, as well as hiring additional staff and translators.

“We’re always looking at cost efficiencies … to make sure that we can expand the funds as long as we can,” Torre said. “Every penny saved is somebody (else) that we can help support.”

Staffing costs have increased as SBCS has hired additional staff specifically for the center.

About 55 staff are on site daily, running two shifts seven days per week, according to SBCS, which estimates that it will have spent about $752,404 on staffing in the first three months.

Additionally, SBCS has spent about $288,000 on sheltering services for migrants, which includes helping them purchase a hotel for the night if they have onward travel booked the following day. SBCS provided 7,758 shelter night stays to migrants from Oct. 11 through Dec. 18.

The nonprofit has also continued to form partnerships with local churches to provide overnight sheltering.

Still, many migrants have spent nights waiting at the airport for flights rather than in hotels. SBCS has agreed not to send migrants to the airport more than 10 hours before their flight, but Lembo noted that migrants are free to leave the center and sometimes choose to head to the airport sooner to ensure they don’t miss their flights.

Getsemani Church in San Ysidro has been working with SBCS to provide shelter to about 15 to 25 migrants on most nights, said Pastor Beto Wilson.

“I’ve seen a lot of organizations help but not the way these guys do it,” he said, praising SBCS’s efforts. “They do a tremendous job.”

The organization expected to spend most of its sheltering budget — about $140,000 — in December, when travel costs around the holidays are high. For instance, providing overnight shelter might be cheaper than purchasing a same-day flight.

Lembo said she expects these expenditures to decrease again in January when prices normalize.

About 600 migrants daily are offered three meals per day and other services at a migrant welcome center run by SBCS

The center provides migrants with three meals per day, prepared on site by I Love to Glean, with help from other nonprofits.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The center also provides migrants with three meals per day, prepared on site by I Love to Glean, a South County-based organization that recovers and distributes food that would otherwise be thrown away, with help from other nonprofits.

Sam Duke, director of programs at Feeding San Diego, says the nonprofit has provided I Love to Glean with about 17,000 pounds of food since Nov. 1.

A total of 37,991 meals were served to migrants from Oct. 11 through Dec. 18, at a cost of $1,80 per meal, according to SBCS.

Future funding uncertain

SBCS now has about a dozen partners, including Casa Familiar, the International Rescue Committee and Logan Heights CDC, and is currently finalizing partnerships with additional organizations for the next three months.

However, Immigrant Defenders Law Center — one of the nonprofits that has been providing legal services at the welcome center — says it isn’t subcontracting with SBCS to receive any of the county funding and is instead using its own funding stream. The law center has also been providing resources to migrants at the airport, though it says it will be scaling back those services in the new year due to a lack of funding.

Despite concerns from some nonprofits, the county maintains that it is satisfied with the work being done at the welcome center and says it is being consistently updated by SBCS on funding.

Nonprofits also expressed concern that none of the money has gone toward funding the open-air detention sites at the border, where migrants wait for hours or sometimes days to be picked up by Border Patrol and taken to processing centers.

The county says that the funding it has allocated is restricted to migrants already processed by Border Patrol. County officials couldn’t say whether that was a county or federal stipulation.

A migrant from Nicaragua laces his shoes after being dropped off at a migrant welcome center run by SBCS

A migrant from Nicaragua laces his shoes after being dropped off at a migrant welcome center.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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