South Bay nonprofit will now manage $3 million funding for migrant services and welcome center

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A South Bay nonprofit has been put in charge of $3 million for migrant services so local aid groups can continue to provide resources to migrants arriving in the county after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The funding, allocated last week by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, is intended for organizations to provide migrants with services such as translation assistance, transportation, Wi-Fi, food and restrooms — for now at a temporary migrant welcome center in Otay Mesa.

San Diego County finalized the contract granting management of the funds to SBCS — formerly known as South Bay Community Services — late last week.

“What this contract does is ensure that we can keep those services that are already happening done appropriately,” said Mindy Wright, SBCS spokesperson. “Now that we are coordinating [the migrant center] and we have funding, it’s going to become more robust, more structured and more consistent.”

This isn’t the first time the organization has handled this kind of initiative: In 2021, SBCS ran a center for thousands of unaccompanied migrant children at the Convention Center in downtown San Diego.

Since Sept. 13, more than 20,000 migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers, have been dropped off at transit stations across the region, according to the county. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is processing and dropping off roughly 500 migrants each day.

After being processed, the majority of migrants are dropped off by Border Patrol at the Iris Transit Station in Otay Mesa, where migrant services have been centralized at an impromptu migrant welcome center. The majority of migrants arriving in San Diego County are continuing on to other parts of the U.S. and need temporary assistance to continue their journeys.

SBCS CEO Kathryn Lembo said that the migrant center may not remain at the Iris station but is there at least temporarily.

Other migrants who are dropped off at a North County location are being transported to the Iris station migrant center through coordination with SBCS, the city of Oceanside and San Diego County.

Although the county had hoped to use some of the funding to set up another temporary migrant center, county spokesperson Michael Workman said it has been an ongoing challenge to do so quickly and find a location with the capacity to handle so many migrants, so they decided instead to enhance the current center at the Iris station.

SBCS is “still in the phase of coordinating all of the services” at the migrant center and is evaluating which services will need the most funding, Wright said, adding that SBCS will continue to work with the other nonprofits that have been providing services since mid-September.

The nonprofits have sent their budgets to SBCS, Lembo said, and now she and her team are putting together a plan for resources that falls under the $3 million funding.

Nonprofits including the Immigrant Defenders Law Center and Al Otro Lado said they hope SBCS is able to provide their organizations with the resources they need to continue their work.

“We think it’s really important that the work that’s been done and the lessons we’ve learn about the how to best approach this and do it cost efficiently, and in a way that serves migrants and the community well, are taken into consideration as the program is built with these funds,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

Volunteers hand clothing to about 30 women who wait between the two fences

Volunteers hand clothing to about 30 women who wait between the two fences at the U.S.-Mexico border to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents on Sept. 22, 2023 in Jacumba Hot Springs.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Many nonprofits have said their resources and funding have grown thin over the last month as thousands of migrants arrive each week.

Erika Pinheiro, the executive director of Al Otro Lado, said her organization would need to seek separate funding to support their work if they don’t receive a sufficient part of the $3 million. Al Otro Lado has been focused on family reunification efforts since 2017, and Pinheiro said they have continued to help reunify families at the Iris station migrant center.

Kate Clark, the senior director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service, is hopeful that the nonprofits’ work to support migrants will not change as SBCS takes over management of the funding. Jewish Family Service runs the San Diego Rapid Response Network migrant shelter and has contributed transportation and travel resources to the nonprofits at the migrant center.

“That collaboration and coordination both from the county of San Diego alongside SBCS are going to be really critical components to ensuring success in us moving forward,” she said.

Meanwhile, the county Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs is working to help streamline operations for nonprofits in North County.

On Tuesday, the board will decide whether to accept $430,529 in funding that the immigration office received from a state grant to establish and make operational a welcome center in North County for immigrants and refugees.

The funds were awarded to the county through the Local Immigrant Integration and Inclusion grant — an initiative by the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to provide $8.2 million in one-time funding to support the state’s immigrant populations.

The county only currently operates one welcome center, which opened late last year inside the South Region Live Well Center in National City. This center is meant as a hub for immigrants planning on staying in San Diego to access information about resources, ranging from resettlement to health care, unlike the Iris center, which focuses on helping migrants who need temporary assistance.

The proposed welcome center would be the first county facility in North County, serving “as a hub for services, resources and information for immigrants and refugees,” according to the motion. Further details are expected to be given during a presentation by officials Tuesday.

But community advocates have long said another is needed for migrants who are being dropped off by U.S. Border Patrol agents at transit centers farther north.

The board will also decide whether to allocate an additional estimated $101,000 in county funds to offset the cost of the North County welcome center through 2025. Funds for subsequent years will be incorporated into future operational plans.

County immigrant affairs officials will also be giving supervisors updates during Tuesday’s meeting on progress implementing a regional immigration response plan.

It is the first update they will receive since first directing the immigration office to begin collaborating with aid groups and local governments to create the countywide integration plans.

Supervisors will also hear about any gaps in services and funding, updates on the demographics of immigrant and refugee populations, and other program improvements that have been made in the past year.

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