Interfaith community, San Diego Episcopalians continue to respond to asylum seekers’ needs

February 15, 2019

Interfaith volunteers at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in San Diego, California, gather weekly in the church’s sanctuary to sort through clothing and other donations. Here, Senior Warden Penny Powell and the Rev. Janine Schenone, rector, sort through donations. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – San Diego, California] When last fall U.S. Immigration and Customs Control alerted the San Diego Rapid Response Network it would begin releasing asylum seekers – including families with children – onto the streets, the county’s interfaith and social and human rights organizations responded by setting up temporary shelters.

“A rapid response team here in San Diego brings asylum seekers who’ve been released by border officials to a shelter, provide food and medical attention, and assists the asylum seekers in arranging transportation to family members or others who will host them while their cases are adjudicated, said San Diego Assisting Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, adding that the adjudication process can sometimes take years.

Good Samaritan Episcopal Church was one of the many churches that stepped up identifying immediate needs, such as food, clothing, diapers and cash assistance. The church began accepting clothing and other donations in late October. It has continued to receive donations daily, and once a week, an average 10-12 interfaith volunteers sort clothing donations by size and wearability.

“We felt it was the right thing to do,” said Carol Hamilton, Good Samaritan’s outreach chair. “One of the most beautiful things for us is that it has drawn in other faith communities.”

In the three years the Rev. Janine Schenone has served as rector, she’s encouraged the congregation to get more involved in social justice and outreach, said Hamilton.

“She’s been such a support and driving force to move us out of our comfort zone,” she said. “We are very mixed politically and this has brought so many people together.”

At first, said Schenone, some members of the congregation were concerned the church was helping undocumented immigrants, but when it became clear they were assisting people seeking legal entry into the United States through the asylum process, they got behind it.

Carol Hamilton, Good Samaritan Episcopal Church’s outreach chair, greets Tyler Seibert, who is also a rapid responder, as he delivers donations to the church. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

Good Samaritan has assisted some 6,000 asylum seekers since October, when ICE began releasing large numbers of asylum seekers into communities without a support system. That was when Good Samaritan and other partners in the San Diego Rapid Response Network, an existing coalition of human rights, social services and legal aid organizations, mobilized.

Shelters offer asylum seekers, a place where they can find food, rest, a shower and clothing before boarding buses and airplanes to unite with family member across the country, said Shenone, who has used her discretionary fund to provide travel cash to families traveling to other parts of the country.

“You can’t just stick people on the bus without food, diapers, money,” she said. “The real heroes are the people [volunteers] who were showing up at the bus station.”

From the time of initial need, the interfaith community  advocated for a crisis declaration, hoping the government would assist the way it did in 2016 when a surge of Haitian asylum seekers crossed the border, said Kevin Malone, executive director of the San Diego Organizing Project, a nonpartisan, multi-faith network of 28 congregations in San Diego County.

“[Former California] Gov. [Jerry] Brown opened up the armory to process a lot of people really fast, but it’s a completely different crisis, they are not moving thousands across in a short period … it’s been 50-70 a day for a long time, and in a way that leaves them on the street.”

“Without us they would have added to the homeless population – people were coming across with no money – and that would have been awful,” said Malone. “We were able to act quickly because we have these existing networks.”

Eventually, after the network’s temporary shelter was forced to move four times because of safety concerns, on Jan. 29 the San Diego Board of Supervisors voted to lease an old courthouse to the San Diego Rapid Response Network to operate a shelter for asylum seekers through 2019.

Until late January, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol processed up to 100 asylum seekers a day; the Trump administration reduced that number to 20 on Jan. 25.

On Feb. 11, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an order to withdraw two-thirds of the state’s National Guard troops from the border, disputing claims of an “illegal immigration crisis” and calling it nothing but “political theater,” according to coverage from Reuters.

On Feb. 15, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to build a border wall citing an invasion on at the southern border.

Apprehension of people crossing the border illegally fell to some 396,000 in 2018, down from a peak of 1 million in 2006. The rights of persecuted people to seek asylum and undocumented immigration often become conflated in political arguments.

“Frequent public misunderstanding of the distinction between ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘undocumented immigrant’ adds to the confusion. Asylum seekers do so legally, whether they are met by officials at the border or after entering the United States,” said Jefferts Schori. “It is vital to recognize that seeking asylum is a legal right. Even if a person crosses the border without official permission, international law requires that the request for asylum be heard.”

The Episcopal Church, through General Convention and Executive Council resolutions, has a long history of supporting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. During the 79th General Convention held last July in Austin, Texas, Episcopalians gathered outside a detention center housing migrant women in public witness to the Trump administration’s immigration policies separating families.

In the time since, Episcopalians have joined interfaith efforts across the Southwest to respond to and shed light on the humanitarian crisis at the border in places like El Paso, Texas, which borders Ciudad Juarez, and in San Diego.

The San Ysidro port of entry connecting Tijuana and San Diego is the busiest border crossing in the United States, both in terms of economics and people. People and students cross the border daily for work and to attend school.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent patrols the U.S.-Mexico border fence between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California, in what is, on the United States side, Friendship Park. Photo: Antonio Zaragoza for Episcopal News Service

For 20 years a slatted border fence has separated San Diego from Tijuana. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agents patrol the United States side, where a state park and a protected estuary form a buffer between the border and the nearest residential beach community. On the Tijuana side, people live up close to the fence, which extends into the Pacific Ocean.

The existing border fence, however, has not deterred migrant caravans and asylees’ arrival at the border. (In 2014, an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America were detained crossing the border.)

The border fence between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California, was first constructed in the 1990s during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Photo: Antonio Zaragoza for Episcopal News Service

Hundreds of Central American migrants began arriving Nov. 14, 2018, in Tijuana, and other ports of entry. The caravans have been politicized in United States and in their Central American countries of origin, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where one of the main drivers of migration – forced displacement by violence – is often denied. Here in the United States, Trump has called economic migrants and asylum-seekers an “assault on our country,” and last November the president deployed National Guard troops to the border.

“The current border crisis is centered on aiding asylum seekers as they leave the border to wait for their cases to be adjudicated.  The level of violence in Central America has caused thousands of people to flee for their lives, and many are seeking asylum in the United States,” said Jefferts Schori. “Those seeking asylum are women with small children, families, unaccompanied minors and single individuals of working age.

“They have left home because they are afraid, particularly after family members and friends have been killed and threatened in a place they used to call home, but no longer supports life.”

-Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at lwilson@episcoalchurch.org.

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