SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The county Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously called for the development of a comprehensive plan to respond to a possible influx of asylum seekers in light of the potential lifting of the federal Title 42 policy.
Authored by Supervisors Joel Anderson and Nora Vargas, the motion directs the chief administrative officer "to identify actions that can be taken to ensure asylum seekers entering the U.S. will not add to the region's current homeless crisis," according to information on the board's Tuesday agenda.
"Now, more than ever, we should lead the way in building a just and humane immigration system that rises to meet the challenges of the current situation around the world," Vargas said in a statement after the Tuesday vote.
CAO Helen Robbins-Meyer will report back in 30 days with short-term solutions. In developing the plan, she may consider working with state and federal government, along with non-governmental organizations and faith-based groups, and find more shelter space.
The plan will also involve Robbins-Meyer working with regional groups on funding sources, and sending a letter to the county's Congressional delegation urging them to prioritize comprehensive immigration reform.
Originally part of the 1944 Public Health Service Act, Title 42 allows two federal agencies -- Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection -- to prohibit the entry of people who may pose a health risk.
As COVID-19 cases rose in March 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health order allowing for the rapid expulsion of unauthorized border crossers and asylum seekers. Last April, the CDC announced it would terminate the public health order on May 23. A federal judge on May 20 issued a ruling that blocked the CDC from ending Title 42. But other legal challenges followed.
Last December, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts ordered a temporary stay on Title 42 restrictions that were supposed to end on Dec. 21. Although opposed by the Biden administration, the policy remains in place and will be reviewed by the Supreme Court this spring.
According to county officials, during a four-day period in late December, "existing migrant shelters reached and surpassed capacity, as the onward travel of asylum seekers was delayed due to weather and travel-related challenges. This resulted in the `street release' of hundreds of asylum seekers by federal authorities."
Vargas said while it's important to emphasize that immigration remains a federal responsibility, the county is working to do everything it can to make sure migrants fleeing persecution feel safe.
Anderson described Vargas as a great partner in crafting compassionate policies for asylum seekers and refugees.
"Between our two districts, we have welcomed more refugees than anyplace else west of the Mississippi" from nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, he said. "We've got to have a better program than just street releases."
Supervisor Jim Desmond said he was happy to see the proposal, and mentioned how asylum seekers were dropped off at county transit centers right before Christmas, because there weren't available beds elsewhere.
Desmond said that to help migrants left at the Rancho del Oro Sprinter station in Oceanside on a cold night, he reached out to a Latino organization and an LGBTQ group.
"San Diego County stepped up," Desmond said, adding the federal government must do the same.
Most people speaking during an hourlong public comment period supported helping migrants.
"Let's put politics aside, and get back to what matters: Treating people with dignity and humanity," said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Services.
Scott Santarosa, a pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in the Barrio Logan neighborhood, said his faith asks him to "welcome the stranger."
Santarosa said it's in the best interest of all San Diegans that the county have a plan "so these aspiring Americans can be kept safe."
A lack of county help will place a burden on faith communities, and "we cannot do it alone," Santarosa added.
The county has a moral obligation to help, said Norma Chavez-Peterson of the American Civil Liberties Union for San Diego and Imperial Counties.
She said the county has always been a community of "fronterizos," or those who travel between the United States and Mexico for work and recreational opportunities.
Several plan opponents said the county treats migrants better than homeless U.S. citizens, while another cited security concerns.
County resident Mike Borrello said that while the migrant issue should be addressed in a compassionate way, the board should support keeping Title 42 in place, especially considering the threat of drug cartel violence.
"We need to balance what we're going to do with security," he said. "We're not addressing that all."