San Diego County leaders said Tuesday the San Diego Convention Center, typically the place for popular summer events but underutilized due to the COVID-19 pandemic, may start housing unaccompanied minors seeking asylum as early as this weekend.
The city and county of San Diego came to an agreement with the federal government to use the convention center to create a temporary shelter for thousands of minors who have come to the U.S. seeking asylum.
The county would operate the facility but it would be managed and paid for by the U.S, Department of Health and Human Services, officials said.
"The immediacy of this situation is getting the children out of [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] custody, so that has been the focus," said Chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher.
At a press briefing Tuesday morning, city and county leaders explained their plan for housing unaccompanied children seeking asylum at the site.
"This is a new step to be able to work in part with federal government and county and city to make sure children are reunified," said Supervisor Nora Vargas.
Once the convention center is operational, the site will house minors under the age of 17 for about 30 to 35 days.
The site is meant as a transition site before the minors can be united with family members living in the U.S. or a sponsor. Fletcher said caseworkers will help verify the families of the minors and work to connect them.
"The goal is not a long-term housing situation for these kids it’s a safe stable environment to transition to their family members," said Fletcher.
Currently, migrants seeking asylum are being housed at U.S. Border Patrol holding cells that are made for adults. Attorney Narcisco Cruz explained in an interview with NBC 7 that minors are allowed to seek legal recourse inside the U.S. if they enter unaccompanied.
"Unaccompanied minors should not be legally staying within the custody of U.S Border Patrol for more than 72 hours," Cruz said. "What we're seeing currently is a violation of that law."
The convention center operation will provide food, medical care, a place to sleep, and showers. The kids will not be permitted to leave the convention center until reunification happens.
"This is why all of a sudden we're seeing an influx of minors coming in because during the prior years, the prior months we didn't allow them to come in and now we are adhering to that law," said Cruz. "And because of that, we're seeing an influx of minors coming in."
Previously, the convention center was used as a homeless shelter because of the pandemic. San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said there are still about 500 people who are moving out of the convention center and going to other facilities run by Father Joe's, the Alpha Project and other groups.
The plan to move homeless individuals out of the convention center was in the works long before the city and county officials agreed to partner with the federal government to use the site for sheltering migrants.