San Diego Convention Center

SDUSD Teachers Helping Migrant Teens at San Diego Convention Center During Spring Break

The San Diego Convention center will be used to house some of the thousands of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the U.S. Local leaders say this is an emergency response

What to Know

  • The San Diego Unified School District said some of its teachers are volunteering their time over spring break to help hundreds of migrant teens sheltered at the convention center
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is sheltering the unaccompanied minor migrants until more permanent arrangements can be found during their asylum case proceedings
  • By Sunday more than 1,400 teens are expected to be housed at the convention center

While their district is on spring break, some San Diego Unified School District teachers are volunteering their time at the San Diego Convention Center where hundreds of migrant teenage girls separated from their families are being sheltered.

The teens are being housed at the convention center until they can be reunited with family already in the U.S. or moved into sponsor homes while their asylum claims are being processed.

"Our teachers have volunteered to help  -- we are not paying them in any way -- because caring for children is central to who they are as human beings," SDUSD spokesperson Maureen Magee said in part. "The power of their example should inspire us all, and hopefully many others will be inspired to show these girls that we are a compassionate community."

There are now more than 700 teenage migrant girls being sheltered at the convention center, including nearly 70 who as of Monday were COVID-19 positive. NBC 7's Melissa Adan has the latest.

The district allowed staff to sign up for volunteer opportunities, but they are ultimately called on to volunteer by the San Diego County Office of Education, Magee said.

"The San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) is operating this program in order to address the needs of the vulnerable children being housed at the site. All children in California, regardless of immigration status, have a constitutional right to education," Kathie Lembo , president and CEO of SBCS.

The educational program will include English language development and social-emotional learning opportunities, Lembo said.

As of Wednesday, there were approximately 860 teenage girls at the convention center shelter, which is being operated by the county and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The site is expected to receive around 250 teens every other day until it reaches capacity of around 1,450, according to HHS spokesperson Bonnie Preston.

The first group, 476 girls between the ages of 13 and 17, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, arrived Saturday. Late Monday, 247 more arrived, Preston said.

The shelter is expected to reach capacity by April 4.

As of Tuesday at least 69 girls sheltered at the convention center had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Preston. The majority of the girls tested positive before arriving in San Diego. Six tested positive upon arrival on Saturday and four more who were exposed to positive patients since Saturday have tested positive.

Preston said those who tested positive, along with anyone they may have been in close contact with, were transported separately and being housed separately from others at the convention center. None are symptomatic.

HHS has implemented COVID-19 safety protocols at the convention center to limit the spread of COVID-19. All of the girls in the care of HHS are being tested every three days, Preston said. Migrants are separated into pods of about 50, which won't intermingle.

The girls are expected to stay for about 35 days while caseworkers with South Bay Community Services attempt to contact existing family members in the United States or sponsors who will house the minors while they go through court proceedings for their asylum claims.

County Supervisor Nora Vargas, who toured the facility on Sunday, said 90% of the girls have either family or friends that can be considered sponsors living here in the United States.

Another group of migrant girls is expected in San Diego Monday evening. NBC 7's Artie Ojeda has the details.

The convention center has the ability to house as many as 1,450 migrant children. County leaders got to work on preparing the space, in coordination with FEMA and HHS last week after receiving a call asking for a temporary shelter location for unaccompanied migrant children. While the county operates the facility, it is managed and paid for by HHS.

The convention center operation will provide food, a place to sleep, educational and recreational activities, and showers. Rady's Children Hospital will lead in providing medical care to the girls at the convention center, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said.

The kids will not be permitted to leave the convention center until reunification happens.

Photos: Inside the San Diego Convention Center Being Used to Provide Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Minors

The government said there were nearly 5,000 children in Border Patrol custody as of Tuesday, March 23, and an additional 11,551 at Department of Health and Human Services shelters.

The convention center is currently vacant after a program to house homeless San Diegans came to an end and before summer events resume at the busy site. The convention center will house the minors until mid-July.

Across the border, in Tijuana, Mexico, hundreds of teenagers -- sometimes young children and in at least one case, an infant -- have been living in pop-up tents and underneath tarps, video captured by Telemundo 20 found. The migrants have been living in Mexico awaiting their turn to ask for asylum in the U.S.

NBC 7's Ramon Galindo reports on the migrant children stating at the convention center.

In recent weeks, the number of unaccompanied minors has dramatically increased, straining the ability of CBP to hold them in their detention facilities until they can be turned over to HHS. The department houses them until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors while the government decides whether they have a legal claim for residency.

This is the first site in California offering this kind of shelter, officials said. Local leaders have offered up the convention center through July. A spokesperson for the convention center said events have been canceled until then but major events are back on the books for August while the center is awaiting reopening guidance from the state.

A total of 500 girls between the ages of 13 and 17, are being flown in from Texas under the custody of immigration authorities, and will then be brought to San Diego. The convention center will be their home for at least the next month or so, until they can be reunited with family or sponsors.
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