Uptown News editor Kendra Sitton spoke to BuzzFeed News Reporter Ema O’Connor about her new investigative article “Inside The San Diego Church Where ICE And Border Patrol Bring Pregnant Women.” That church, Christ Ministry Center (CMC), is located in Normal Heights and is being forced to close its overnight shelter in May after it became overcrowded and a fire risk. CMC was the only long-term shelter for asylum seekers in San Diego and border agents often dropped off pregnant women and young families to the shelter. This also follows the end of the Safe Release program last fall, which stopped federal funds helping asylum seekers get to their final destination, which could be the home of a family or friend to stay with while their asylum claims are being processed. This means many asylum seekers are staying in the county for court dates instead of just passing through. O’Connor spent a week in Uptown speaking to people living in the shelter as well as the leaders who run it. This discussion has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
KS: When your report on CMC was published, the overnight shelter was in limbo as fire marshals said it needed to close because it was overcrowded and basically a fire trap, but border agents were still dropping off pregnant women and entire families after being released from Department of Homeland Security custody. CMC filled a unique gap by helping pregnant women with young children who needed to stay in San Diego for court dates or who had nowhere else to go. With the shelter being shut down, what potential new dangers do you see for these women and families?
EO: CMC and their shelter network, Safe Harbors, is working to find other spaces and homes for people in these situations — they are looking at a large place outside of San Diego as well as a church gym nearby that could be converted into a living space. Safe Harbors is not closing, and neither are the clinics at CMC, and CMC will remain an intake shelter to help asylum-seekers check in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and hopefully find a place to go.
However, since new orders came from the White House [last] fall ending the Safe Release Program, more and more migrant families are being dumped onto the streets. Many of them have family elsewhere in the U.S., but may not have the money for bus fare to get there, so they could end up having to sleep on the streets, which can be unhealthy and dangerous for pregnant women and young children, and could result in run-ins with the law for sleeping in public places, among other concerns. Also, the immigration documentation that ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) provided them with (which tells them when, where, and how often they need to check in with ICE, when their court date is, where they can go in the U.S., among other things) may not be in their language, so without an nonprofit organization (NGO) to help them interpret the documents, they could end up violating their orders without realizing it.
KS: You previously reported on women having miscarriages in immigration detention, partially because of the harsh conditions and lack of care they experienced in detention. This came in March after President Trump ended a policy blocking the detention of pregnant women. Your investigation showed CMC actively worked to help shelter pregnant women and ensured they had access to a safe delivery. How did this new report shed light on your previous work?
EO: Most of the women I talked to for this article were not detained by ICE and were detained by CBP for only a few days. Most of them were traveling with children and San Diego does not have family detention centers, so they do not hold parents with children in detention. Because of this, I did not learn much more about the treatment of women in immigration detention. However, since my reporting on this last summer, there have been many reports about record numbers of miscarriages happening in detention and women being detained in their third trimester, which is against ICE policy in most circumstances.
However, some of the women I spoke to this time did complain about not having much to eat in CBP detention, and one woman told me about judgmental and invasive questions a CBP officer asked her during processing. She said he asked her questions like, “Why did you risk your child’s life to come here? Does your kid actually have a father?” She said she told him she felt she and her child were safer here than in her home country, and that her husband (her child’s father) accompanied her to the border but could not cross with her.
I suppose if this article sheds light on anything, it was the same thing my prior reports have shown: contrary to (former Secretary of Homeland Security) Kirstjen Nielsen’s claims, pregnant women are likely better off out of detention than in detention. But that having to live on the streets when there is nowhere for them to go is not good for anyone, let alone pregnant women and young children.
KS: You spoke to several asylum-seekers at the shelter during your time in Normal Heights. Which of their stories most stuck with you after you returned to Washington D.C.? Can you share it with us?
EO: I think the stories of all of the Haitian women I spoke to were striking, and ones I hadn’t heard before. There are thousands of Haitian immigrants crossing the border, but in the press, you often only hear about those from Central and South America. These women’s lives were turned upside down by the 2010 earthquake, and they have been trying to survive and create good lives for their children ever since, but every country they turn to — Brazil, Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras, among others — exploited them and underpaid them, and even targeted them with racism and violence, they said. Once those countries started experiencing their own economic and political troubles, the immigrants there were some of the first to suffer.
[The island of] Haiti is [located] across the entire continent from San Diego. These families have traveled for so long, across so many borders, and tried so hard to get to San Diego, following messages scrawled in bathrooms and betting on guides with money from their families. Now that they are here, they are being targeted by people they call “the haters” — anti-immigrant protesters that film them in their rooms in the shelter and threaten them with violence online. This story is true for so many people, and it’s one I knew nothing about.
KS: The abrupt end of the Safe Release Program has forced San Diego County to support asylum-seekers now forced to stay in the area while their claims are processed. CMC was already overcrowded and had to shut down even as 13,000 families were released in the city just this year. Based on what you saw in San Diego, how do you think the city should or could respond as those numbers continue to grow?
EO: Because of the end of the Safe Release Program, shelters like CMC and San Diego Rapid Response have been forced to bear the weight that ICE and CBP did before. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has sued the Trump administration for ending that policy, to help them out with funds, which hopefully will result in San Diego getting federal help to fill in the gaps their agencies left. I also know San Diego is working with CMC to potentially rent them new properties that are better equipped to act as long-term shelters for even more asylum-seekers. I think continuing to work with shelters and NGOs, and hopefully pulling through on these projects and starting more of them, would help make sure that asylum-seekers can get to where they need to go and not end up on the streets.
— Ema O’Connor is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her full report on Christ Ministry Center can be read at bit.ly/2Dun9VJ.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.