Crisis sometimes has a way of galvanizing communities, and in Spring, 2021, social services agencies in San Diego came together to successfully address a big challenge that had appeared—seemingly overnight.
In the early part of 2021, the U.S. saw a steep increase in the number of unaccompanied minor children migrating across the U.S. southern border. Facing ongoing and escalating gang violence and drug trafficking in their home countries, coupled with devastating hurricanes wiping out food sources and shelter, Central American families and children traverse hundreds of miles of unpredictable and dangerous terrain to find a better life in the United States.
The punitive and inhumane Trump-era family separation policy which landed children in cages and their parents in jail, meant that migrant families had stopped crossing the border as a unit, instead sending their young children to seek safety alone. Heartbreaking images of “kids in cages” bombarded us on the news and in social media.
Because of the increase in unaccompanied minor migration, Customs and Border Patrol (“CBP”) became heavily backlogged. Instead of processing children in their custody within the mandated 72 hours, it was taking as long as 133 hours—nearly a week. This meant that children were spending up to week in CBP custody, usually put in group cages (there is really no better word for it). Once processed, the children could be moved into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (“ORR”), which places them in shelters until family members can be located in the U.S., or until another sponsor is found who is willing to take the child while they await an asylum hearing.
In their desperation to “get the kids out of cages,” the Department of Health and Human Services quickly mobilized 14 emergency shelters all over the United States. These emergency shelters increased the total bed count for unaccompanied minor children from 952 to 20,000 within a matter of weeks. One of these shelters was in the San Diego Convention Center, just a short drive south from Dr. Bronner’s Headquarters in Vista, California.
The San Diego Convention Center shelter was commissioned in late March, 2021 and it needed to open and be ready to care for children in just four days. It is hard to imagine how an empty cavernous Convention Center with no beds, showers, dining areas, or any human infrastructure, could safely house, clothe, feed, educate, and support up to 1,500 girls at a time, with less than a week to make it happen.
Local social services agencies, led by SBCS (formerly South Bay Community Services), leaped into action. As the largest social services agency in the County, SBCS serves 50,000 children and parents each year, but they had never undertaken something like this. They immediately tapped into a strong and willing network of other local social service providers and together, the community rallied. They worked around the clock to welcome the first 500 teenage girls on March 28, 2021.
SBCS and their partner organizations not only built and then staffed the shelter, but they were able to provide culturally-competent, trauma-informed care with one adult for every ten children on site, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
When one of the partner agencies, the Economic Development Council, reached out to Dr. Bronner’s for product donations, it was an easy yes for us. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, our product donation program has focused on emergency needs for vulnerable populations, and as of July 2021, we’ve donated nearly 300,000 units of soap and hand sanitizer to direct service organizations all over the United States.
As migrant girls arrived at the emergency shelter, they were given backpacks donated by several local organizations including Cubic Corp. To help fill the backpacks with essential supplies, we cleaned out our entire stock of sample-sized and single-use items—6,400 packs of lotion, hair cream and sugar soaps, 150 travel-size toothpastes, 1,000 small bottles of soap and 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. Two days after the initial request was made, the products were on their way to the Convention Center and into the hands of the girls, most of whom hadn’t showered in over a month.
At the Convention Center, phones were provided so that children could call their families back home to let them know that they made it and were alive. The onsite staff were constantly driven by the question “how can I make this child’s life better today?” They built an onsite library and areas to exercise and play. They created a “hope and joy squad” to arrange educational programs and activities for the children, including taking a field trip to see a local professional soccer team practice. They did everything possible to create a space where children could feel safe and loved while they were in their care. “We wanted to leave them better than how they arrived,” said a volunteer we spoke with.
By the time the shelter was decommissioned at the end of June, 2021, over 3,200 children had come through its doors—2,400 were reunited with family in the U.S., while 800 were placed with supportive sponsor families or aged out of the system. Over 24,000 phone calls were made to families back home, and each child left the shelter aware of the next steps in their asylum-seeking process.
In the grand scheme of things, a little soap and toothpaste is nothing in the face of all that goes into caring for thousands of children on a perilous journey to the United States. Yet we are grateful as a company that we were able to serve in this crisis, and had a chance to make even a small difference in the lives of these children. We are proud to be a small part of this enormous undertaking. It is a true testament to the strength of the San Diego social services sector, and the leaders, staff and volunteers who gave and gave and gave to create something truly positive in the midst of this crisis.
Because migration is seasonal, and because the family separation policy was ended by President Biden, fewer unaccompanied minor children are now crossing the border—so the need for emergency shelters has been reduced dramatically. The San Diego Convention Center is back to hosting events and conferences, and we hope that the thousands of children who came to our community as part of their asylum journey will find the better life they seek here in the United States.
Special thanks to Lilia Letsch for her assistance with this post.