California city rejects child immigrant shelter

July 23, 2014 - 9:04 AM

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (AP) — A north San Diego suburb's planning commission on Tuesday ratified its rejection of a proposed 96-bed shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children who are arrested by the Border Patrol, while the American Civil Liberties Union said it was mulling a legal challenge.

About 200 people packed into City Hall chambers, and a large, overflow crowd cheered and jeered below an outdoor speaker as Escondido commissioners heard impassioned pleas, mostly from people urging them to reconsider.

"Shame on you!" members of the crowd shouted after the panel voted 6-0 to uphold its decision from last month.

The proposal has sparked the latest controversy over immigration in Escondido, a city of 150,000 that has been rocked during the last decade by disagreement over how to treat people who are in the country illegally.

The audience largely supported the proposal, a contrast from last month's sharply divided crowd when the outcome was less certain. Shelter supporters waved signs that read, "Migrants' Lives Matter" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Children."

The commissioners held no discussion among themselves after nearly three hours of public comment. Anyone can appeal to the City Council, setting up another likely showdown in August.

David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said at a news conference earlier Tuesday that Escondido may be violating state and federal fair-housing laws against discrimination. Southwest Key Programs, the nonprofit group that would operate the shelter, sent representatives to the news conference and said it was being advised by the ACLU.

Southwest Key contracts with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to operate child-immigrant shelters across the country, including a temporary facility at Naval Base Ventura County, north of Los Angeles.

Alexia Rodriguez, Southwest Key's vice president of immigrant children's services and legal counsel, said the San Antonio-based group was unaware of Escondido's fraught history with illegal immigration when it did a nationwide search for shelter space in response to a surge of illegal crossings by unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The group identified several sites in Escondido before settling on a nursing home that closed last year.

The ACLU's Loy said traffic and other concerns raised about the proposed shelter didn't prevent the city from allowing the nursing home to operate.

Joyce Masterson, the city's director of economic development and community relations, said the ACLU has not told the city of any plans for legal action when asked to comment. The city complied with the ACLU's requests for information on the topic, Masterson said.

Escondido, whose population is 49 percent Latino, has repeatedly embroiled itself in immigration debates since 2006, when the City Council voted to require landlords to check tenants' immigration status. A federal judge blocked the ordinance, which never took effect.