A dead cellphone, $27 in cash and nowhere to turn

A woman from Guatemala exchanges money at the San Ysidro Transit Center after being released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. ICE put an ankle monitor on her to track her location while she waits for her immigration court case. Photo: Kate Morrissey.

Migrants released by ICE after dark often must rely on the kindness of strangers and sheer luck or risk spending long nights on the street.

By Kate Morrissey, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

When a woman from Nicaragua got off a federally contracted bus at the San Diego trolley station next to the border on a recent December night, she felt a mix of joy and confusion.

Joy because she was finally taking her first steps of freedom after months locked in immigration custody. Confusion because she did not know how she would get to Miami, where her cousin was waiting to help her through her asylum case.

Her phone was dead. Even with a charge, it wouldn’t work in the United States anyway except over Wi-Fi. She did not know where she was. She had $27 in U.S. cash. It was already late, close to 8 p.m., and the winter evening was dark and chilly.

While federal funding maintains shelter services in San Diego for migrants released from border custody, asylum seekers like Carolina who are sent to immigration detention facilities after crossing the border usually don’t qualify for that support when they are freed.

Carolina and other asylum seekers interviewed for this story asked not to be fully identified because of their ongoing vulnerable situations and risks to loved ones left behind in their home countries.

Asylum seekers must be on U.S. soil to request protection in the United States. They can either cross at ports of entry, which currently requires that appointments be made in a smartphone app, or enter the country between ports, using clandestine routes over walls, across rivers or through mountains, and look for a Border Patrol agent to make their request. In both cases, they go through preliminary screenings and background checks with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials.

Some are held in CBP custody for more intensive screenings called credible fear interviews while others are transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for these interviews. Still others are released without having these interviews at all. If they’re allowed to proceed with their asylum cases, whether detained or released, they are given dates to appear in immigration court, where judges determine whether they will be allowed to stay. The full process can take years.

ICE, the agency responsible for long-term immigration detention, generally drops off people being released from its custody in San Diego sometime between 7 and 11 p.m. at a trolley station by the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The trolley station, about 20 miles from the local airport, is known to attract people looking to take advantage of unsuspecting travelers, particularly at night. The timing and location, advocates and attorneys say, exacerbate the newcomers’ vulnerability.

They have to rely on the kindness of strangers or sheer luck to avoid nights on the street — or worse, falling prey to human traffickers.

“The timing is very chaotic,” said Ruth Mendez, a member of Detention Resistance, a collective that tries to help migrants being released from ICE custody. “They really are forced to spend the night somewhere.”

Neither ICE nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to a request for comment. CBP, the agency that employs Border Patrol agents and customs officers, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Why some asylum seekers are detained for months by ICE while others are released quickly by CBP from the border seems to often be a matter of chance.

If initial screenings at the border reveal criminal history or previous interactions with immigration authorities in the United States, officials will usually transfer that person to ICE. However, many people who have no such history end up in ICE custody as well.

More than two-thirds of the people in ICE detention facilities have no criminal history, according to an analysis of government data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University. The majority of people held were apprehended by CBP, meaning that those detainees most likely came from the border.

ICE chooses to release some migrants after they pass credible fear interviews, which are screenings with asylum officers to determine whether they have the potential to qualify for protection. Immigration judges can also order the release of some asylum seekers if ICE keeps them in custody after they pass their screenings.

The San Ysidro Port of Entry pedestrian entrance in San Diego. In the distance is the trolley station where ICE frequently drops off immigrant detainees. Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images.

The federal program that provides funding to local migrant shelters, including those run by the San Diego Rapid Response Network and Catholic Charities, requires migrants who receive shelter services to have crossed the border within 45 days of when those services begin. But most of those detained by ICE are held too long to qualify.

“These are people that we’re saying we’re going to entertain their case to become Americans, and yet they’re treated so poorly and not given an opportunity to pursue their cases with dignity or a sense of safety,” said Emmet Norris, 28, a doctoral student at University of California, San Diego, and a volunteer with the collective Detention Resistance.

To respond to this gap in services, humanitarian volunteers including Mendez and Norris spend nights standing at the trolley station, watching for people to arrive on a bus from CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns and operates Otay Mesa Detention Center, the local ICE facility.

The volunteers offer beds and air mattresses in their own homes, places to charge phones and connect to Wi-Fi to reach out to loved ones. But they aren’t able to help on the scale of a government-funded program.

Mendez has hosted many migrants in her home over the past several years, sometimes 10 at a time, including a man from Colombia who moved in with her after his place to stay elsewhere in the country fell through.

“For me it feels like a privilege to be able to host people. I don’t do it from a charity perspective,” she said. “They’re making better use of the space.”

But sometimes even when she gets a call to go pick someone up, she can’t find them at the trolley station. Often she’ll later learn that they spent the night on the street.

She worries especially about people trying to take advantage of new arrivals who end up stranded at the trolley stop.

“They really stick out if you know how to look for people. And knowing people are carrying everything they own in that moment in the world, it makes them very vulnerable,” she said. “It makes them a target.”

Mendez believes releasing people earlier in the day and with travel already arranged would improve the situation.

Attorneys who work frequently with people held at Otay Mesa Detention Center said that they wish ICE would at least notify them before their clients are released so they can help make arrangements with the person’s loved ones.

Olavo Michel, an attorney who works for the American Bar Association’s Immigrant Justice Project, said ICE generally doesn’t notify him when his clients are released, which means that unless his clients call him with the one phone call they are given before release, he might not know until they’ve disappeared into the city.

He said if his clients don’t have family close by, he often goes to the trolley station himself to pick them up. Sometimes, he said, he pays for hotel rooms out of his own pocket.

Luis Gonzalez, an attorney with Jewish Family Service, said that, years ago, he couldn’t find one of his clients for several days because ICE didn’t notify him that the man was being released.

Gonzales finally heard from his client when he reached the home of a family member on the East Coast. The client had found his way to a bus station in downtown San Diego, where, by chance, a woman befriended him and allowed him to stay at her home overnight. She bought him a bus ticket, and he left the next day.

“That doesn’t happen all the time,” Gonzalez said. “He was very lucky.”

Now, Gonzalez and his team instruct all of their clients to call as soon as they find out they’re getting released so that the attorneys can make arrangements for them.

The hardship for people trying to figure out where to go when they’re released from ICE custody is exacerbated when they are also dealing with family separation.

The McDonald’s restaurant next to the San Ysidro Port of Entry has long been a hub for migrants released from ICE custody to find temporary respite and Wi-Fi. However, the dining area closes at 10 p.m., leaving many with nowhere to go. Photo: Kate Morrissey.

When family members or partners are processed separately at the border, the local migrant shelters can do the work of reuniting them. But when family members are taken into ICE detention and then released on different days, it complicates an already confusing situation.

Norris recalled meeting a woman from Brazil after she was released at the trolley station. Her partner was still inside the detention center, and their money was stowed with his belongings. All she could do was wait for him to be released.

Norris gave the woman a place to stay in his home until they could figure out what was happening with her partner’s case. Days later, Norris met a Brazilian man who had been separated from his partner. Norris looked at the location shared to the man’s phone and realized it was from the woman staying at his house.

The two reunited in Norris’ living room later that evening.

Norris said that while he was glad to help the couple, the situation made him worry about those  released when there isn’t someone at the trolley station to help. In recent months, fewer volunteers from Detention Resistance have been able to go to the station because they’re also supporting efforts to help asylum seekers stranded at the San Diego airport.

Gerard and his fiancée, who both fled political persecution in Cameroon, were among those who had no help when they stepped off the bus. The fiancée was released a day earlier than he was, Gerard said.

“I could not eat anything because I was so worried,” he recalled of the day he spent in detention after her release.

He had all of their money and the contact for where they were going. He found out later that she spent the night at the trolley station, waiting for him.

Even after he was released, the two spent several more nights on the street before they were able to find a way to travel to the East Coast.

Kate Clark, an attorney with Jewish Family Service who helps run the San Diego Rapid Response Network migrant shelter, wishes that the shelter was allowed to help people like Gerard and the woman from Nicaragua. Though her shelter and the other local shelter run by Catholic Charities have been filling to capacity since September, they would have to turn away people released from ICE custody even if they had beds available because of the restrictions on their funding.

Clark said it was a missed opportunity for the government.

“It’s not lost on me that there’s this incredible respite shelter system across the border that also could support this population that’s in need,” she said.

The woman from Nicaragua managed to avoid sleeping at the trolley station. She ended up spending the night at the airport instead.

When she got off the bus, she and a woman from China with whom she had been detained and released found a little market by the trolley station where they could charge their phones for $3. By the time their phones were charged, the McDonald’s where the rest from their bus had gone for Wi-Fi access had closed its seating area and kicked everyone out for the night. The others from the bus squeezed into taxis and left without telling the two women.

They walked over to the taxis, where one driver told them the price to go to the airport was $80. The woman from Nicaragua shook her head. She didn’t have enough to pay for her half of the trip.

The driver spoke into a translation app on his phone for the woman from China to read. She laughed incredulously and pulled out the name badge she had worn at the detention center as if to say, “I just came from here. I don’t have that kind of money.”

The taxi driver eventually lowered the price to $50, and shortly before 11 p.m., the two women left for the airport, where — at least — there is free Wi-Fi and outlets to charge phones. By the time the woman from Nicaragua reached the airport, she didn’t have a single dollar left.

She met a fellow Nicaraguan at the airport who bought her some food, she said, and her cousin found her a flight to Miami the next day.

She was exhausted, and she knew she still had a long journey ahead to win her immigration case. She hoped to be able to bring her children to the United States one day as well, so they too could escape the political repression that she had fled.

Copyright 2024 Capital & Main

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