Nathan Fletcher is chair of the San Diego Country Board of Supervisors, a Marine Corps veteran, and a father of five. Two years ago, he also was a driving force behind the creation of a shelter for asylum seekers in his district. Since then, support for welcoming policies towards those seeking protection at the border has only grown in San Diego.
Fletcher was elected to the Board of Supervisors just after the Department of Homeland Security ended the “safe release” program. Previously, DHS officials assisted asylum seekers who had recently crossed the border with the coordination of their travel plans to sponsors and relatives across the country. But beginning in late 2018, DHS began instead to release people directly to bus stations—and in some cases city streets—at all hours and sometimes without notice to local officials and organizations. Further, DHS often gave these asylum seekers unclear paperwork about where and when they were supposed to go to immigration court, adding further confusion.
As Fletcher took office, DHS was stranding asylum-seeking families in downtown San Diego with no information or resources. The San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of human rights and service organizations, attorneys, and community leaders, stepped in to help by creating temporary emergency shelters in churches. But it wasn’t enough.
“The advocates and the allies…looked to the County,” Fletcher said. “On my very first day as a supervisor, we heard the idea to actually take a County facility, an old family courthouse that was slated for demolition” and create a reception center for asylum seekers.
“I immediately got to work,” Fletcher said. The plan was for a center to welcome families and provide public health and community services. “I wanted it to be a place of love and compassion,” Fletcher said.
To pass the proposed measure through the traditionally conservative Board of Supervisors, he needed at least three votes on the five-seat board. Fletcher focused on bipartisan engagement and worked closely with Supervisor Greg Cox. He also won the backing of the District Attorney and Sherriff by arguing that having the shelter would mean both asylum seeking families and the city would be safer. Fletcher also engaged his own constituents. The Center was in the heart of his district, which stretches from the Pacific Ocean to Encanto, Paradise Hills and north towards the UC San Diego Campus. “If I’m the one who thinks it’s such a good idea then I need to place it in the communities I represent,” Fletcher told Refugees international. “And I have got to go out and make the case for it…why I thought this was consistent with our values and what we needed to do.”
Fletcher’s efforts paid off. On January 29, 2019, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to lease the space to be a shelter. “We stood it up quickly and tens of thousands of individuals were just shown a basic level of dignity and being able to be connected with their family sponsors and treated humanely,” said Fletcher.
The County of San Diego staffed the shelter with help from the Health and Human Services Agency to conduct health screenings for new arrivals. At the center, operated by Jewish Family Service San Diego, each family was also provided beds, warm food, fresh clothes, and an orientation. Where law books once were in the old court house, there were diapers and hygiene kits for arriving families. When Refugees International visited the shelter in the spring of 2019, children played in an outdoor area while parents got help with transportation arrangements. Families spent only a night or two at the shelter before traveling to join family.
“That’s what is supposed to happen when you have people in need, your government works together with your faith community, works together with your nonprofit community, and everyone shoulders their share of the load,” said Fletcher.
While the center successfully created a space of welcome for asylum-seeking families, deep challenges still remain along the border. As a Marine Corps Veteran himself, Fletcher cares deeply about the issue of deported veterans. Fletcher often visited Tijuana to meet with people at the Deported Veterans Support House, called “the bunker.”
“My great hope is that President Biden will issue an executive order: stop the deportation of any honorably discharged member of the American military. And Congress will pass appropriate legislation to bestow citizenship upon those who have been deported.”
However, Fletcher feels optimistic about the future of San Diego County and its ability to open its arms to those fleeing violence and harm in their home countries and seeking to be reunited with family members.
“I hope that what we did in San Diego can serve as an inspiration and a motivation to other communities out there to know that there is a better way, to embrace and welcome those who are coming from such a difficult situation.”
Right now, Jewish Family Services and others in the Rapid Response Network, with support of the State of California and in coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Department of Homeland Security, are successfully welcoming asylum seekers who had been forced into “Remain in Mexico” during Trump administration. They are ready and able to work with the federal government to welcome many more people from all over the world who are newly arriving at the border to seek protection, as well as others who have been waiting at the border but were not in the Remain in Mexico program.
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With smart and humane policies, the United States can welcome people seeking safety and treat them with dignity. Read more at wecanwelcome.org.
PHOTO CAPTION: Supervisor Fletcher is seen speaking at an event in support of the Rapid Response Network, which helps asylum seekers who arrive in San Diego, California.