Report from Our Time at the San Diego Immigrant Shelter in Mid-April
Portside Date:
Author: Linda Roman and Phyllis Willett
Date of source:

General picture of how the shelter is run

    Staff -- There’s a small paid staff. Maybe 15-20 folks. That includes 3 Volunteer Coordinators who work staggered shifts to cover daily from 8am-10pm. They coordinate the hundreds of volunteers. There are 3 van drivers who take departing “guests” (as the immigrants are called) to the airport and Greyhound. There are administrative folks who set up flights and bus trips to the guests’ destination points; process donations; do intake; help guests call home and call their sponsors. Sponsors buy guests their airline or bus tickets and receive the asylum seekers at their destinations. And there are medical personnel (RN’s, doctors, translators) who are paid by San Diego County. 

    Volunteers – There are literally hundreds of volunteers. Most live in or near San Diego and sign up for shifts in 4-hour blocks as frequently as they wish. Some come weekly; some more or less often. And there is a steady stream of people from other parts of California and the US arriving to volunteer for various periods of time.  Jewish Family Services was instrumental in setting up the center and there is a coalition of organizations that support it, including Catholic Services, the ACLU, etc. 

Guests while we were there

They came from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Also several groups were from Haiti. Most were female-headed single parent families, but some were single parent male-headed families. There were so many lovely children. The total number of people arriving daily varied a good deal. Before we arrived the shelter was receiving 100-200 people a day. During our time, the daily count ranged from 40-90.  We don’t know what accounts for the fluctuation. 


Previously, ICE was dropping people off on the streets of San Diego. It is a testament to the strength of the coalition that they got agreement that people would be brought directly to the shelter which is located in downtown San Diego. The county is donating the building as part of its contribution to this effort. The shelter has had to move 5-6 times in the last year and a half and will have to move again at the end of the year when the current building is demolished.  

Each evening calls come from Immigration saying, “We have a bus of 46 leaving now from _____. Will be there in 3 hours.” In addition to those calls, the shelter has established relationships with people who work along the routes taken by the buses and vans (e.g., a gas station or a fast food place); and these workers call the shelter reporting the departure of vehicles and about how many people are in them. The outreach and the relationships that have been built in so many ways are quite amazing.  This includes people at the counters and in security at the airport as well as nurses and doctors at the UC hospitals. 

Outline of the process when guests arrive

Some people came in as early as 4pm but most came between 6-11pm. They came by van or bus from the border detention operation where they had finally been cleared for admission to the US to begin their efforts to receive asylum. They are given an appointment with ICE in the states where their sponsors live.  At that meeting, the heads of family will have their ankle “bracelets” removed or not at the discretion of ICE. In the end, only 1 in 4 will get asylum. The others will be deported. The process of seeking asylum can take years during which they are making a life for themselves in this country. 

    Initial physical space into which guests enter – On their right as they come in and are welcomed are rows of chairs to which they are guided. Family groups sit together. On the left are the medical stations for the doctors, RNs and medical translators. 

    Oral orientation to what will happen next – The group is asked if everyone speaks Spanish. If not, arrangements are made for translation into other languages (sometimes by a guest; sometimes by a call to another translator). 1 or 2 Spanish translators then proceed to outline to the group what the steps will be in that entry room.  

The guests have been traveling for a long time often through multiple countries. For many, that travel was on foot. Others traveled by bus or train when they could. They are profoundly exhausted, fearful, and often traumatized. Staff and volunteers are under strict instructions not to ask guests questions about why they have come; what the trip was like, how long they have been traveling; and so on.  

If people volunteer information, that is their choice. But it is critical that the shelter not be seen as another point of interrogation. 

    Water, fruit, clothes -- Bottles of water and fruit are next distributed to everyone. While they are seated a staff person sizes up each family member (literally), to determine what size clothes they need. With that information, a volunteer goes to an adjacent room filled floor to ceiling with donated clothing sorted into boxes/bins by gender and size. The volunteer then brings each family group a bag filled with clothes. 

    Medical screening – Each person is seen by a nurse. (Family groups are kept together.) They take temps; look at throats, ears, necks, hair (for lice). If there is any sign or report of body itching, the examination expands. Some people have contracted scabies in the course of their travels and require treatment. If lice are present (not an uncommon occurrence), they go to the lice station for a totally painless treatment with liquid poison.  

If anyone reports or is found to have something that requires examination by a doctor, that is what happens. If they are cleared by the doctor, they move to the next step in the shelter. If contagious, they may be put in a hotel for isolation or if seriously ill, taken (by a volunteer) to a hospital for necessary tests/treatment. 

    Processing room – Then people move on to the “processing” room where they provide information about their trip and their ultimate destination. They are given a free call to their sponsor (usually a family member but sometimes an immigrant rights activist) to tell them they have arrived and find out if their tickets have been purchased and what those arrangements are. They can also call home to tell their family they are safe and have cleared the first step through immigration toward asylum. This kicks into motion the many steps taken by staff and volunteers to get the guests to the airport or Greyhound, hopefully on the next day or day after. If plans fall through, they will stay at the shelter until new arrangements can be made. 

    Dormitory – After intake, they are taken to a large room filled with bright red cots (a recent donation). Each guest receives towels and toiletries and is shown to showers. Most have not had an opportunity to fully wash themselves in some time. If they are hungry, they are provided food. 

    Meals – The shelter serves 3 meals a day and provides water and fruit snacks. The food is prepared off site by other organizations and brought to the shelter. It is served by volunteers. Set up and cleanup are done by volunteers and guests. 

    Play areas – There is an indoor room for young children (suitable for those up to 6). It is always staffed by a volunteer who makes sure everyone cleans their hands with sanitizer before entering. (There are also sanitizer containers on the walls in many locations in the building.) Parents must stay in or near the room to deal with any issues that occur. 

Half the roof of the building serves as an outdoor space for kids and adults. Children play with toys and art supplies while parents relax and socialize. There is always a volunteer present to help; answer questions; replenish supplies and snacks; and keep the kids from going to the other side of the roof which is the shelter’s parking lot. 

Roles of the Volunteers

Unless you are slated to do an airport or Greyhound run, you find out what is needed each day when you arrive at the shelter. Some local volunteers have a specific task they do each time they come. One woman just makes copies, another just works in the dining room. Phyllis and I were fortunate to be able to do a variety of tasks from tackling lice, to serving dinner, sorting clothes, helping at the hospital, working in the childcare room, and accompanying people to their gates at the airport. More on our experiences at the end of this report-back. 


While working at the shelter is full of heartbreak, it is also incredibly rewarding. People are so resilient in spite of all they’ve been through and have yet to face. The staff is remarkable in being able to juggle many tasks at the same time and keep their compassion and sense of humor. Also, the outpouring of goodwill from so many volunteers in San Diego and around the country is very encouraging. The need is enormous, and people are coming forward in droves because they’re so disgusted by what is going on at the border (which is very close) and all of Trump’s shenanigans. If you can’t go to this shelter or others along the border, there is unending need for donations of clothing and money. And, if you want to know more or have questions of content or logistics, please contact either of us. 

A few anecdotes to give you a flavor of what volunteering is like

Medical and hospital situations

Phyllis -- After administering lice treatment to a lovely 14-year-old girl, I was speaking to her father about what he should do when she emerged from her shower. This was our last night at the shelter and I was pretty tired. I told him that when she came out of the refrigerator he should come get me. (This is all in my limited Spanish, of course.) He looked at me quizzically and smiled. I realized what I had said and apologized for my brain/mouth disconnect and then said what I had intended. He and I chuckled. A nice warm moment. 

Linda -- Spent today at the UCSD hospital with a Haitian woman with preeclampsia, her 3-day old newborn (born in the U.S.), and her darling 6-year-old (both boys).  She’s clearly been through a lot and her older son as well but he was incredibly sweet and we bonded nicely. Finally, at 4:30 she was released, and Phyllis came to pick them up and take them to a motel.   Before she could be released, the nurse had a lot of medical information to give both her and her newborn.  Since the woman spoke only French Creole, the nurse called a translator who conveyed all the necessary information.  It was very impressive.  Apparently the hospital has people who can translate into many languages on call.  The woman could then ask questions until she was comfortable with the information.  She would come back in a few days for follow-up exams. 

Phyllis – I drove “Linda’s” family to the hotel where a room had been reserved for them by the shelter’s staff. In addition to 4 bags filled with many things, the family had 2 large and very heavy suitcases which it took a nurse and me to get into the car when we left the hospital. Mom was under strict instruction not to lift anything greater than 10 pounds and not to bend. 

When we arrived at the hotel, I went to the desk and was greeted by a young pregnant woman who was the only person there. I had to call the shelter and get another volunteer (actually a couple showed up) to help me. Once we had everything in the room and arranged so Mom could get to all of it without lifting or bending. I thought we were done but realized there was no food for the family. The couple took a food order and was going to head out to buy stuff when I realized there were 5 medications that had to be dealt with. We discovered 2 of them had instructions in Spanish so we highlighted the vital info and asked Mom if it was clear. She was now completely exhausted, nursing a newborn, and dealing with a 6-year-old. Then with the use of his phone for translation assistance, one of the other volunteers got the pertinent words into Spanish and Mom’s acknowledgement that she understood who got what, when, how much. 

Phyllis (assisting R. and her 4-year-old daughter) – This family of 2 arrived Tuesday from Honduras. R.’s left leg was swollen from toe to hip. The diameter of her calf was at least 7”. She showed this to the nurse, telling her it had been like that for 2 months. She had seen medical people in her country, but they had no explanation and no treatment for her. She re-committed to leaving for the US; a trip which required her to walk many days. Now she was referred to a doctor at the other end of the room. 

Two doctors consulted and agreed that she must go to an emergency room because they were worried about her throwing clots. I volunteered to drive the family; remain with them; and bring them back (assuming she was released). That was the beginning of our 5 hours together that ended at about 3am. 

When we got to emergency it was not jammed with people. There was nobody on duty who spoke Spanish so I acted as R.’s medical translator. Eventually we were shown to a room where we spent probably 4 hours. In all that time we did not interact with any nurse or doctor who spoke Spanish. I asked if they could get a translator and was told no, that I was doing fine. 

So that this report does not take us into the next decade, I will say that the staff was pleasant, helpful whenever possible, disbelieving in what they saw, and despite numerous tests including a brain scan looking for an explanation, they found nothing. Finally, R. was discharged with Tylenol and an antibiotic for an infected sore/bite on her arm. She was told to keep her leg elevated and iced… 

But here is the interaction with the discharge doctor – a woman about 30 who lives in San Diego. During her exam of R.’s leg, she noticed the ankle bracelet she had on and asked what it was. Remember. I’m translating everything. I was so surprised by her question that I asked if she was serious. She had never seen ICE’s electronic tracking device that they slap on the head of each household group. She had never read nor heard of them. She said she needed to cut it off. I responded that if she did that, ICE or their cohorts would be there in 15 minutes and R. would be deported immediately. 

She asked why it wasn’t on the other leg. R. said she had asked them not to put it on that leg but they refused. Doctor agreed that in her discharge notes she would write to ICE and tell them the device had to be moved off that leg or it could kill R.. Particularly because they could not determine the cause of the swelling, they did not know if it would worsen. 

The end. We returned to the shelter. I saw the family again the following day with warm hugs all around. I could not find them after that, so I prevailed on a Volunteer Coordinator to reach out to the travel people to learn if they were gone. And, yes, they had flown away to Florida. Amen! (I am crying again as I write these words. Did a lot of that in private at the shelter and a good deal here in the Bay Area as I have told these stories to friends and family.) 

The airport

Linda -- Today was the most difficult day emotionally and physically. We took folks to the airport. We went in the van with the families who were going to their sponsors. Phyllis had 2 families, 1 from Honduras and the other from Guatemala. Both single- parent families. They were all on American Airlines and were going together to Dallas; then 1 family was going to Kansas and the other to Houston. I had 3 families, again single-parent families. They were on 2 different airlines, Delta and United. My Spanish wasn’t up to the task but we muddled through. 

To add complexity, each family had to change planes; and 2 of the 3 had never been on a plane before. One family, a woman and her son, was taking United to Minneapolis. The woman told me at the last minute that she had had a terrible migraine and now couldn’t see. I didn’t know that when I showed her the written materials. I asked the man at the United counter if he could make sure that someone would help her make their connecting flight. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that United doesn’t do that. Then I remembered and said, but she can’t see. So he said they would have a wheelchair for her at the other end which, I figured, would take her to the next gate. And a woman sitting near us said she’d be happy to help them get on the plane and to the other flight. Huge relief. After getting that woman and her son settled, I told them I’d be back and got the other 2 families. 

One of the women was from Cameroun with a 2-year-old. She had flown from Cameroun to Ecuador and somehow got to Tijuana. She had been on the road since January. Fortunately she spoke English, Spanish and French so she could help the other family, a man and his son, on the first flight since they were initially going to the same place. After that they were going in different directions, but I felt they would be ok. The woman from Cameroun wept when she hugged me goodbye. I’m not sure whether it was because she was finally near the end of her trip or because she was overwhelmed by meeting kindness at the shelter. She said she’d call when she arrived and did. The man, from Guatemala, whispered to me as we were walking toward the plane that he would have been assassinated in Guatemala. Today tore my heart out more than any other day or task. This was the hardest thing I’ve done since being here. 

As for going through security: the first time, as we were approaching, the security guy said, in a very nice way, “Oh, I see what’s happening here” and then he set everything up. Called a security woman to pat down the woman and take her through x-ray. (Remember, she had that damn “bracelet” on her ankle.) and made sure I stayed with her son because they are being very careful not to separate parents and children. The second time, with the other two families, the guy wasn’t as knowledgeable but he finally got folks to pat them down and send them through the x-ray machine. It’s hard to convey how complex this whole process was - getting one pair settled; coming back out and taking the other two families through. And I could feel their reticence and nervousness. But now they’re on their way to their sponsors - in these cases, all relatives. Oh, they had no money and very little food. I got them all sandwiches and gave them some pocket money before they left. I’m sure they didn’t feel brave, just apprehensive and tired. 

Phyllis – The 2 families I escorted were from very different economic strata. M. and his daughter were very poor Guatemalans. Their belongings were all contained in a child size backpack that he carried. The Hondurans had a large suitcase; a cell phone; the teenage son had electronic stuff in his backpack. M. was very reserved, quiet and attentive. Mom was extremely chatty and on her cell much of the time. On Facetime she introduced me to her older daughter, their sponsor in Houston. 

The American Airlines woman who issued boarding passes and my pass to get through security and out to the gate was very nice and helpful. Our experience with the security operation was as good as it could have been. M.was subjected to an extensive, horrible pat down but the guy who did it was fluent in Spanish and told him each step of the way what he was going to do. 

Then we were all together again and off to the gate where we discovered the flight was delayed by an hour. Turned out there was a terrible storm in Dallas and all American flights going there were on the ground. The woman at the gate was unfriendly but gave me her best guess that, yes, they would make their connecting flight. But, if not, they’d get re-scheduled (and spend the night in the airport…). 

I got lunch for everyone. The teens were trying to figure out the hamburger menu (20 options???!). The young man behind the counter spoke Spanish and started explaining them all when they insisted they wanted a hamburger with fries. Period. The Guatemalan man asked hesitantly if there were tacos. I took them to find out and the answer was yes, but in the other terminal. So they decided on pizza where the Spanish-speaking worker described options and showed them sizes. Another set of hurdles overcome. 

As we waited I answered questions and offered ideas on how they could deal with getting info in Dallas if nobody at the desk spoke Spanish. I was confident that pushy Mom would have no problem listening among the passengers for a Spanish speaker and having questions answered. My worry was for the Guatemalan man and his daughter because he was so reserved. But, lord, he had gotten them from Guatemala to San Diego! 

At one point as I was practicing numbers, letters, words with the 14-year-old girl (which I had done twice before at the shelter), she and her mom exchanged looks and words. Mom offered to give her to me since I have parenting experience, but I declined and assured her they’d both live through it. We laughed. 

I got everyone water and snacks of their choosing (all teens did the selecting) because there was no guarantee they’d get anything on the planes. And finally, it was their turn to board and so we shared lots of hugs and well wishes. And I walked away in tears again. 

[Linda Roman retired from teaching ESOL at an Oakland Community College and currently volunteering at the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Phyllis Willett is a lifetime left social change and labor union activist. She is now involved in working to support recent immigrants.]

Volunteer form for the shelter

For more information:

Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity

San Diego Rapid Response Network

Jewish Family Service

Also, there are many local East Bay organizations that are doing fabulous work in helping asylum seekers and folks in detention. We work with Kehilla and with the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. They are both doing invaluable support work. 

Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity is an advocate for immigrant justice and sanctuary and for ending mass incarceration and mass criminalization.

[If Portside readers would like more information from the authors, send an email to, and we will forward to the authors.] 

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