Asylum Seeker Surge and the Philanthropic Response at the Border

In recent months, the number of people arriving at the U.S. southern border to seek asylum boomed, placing untenable strain on the infrastructure existing to support them. In the face of this need, Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial Counties turned its attention to supporting the nonprofits and volunteers at the forefront of the humanitarian response. Keep reading to learn more about the critical issues faced by migrants, as well as how Catalyst has coordinated among community organizations, government agencies, and the philanthropic community to speed funds to the border. 

The Current Situation 

Given the drastic increase in arriving migrants, the three respite shelters, two in San Diego and one in Imperial County, that normally support all new arrivals can now only take in only the most vulnerable, including mothers with children, elderly individuals, and LGBTQ migrants. Those who fall outside of those parameters have been simply released to the street with no guidance or support. In just three months more than 50,000 individuals faced this fate. 

From September to October, organizations in Oceanside, El Cajon, and San Ysidro mounted response sites at transit centers where hundreds of migrants were dropped every day. They assigned staff from other responsibilities to work up to 18 hours a day and collectively spent more than one million dollars out of pocket. 

Today operations are consolidated at a welcome center in mid-city San Diego where up to 1,000 migrants are directed daily. A regional coalition of more than a dozen non-profits and supportive faith communities are coordinating efforts to continue to meet the needs of people arriving hungry and disoriented after sometimes months of travel from across Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe, requiring support in a dozen languages.  With border officials sometimes releasing the last busloads of migrants after dark, the workers and facilities often remain operational until midnight and later. 

Before even getting to the welcome center, hundreds of individuals are held at an open air detention sites in East County San Diego.  And once processed, many still need housing and case management for a month or more, having crossed into the United States without a final destination planned. 

While the efforts of frontline workers have been incredible, this temporary situation is unsustainable. 

Philanthropy and the County of San Diego’s Response: Nearly $8 Million Invested 

In October the County of San Diego Board of Supervisors approved $3 million to support nonprofit humanitarian and navigation support in the welcome center. In December they added another $3 million to sustain center operations through March. 

However, the government funds did not arrive for a month after street releases began and still cannot fund all the support needed. To bridge this gap, Catalyst launched the California Rapid Response Border Fund in partnership with the Governor’s Office. Initially designed to respond to an uptick in arrivals after Title 42 was lifted in May, we redoubled efforts when street releases began this Fall.  

With support from foundations and other funders from the San Diego region, across California, and the national Dignity for Families Fund, $1.7 million has been deployed to community organizations through, and in alignment with, this pooled fund. Funds have provided food, shelter, and clothing; safe transport for people to get to their destination and meet families and sponsors; family reunification for those separated when they arrived; case management, legal support, and more.     

The Catalyst team manages this fund, provides situational updates, holds funder briefings, and meets regularly with organizations on the frontlines to keep a pulse on the rapidly evolving situation. We are working closely with the Governor’s advisors and State agencies focused on humanitarian, health, and immigration policy, as well as with the office of San Diego County Chairwoman Nora Vargas. By coordinating our efforts, we are able to effectively gather and deploy these funds with the least possible burden on the organizations doing the work.  

The Need Today: Humanitarian Aid and a Long Term Solution 

A more compassionate and inclusive future for those navigating the complexities of migration is within reach, but it requires one more big effort by all of us, leveraging the attention currently on the border. This must include: 

  • Convening, trust-building, and shared visioning among regional nonprofits – both grassroots and larger institutions. 
  • Sustained cross-sector dialogue that includes County, State, and community leadership and resources and advocacy with federal liaisons. 
  • Understanding and designing for the connectivity of cross-border efforts in the US, Mexico. 

Support for the welcome center has been vital and appreciated by the community organizations, but there remain gaps for the overall response and a need for a more comprehensive long-term solution. These gaps include funding for onward travel, support to individuals arriving with no sponsor who need longer-term housing and case management, and support for humanitarian relief at the open-air detention site. Any support must also help increase the capacity at nonprofits, where trauma and burnout are a constant concern. 

Our nonprofit partners also emphasize that this surge in migrant arrivals is not a singular event in time. It is part of a cycle, which sees a rise and fall of arrivals regularly, and a system that quickly becomes overwhelmed. It is essential that we build permanent immigrant arrival infrastructure that has flexible capacity, integrates public and private providers, and, ultimately, offers a dignified pathway to safety for those who arrive and request their human right to asylum.  

Philanthropy is uniquely situated to provide resources to already strained nonprofits; to convene across public and community sectors; and to host vital conversations that encompass the complexities of resource sharing, government policy, relationship and trust building, with a crucial focus on the shared value of a brighter, more equitable tomorrow. 

In Conclusion: Our Commitment 

Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial Counties is committed to continued engagement and advocacy in this defining moment for our border state. We urge you to join us. We will host a funder briefing to share a full plan for the need for philanthropic dollars in January 2024. For more information on the California Rapid Response Border Fund or to get involved with our funder briefings, please contact Megan Thomas.