A sandwich. A boarding pass. Migrants stranded at San Diego Airport depend on volunteers for help

From food to finding flights, volunteer groups send support to the airport nightly to help asylum seekers.

Within moments, Roni was seated on the ground beside him, looking up flights and typing into a group chat of volunteers and humanitarian workers to see if anyone could help buy his ticket. She promised to return once she heard back. Then she moved on to help other migrants waiting in the airport’s corridors.  

There are several shelters in San Diego that take in migrants released from the border, but they have been filled to capacity every night since September.

 Roni met Oscar on her final shift working for Immigrant Defenders Law Center, a nonprofit that until recently had staff coordinate with volunteers from several grassroots groups that bring food, supplies, and support to help asylum seekers waiting at the San Diego airport after crossing the border. Roni asked to be identified by her first name only because of harassment that she and others have experienced while helping asylum seekers at the airport.

Immigrant Defenders Law Center has since had to cut staffing to its airport program due to a lack of funds.

“What are they going to do when I’m not here?” Roni said as she moved through the airport looking for migrants who needed help. “It’s frustrating. I feel so bad.”

There are several shelters in San Diego that take in migrants released from the border, but they have been filled to capacity every night since September. Border officials began releasing those who didn’t have beds at the shelters to local trolley stations, left to fend for themselves. Several nonprofits have stepped in to help those migrants communicate with loved ones or make travel plans to be with them.

San Diego County funded the nonprofit SBCS to create a travel center to assist these migrants and move them away from the trolley stations.

However, many like Oscar do not pass through the shelters or the travel center.

The grassroots collective We All We Got Mutual Aid found that migrants lacked basic assistance when they arrived at the airport, regardless of whether they’d received help in another location. Its volunteers, along with staff from Immigrant Defenders Law Center, showed up in airport hallways with boxes of food, hygiene products and children’s toys.

“This year, it’s become very clear that we can’t rely on institutions and the government to support us,” said Krystle Johnson of We All We Got. “We have to rely on each other.”

Immigrant Defenders Law Center had hoped to receive some money from San Diego County to continue the work, but so far county officials have only given money to SBCS, formerly known as South Bay Community Services. In the most recent board of supervisors vote, many immigration-related nonprofits lobbied for the money to be distributed among the groups, but the board chose to renew solely with SBCS.

Roni said the support that she and her colleagues provide can be lifesaving. A few days before she met Oscar, Roni found a family whose father was in medical distress while stranded at the airport. She managed to get him to a hospital, where he spent time in the ICU. Without her intervention, she said, she worries that he could’ve died.

On Roni’s final shift, she roamed the check-in areas and hallways of the airport’s two terminals, pausing to ask people if they wanted food and if they had their boarding passes. Roni said many migrants think the confirmation number received via email when a ticket is purchased is all they need to pass through security, and they can get stuck unless someone guides them through the process. She also frequently finds people waiting in the wrong terminal or unaware that they need to get in the security line early in order to make their flights.  

“This year, it’s become very clear that we can’t rely on institutions and the government to support us. We have to rely on each other.” ~ Krystle Johnson, We All We Got Mutual Aid

 Around 7:30 PM, a bus from the SBCS travel center dropped off dozens of migrants. Most didn’t have flights until the next morning. Most had no food and no money.

“This happens all the time,” Roni said. “I’m just worried that once we’re not here, who’s going to help them?

Roni passed out sandwiches, cookies, and water to the group. She explained to each of them that airport security would close for the night and that they would need to get in line at 4 AM in order to be ready for their flights. Asylum seekers from Senegal, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Cuba, and Peru gathered around her to get help printing their boarding passes.

Around 9 PM, she got the message she’d been waiting for: Someone in her group chat was willing to pay for Oscar’s plane ticket. She returned to where he sat in a desolate stretch of hallway between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 and gave him the good news.

“I feel very happy for the support,” Oscar said in Spanish. “I wasn’t expecting it.”

He said his dream for his new life is to learn English and attend culinary school with the hope of opening his own restaurant.

Though Immigrant Defenders staffers are no longer present at the airport, We All We Got continues to distribute food a few hours a day, when volunteers sign up. But, Johnson said, it’s more difficult for them to provide assistance beyond that. She encourages interested community members to get involved by reaching out to the group on social media.

“I think it’s important for people to know how easy it is to get involved in this work,” Johnson said. “The hardest part of this work is people feeling like they have to do everything, and you have to be some superhero person who has the ability to do many different things. It’s really as simple as making a sandwich or as simple as picking someone up.”

Paulina Reyes, an attorney with Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said she hopes that someone—whether from the city, the county, or the airport itself—can put together more permanent infrastructure to help in the long term with migrants stranded at the airport.

Also read: A Dead Cellphone, $27 in Cash and Nowhere to Turn

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