ESCONDIDO — The Escondido Planning Commmission on Tuesday unanimously rejected a request by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to open a 96-bed shelter in the city that would serve unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border illegally.
Hundreds of people flooded the commision’s meeting at Escondido City Hall, with most urging the panel to block the plan. During hours of public testimony, speakers blamed President Obama’s immigration policies for a crisis that has prompted the federal government to search out sites for new shelters to house the growing number of children from Central America who have fled to the U.S. without their parents.
Planning Commission Chairman Jeff Weber repeatedly emphasized that, by law, the panel could only consider local land use issues in deciding whether the site — a former nursing home in southwestern Escondido that closed last year — was appropriate for the center.
By a 7-0 vote, the panel ultimately decided against the project, saying it could generate more traffic and noise in the neighborhood.
“This is a use in a suburban neighborhood that would require 24-hour-a-day operation,” Weber said. “Traffic coming and going…this is not a compatible use.”
Officials with Southwest Key Properties, a nonprofit group that would contract with the federal government to operate the center, declined to say after the vote whether they would appeal the commission’s decision to the Escondido City Council. If an appeal is filed, the earliest it would be heard is July 23.
Southwest Key already operates two smaller centers in San Diego County — one in Lemon Grove and the other near El Cajon — that serve unaccompanied minors, as well as several centers elsewhere in California and the U.S.
Alexis Rodriguez, Southwest Key’s vice president of immigrant legal services, told the commission Tuesday night that the facility proposed in Escondido “is not a detention center” and that concerns expressed by neighbors and others are unfounded.
She said virtually none of the children cared for in facilities the company operates have ever “escaped” and none have committed crimes while in their care.
Responding to concerns from neighbors, Rodriguez also said that all children who would be in the center are screened for medical problems first by the Border Patrol when they are taken into custody and then more fully when they are brought to the facility.
Southwest Keys officials said the average stay for a child at the center would be just 21 days.
An overwhelming number of speakers were opposed to the center. Some said they worried about crime, others about a drop in their property values.
Baljit Stoor, the director of the Sikh Society of San Diego which has a temple across the street from the proposed center on Avenida del Diablo, said he worried about the safety of Sikh children who often play in the temple’s parking lot.
There were some speakers who favored the plans. In the middle of the hearing — to the jeers of much of the crowd — a group of about 20 people representing various Latino organizations came to the podium.
“Stand on the side of humanity,” Iris Mendoza urged the commission. Some in her group were children who Mendoza said would soon be deported.
She said the center was about helping children. After their minute to speak was up, the group marched out chanting in Spanish “people united will never be defeated.”
Outside the packed chambers Mendoza said she thinks “it is horrible that people are so biased and hold onto their political beliefs” and ignore the humanitarian needs of kids.
The atmosphere in the chambers was not unlike eight years ago, when the City Council proposed an ordinance that would have punished landlords for renting to undocumented immigrants. The move sparked a fierce divide in Escondido, which has a predominantly Latino population.
The debate over the Escondido facility has been fueled in recent days by radio talk show hosts and conservative bloggers.
Mayor Sam Abed went on record early this week opposing the center as did Councilman Mike Morasco, who said on the radio Tuesday that he would “stand strong” against the federal government.
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