By Charles T. Clark
San Diego County sued the Trump administration Wednesday, challenging in federal court its decision to end the so-called "safe release" policy for asylum seekers last October.
Under "safe release" or "coordinated release" Immigration and Customs Enforcement helped people seeking asylum to connect with sponsors around the country and to reach their final destinations, where they would wait for the legal asylum process to play out.
The Trump administration abruptly ended "safe release" in late October, leaving thousands of migrants all but stranded in San Diego County. ICE said at the time that the growing numbers of families arriving along the southwest border rendered them unable to maintain the program.
The county filed suit in federal court against the administration and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, alleging they violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act by abruptly ending "safe release" without proper notice. The lawsuit said the government "failed to articulate a reasonable explanation for their actions."
The suit also claims that the action violated the Fifth Amendment by forcing San Diego County to spend money to deal with the ramifications of the program's end. And the suit requests an injunction to require the federal government to resume safe release.
Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors said in a statement that the county has already spent more than $1.3 million addressing health and safety issues related to assisting asylum-seekers.
"That figure is ballooning by the day," she said." We are asking the court to require the feds to reinstate the Safe Release program and not leave local governments, non-profits and taxpayers holding the bag."
She said the lawsuit isn't about broad immigration issues or border security.
After safe release ended, a coalition of groups called the San Diego Rapid Response Network set up a shelter to temporarily house asylum-seeking families while helping them get to their destination.
The shelter was forced to change locations several times but in January the county allowed them to use an old vacant courthouse downtown as a shelter until the end of the year. The county has also provided staff to conduct health screening assessments at the shelter in effort to protect public health.
Michael Hopkins of Jewish Family Service, one of the lead organizations with the network, recently said the shelter has helped more than 11,000 migrants who have been released into the U.S.
The lawsuit seeks the federal government to reimburse the county for its expenses and to restore the services provided under safe release.
"The prior policy treated asylum seekers with care and dignity and helped to prevent a dramatic increase in the county's homeless population and accompanying public health concerns and related costs and expenditures," the suit states. "With the sudden and unlawful change or end to the policy, the county ... was left to respond to the immediate and continuing fallout of Defendants' arbitrary and capricious actions."
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said in a statement that he hopes other jurisdictions will join the lawsuit.
The county board of supervisors voted 4-1 in February to pursue legal action with Supervisor Kristin Gaspar casting the lone vote against.
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