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Inside The San Diego Church Where ICE And Border Patrol Bring Pregnant Women

For years, ICE and Border Patrol dropped off pregnant women at Christ Ministry Center. Now, as a record number of families are overwhelming the border, the church is overcrowded and being shut down.

Posted on April 22, 2019, at 12:00 p.m. ET

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

Immigrants sleep on cots in the Rapid Response Network shelter in San Diego. People generally only stay at the shelter for less than 72 hours, leaving local churches, such as Christ Ministry Center, to fill in the gaps.

SAN DIEGO — Around 2 a.m., about 17 hours after she crossed the border, Rose couldn’t wait any longer. The baby was coming and a cell full of people was not where she wanted to have her child.

She banged on the door. When the officials came she told them what was happening and they brought her to the hospital. When she got there they said she was two centimeters dilated; she was already in labor. Soon after she had a son, a US citizen.

Two days later, as she was recovering from childbirth with a tiny newborn in her arms, the hospital couldn’t keep her there anymore. She couldn’t be taken back to detention in her state; it was February and pouring buckets of rain, an aberration in Southern California — putting her out onto the streets with her newborn could have put them at risk. But she didn’t have any family in the US and had nowhere to tell them she wanted to go. So Customs and Border Protection called up the Christ Ministry Center in San Diego and told them they had another one.

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

Reverend Bill Jenkins

When you walk around the church you can see pregnant women lounging on pews and chairs, cooking with their bellies up against the stove, brand-new mothers nursing newborns on their bunk beds in the makeshift dorms. According to the ministry’s founder and reverend, Pastor Bill Jenkins, 24 babies have been born to women seeking asylum living in the church in the past year — about one every two weeks.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m running a shelter or running a maternity ward,” Jenkins likes to joke.

Christ Ministry Center is the only long-term shelter in San Diego for people seeking asylum, despite the city sitting next to one of the busiest border crossings in the country. Most people crossing the border into the US have a plan for where they will go, but those who don’t, don’t have the money to get there, or need to stay in the area for their court dates end up staying in places like this church shelter or risk ending up living on the streets.

The shelter has a close relationship with CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Jenkins told BuzzFeed News (and ICE and CBP confirmed). From its start the shelter was a place that favored taking in families, but soon it became a place that immigration authorities knew they could drop detained pregnant women and new mothers, especially those with no family or place to go in the US.

“I’m on their speed dial. I’m not kidding you. I am on ICE and Customs and Border Patrol’s speed dial,” Jenkins said, speaking from his office in the church, where a stained glass window depicting Jesus kneeling before a rock in prayer glowed behind his desk. “I get calls sometimes at 2 o’clock in the morning telling me they’re bringing around a new pregnant woman. And we almost always say yes.”

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

A wall at the local Rapid Response shelter, which has seen an increase in guests generally and will have to house more people following the closure of the Christ Ministry Center.

(“Due to the nature of our work as it relates to contacting representatives and local NGOs, some of the ICE supervisors have had the pastor’s direct phone number listed in their phone directory,” an ICE spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in a statement.)

An Obama-era policy prevented ICE from detaining pregnant women, but in December 2017, that policy was repealed by President Donald Trump. As a result, several women told BuzzFeed News in July that they had had miscarriages while in ICE custody and faced other mistreatment that threatened their pregnancies. And the number of women having miscarriages in ICE detention has nearly doubled since Trump took office, the Daily Beast reported, a statistic that medical workers and immigrant rights groups attribute to the higher volume of pregnant women in detention as well as the harsh conditions they often face there. It is still ICE policy to not hold pregnant women in their third trimester “except in extraordinary circumstances” (though there have been several reports of this policy being violated).

In recent months, families have been crossing the border at a higher rate than ever before, and ICE has been emptying out family detention centers into border cities. Similarly, pregnant women — alone or with their partners and other children — are seemingly crossing in higher numbers as well. CBP told BuzzFeed News that it doesn’t have available data on whether more pregnant women have been crossing recently, but immigration lawyers, immigrant rights organizers, and medical workers who work at the border told BuzzFeed News that starting in 2016, they noticed an uptick in the proportion of pregnant women seeking asylum, and definitely an increase in them being detained.

For many who entered the US at the San Ysidro border crossing, less than 20 miles from downtown San Diego, and had nowhere else to go, they’ve ended up here, at Christ Ministry Center. The church and the few other long-term shelters like it in other border cities have already become overwhelmed and overcrowded. That problem is slated to get worse.

In late March, a Border Patrol official told BuzzFeed News that the agency was planning on releasing recently apprehended immigrant families into San Diego, among other border cities. As of last Thursday, 13,200 families crossing the border have been released by ICE into San Diego since the beginning of the year, ICE told BuzzFeed News in an email last week.

“The sheer volume of family units crossing the border has overwhelmed ICE’s limited transportation resources, combined with a requirement to detain these individuals for no more than 20 days, the agency has no option but to expeditiously arrange for their release,” an ICE spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email on April 11. “ICE makes every attempt to coordinate the release of these individuals with NGOs that provide assistance with basic needs, but the heavy influx in recent months has inundated these organizations as well.”

So inundated, in fact, that Christ Ministry Center's shelter is being shut down.

In January, the San Diego fire marshal told the center that its residential areas were overcrowded and not up to code: There were between 50 and 80 people living in spaces meant to fit only a few people and that weren’t designed to be slept in. The building didn’t have sprinklers or fire exits, so if a fire started, the rooms would be a death trap.

The dozens of residents had to be moved out of the apartments immediately; they moved bunk beds into the health clinics and offices in the main building and set up cots in the “social hall” where the kitchen is. The staff started making plans for a full closure for the end of March, when Jenkins said most of the residents would have to move for good.

“The detention facilities are about to burst open, so where are these folks gonna go?”

Despite being overwhelmed, Jenkins and the shelter’s head coordinator, Jimmy Marcelin, said that ICE sending them families and pregnant women is a positive thing.

“Any way you look at it, [detaining pregnant women] is mistreatment,” Marcelin said. “If you have pregnant women inside the detention cell for at least two, three days without [enough] food, without showers, without proper hygiene, it hurts the baby. You know, some of them I have to rush them to the hospital [to give birth] when they get here.” The births are often premature, Marcelin said.

Throughout the week the shelter was closing, staff expressed angst at what would happen to the apparent influx of asylum-seekers in their absence.

“The detention facilities are about to burst open, so where are these folks gonna go?” Jenkins said in his Mississippi accent. “And the fact we’re closing this shelter down, we’ve got to find another way to make up for those beds and even expand to a greater capacity. We just have to.”

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

Rooms abandoned by refugee families who were forced to move out of the Safe Harbors Network shelter at Christ Ministry Center.

Christ Ministry Center’s small, Spanish-style church and shelter is located roughly 20 minutes from the busy San Ysidro border crossing. The church is home to three single-room medical clinics, which help treat pregnant and postpartum women released from ICE and CBP custody. They share the space with more than a dozen congregations that hold services for different denominations in a variety of languages within the cramped quarters of the church. Most days music is coming from one of the two chapels, and asylum-seekers filter in and out of the large, cool rooms, attending services or listening to the songs.

Twelve of the shelter’s remaining residents, all pregnant or mothers of babies and young kids, spoke with BuzzFeed News during the week of transition at the shelter. Most of them said that they did not know where they were going next, weren’t sure when they officially had to leave, and were scared or upset about being pushed out of this place they had lived for weeks or months.

“We don’t know where we’re going to go,” a resident of the shelter told BuzzFeed News while cooking a stew in the large kitchen of a neighboring church.

She was there with five other women, laughing, talking, and cooking food for the whole shelter, sauce bubbling on the large industrial stove. Two of the women chopped vegetables rhythmically by the large, bright windows; three were elbow-deep in large pots of delicious-smelling pork, marinated the way they said they used to do it in Haiti.

“No one has told us much, and we are worried because we have small kids,” one of the women, a 33-year-old named Fleury, said, gesturing toward the row of children. Her kids were 7 and 2 years old, she said. At one point during her long trip to cross into the US, she walked for seven days holding her youngest child in her arms. He is getting bigger by the week now — too big to do that again.

The women told BuzzFeed News their kids had made friends since they’d moved into the Christ Ministry Center and they had managed to find a community of other people from their countries in the same situation as them. Some of them had distant relatives they didn’t want to rely on for help, but others, like Rose, said they had no family in the US at all.

“I’m scared because I don’t have anyone,” Rose, a 38-year-old with fuchsia-tipped curls, told BuzzFeed News, her tiny newborn asleep in her arms. “I must leave by March 31, but I still don’t know where I’m going. There are people here that have family and they are going there, but that’s not my case.”

“I can’t sleep at night,” she added, tears coming to her eyes. “Sometimes I feel crazy, like I walk with no direction.”

One woman, who asked not to be named, was in her third trimester of pregnancy and said she was worried about what would happen if she had to leave the shelter with nowhere to go before she gave birth. Another, Charienne Noèl, was only a few months pregnant when she crossed, but came with her 14-year-old and 9-year-old. Noèl was not detained, but wanted to find a steady living situation before she had her third child.

“We won’t kick these women onto the streets,” Marcelin told BuzzFeed News. “They’re women with small children; we can’t. We’ll find a place.”

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

A baby bottle in the Safe Harbors shelter at Christ Ministry Center and a wall of thank-you and encouragement notes at the Rapid Response Network shelter in San Diego.

As the women cooked, discussing the food in Creole, their kids sat in rows on the countertops, swinging their legs, eating arepas, and chatting in Spanish tinged with Haitian accents. The families had been living and traveling in Spanish-speaking countries for so long before reaching the US that some of the kids had only known Central or South America as their home. For most of them, Spanish had become their go-to language, even when surrounded by fellow Haitians.

All the women at the church who agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News were from Haiti, but generally the shelter’s population was about 30% Haitian, 30% South and Central American, 30% West African, and 10% Russian and Ukrainian, Jenkins said. The residents are wary of American strangers, even new volunteers working to help with the move, because of a group that the staff have begun to refer to as “the haters.”

Taped up all over the shelter were printed-out pictures from the social media accounts of a woman and a man (one selfie and one of them together, Instagram filters turning their eyes into hearts). These were two of “the haters”: anti-immigrant protesters who show up to the shelter and walk right in, the staff said, videotaping the asylum-seekers and posting the videos online for their thousands of followers. “The haters” often claim the shelter’s residents are in the country illegally and living off their tax dollars, the staff said. (All the residents of the shelter are legally seeking asylum, and the shelter does not receive local or federal funding.) Some “haters” have even physically vandalized shelter property or the lawns of pastors associated with the church, Ginger Jacobs, an immigration attorney who works with the church, told BuzzFeed News.

Marcelin showed BuzzFeed News the Facebook profiles of some of the most active “haters.” In one post, a woman stood outside the gates calling the refugees “invaders” and referring to an “infestation.” One man wrote about the shelter on his Facebook page, saying, “If you need to shoot an immigrant, go here.”

The threats echo the kind of violence and racism that many of the women said led them to the US and Christ Ministry Center in the first place.

All the women who spoke to BuzzFeed News traveled for months, through up to eight countries, by boat, bus, and by foot, sometimes walking through the night with their young children, paying guides money wired to them by friends and family, often not knowing where they would go next or how long they would be traveling for.

Oselie Franely, a 35-year-old mother of two young children, like many of the other women, said she fled Haiti after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, and ended up in Venezuela. Others said they, along with tens of thousands of displaced Haitians, went to Brazil where their husbands worked to help construct the Olympic stadiums for low wages.

In the past few years, as the political and economic turmoil in those countries came to a head, the families started to plan to flee again. As immigrants in Brazil and Venezuela, they experienced racism, violence, and persecution, the women told BuzzFeed News. For many, it was impossible to find work, they didn’t have enough to eat, and they started feeling targeted by gangs and police.

“They were all racist in Venezuela, all racist.” Franely told BuzzFeed News. She said her neighbors would try to steal their food and money all day and night, “Only because I was black.”

“They scared me at night,” she said. “They started scaring my kids too. So we left.”

Franely, and three of the other women who spoke to BuzzFeed News, had only arrived in the US after the shelter announced it was closing.

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

A room that houses many refugee women and children in the Safe Harbors shelter at Christ Ministry Center.

The church sheltered its first refugees almost 10 years ago. A Haitian band that had angered their government with a music video questioning killings by police fled to the US and found the church, seeking refuge and a place to play and worship. Jenkins took them in, and lead singer–turned-pastor Jean Elise Durandisse started up the Haitian Methodist Ministry, now the church’s primary congregation. About a year later, when the earthquake hit, he and his bandmates worked with Jenkins to take in those fleeing and help send resources back home.

Over time, more and more immigrants seeking asylum showed up at Christ Ministry Center’s doors. By the spring of 2016, the number of refugees seeking asylum at the church began to quickly increase from dozens to hundreds to thousands. Shelter staff told BuzzFeed News the immigrants were telling their friends crossing the border to put Christ Ministry Center down as their sponsor and tell ICE they were going there. Durandisse and Marcelin both said they had been told by shelter residents that people were writing the shelter’s name and address in public bathrooms on the common smuggling route across Central and South America taken by Haitian migrants.

“ICE would bring two or three buses a day, at least 200 people a day for months,” Marcelin said about the summer of 2016. They would sleep on the pews in the church and on the stage in the social room.

Just before the 2016 presidential election, the influx slowed down. Former president Barack Obama had ended Haitians’ protected status in the US, enabling their deportation for the first time since the earthquake, and the shelter started seeing fewer refugees — but a larger proportion from other countries — come through.

During that time, Christ Ministry Center was one of the only shelters or churches taking in migrants in the whole city. Since then, Jenkins has formed the Safe Harbors Network, a nonprofit organization that connects with other churches and private homes to help house immigrants who have nowhere to go and need long-term shelter, but cannot work until their asylum claims are processed. Those places usually only accept one or two families at a time, however.

By the week the shelter was supposed to close, there were only a few dozen shelter residents left.

There was a rush to transfer those remaining refugees out of the shelter to safe homes with whatever friends and families they had in the US. Some of them had finally gotten in touch with distant relatives they hadn’t managed to reach before, or decided to reach out to people they had resisted calling because they didn’t want to be a burden on them. Multiple times a day, shelter staff members would poke their heads into one another’s offices and ask permission to buy plane tickets for more residents to fly to the house of some relatives in another state. Then they’d put them in a cab or take them to the airport in the ministry van.

But for those who had no friends or family in the US or who had to stay in San Diego for their court dates, no one at the shelter really seemed to know what would happen next. And still, immigration authorities kept showing up almost every day, bringing more pregnant women and families seeking shelter.

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

Supplies at the Rapid Response shelter in San Diego.

Jenkins will likely still be getting those calls even after the shelter closes, several members of the staff told BuzzFeed News. Jenkins plans for the church to remain operating as an intake center and provide refugees with aid and food, just not beds.

Jacobs, the attorney who also serves on Safe Harbors’ board, works closely with ICE and CBP. She said they used to regularly collaborate with local NGOs on making sure people released by ICE or CBP on parole had a place to go, but ever-changing, unclear orders from the White House have recently caused a breakdown in the relationship.

“This past winter it seems they threw up their hands and were like, ‘Okay, well we’re not gonna do that social work anymore,’ and just started dumping them onto the streets.”

The majority of asylum-seekers released on parole are under an order of supervision by ICE, Jacobs said, and those orders usually require consistent check-ins with your local ICE office, or notifying ICE if you are changing cities. Shelters usually help asylum-seekers interpret the complicated stack of documents and directions given to them by ICE, which are often not in their language.

“If they’re released onto the streets they’re gonna have a really hard time knowing what’s going on, and could violate the order without realizing it,” she said.

In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News, ICE confirmed the existence of a new policy called the “Yuma Plan”; ICE said it informed local immigration NGOs about the policy in October.

“The plan represented a change in policy due to the high volume of family units continuing to cross the border daily and ICE’s limited detention space for families,” the statement read. “The NGOs at the meeting were advised that ICE would no longer review post-release plans for families apprehended along the southwest border.”

For the incoming wave of families, and anyone the shelter can’t relocate in time for the closure, Jenkins is betting on getting approval from the city to take over a large, remote, up-to-code facility that could potentially sleep more than 400 people. Jenkins asked BuzzFeed News to withhold identifying details on the sites they are considering, due to threats from the “haters.”

However, the week following the original closure date for the shelter, representatives for the city government of San Diego told BuzzFeed News that this location was by no means a sure thing, that they had only just received the first of several required application materials from the shelter, and that they could not say how long the application and transfer process could take.

Another, closer space— a decrepit, echoey, and strangely carpeted indoor basketball court belonging to an affiliated church — was also an option, but they still needed approval from the fire marshal to start making renovations to section it off, soundproof it, and make it fit for dozens of people to sleep in.

It was clear: There was mounting risk that these pregnant women and families with tiny infants would find themselves living on the street.

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

Refugees’ belongings stored at Christ Ministry Center.

By April, the date the shelter was supposed to close had come and gone, and dozens of the shelter’s residents, including Rose, were still there. Stacks of plastic bags and suitcases lined the wall of the back alley of the church, and mothers spent much of the day unpacking and repacking them, trying to find clothes or toys for their kids.

In a phone call with government staff for the city of San Diego in early April, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, Robert Vacchi, told BuzzFeed News that the shelter in fact had until May to close the shelter. Jenkins told BuzzFeed News that they chose to try to close the shelter a month early in order to “force the situation,” to get other churches and shelters to step up to help, but also to make sure they had enough time to sort out where everyone was going to go.

“We were gonna have to close down sooner or later, we just chose to close them sooner, to bite the bullet now, and in some ways force the situation, you know what I’m saying?” Jenkins said in his office, the day after the shelter’s supposed closing date. “We forced the issue. On both ourselves and the city. You know, ‘Hey, these folks are going to the streets if something doesn’t happen.’”

When asked if he thought that was dangerous, he said yes.

“Very dangerous. And inhumane. Which goes against everything I’ve fought for the past 50 years and in ministry, but what else can you do,” he responded, sounding more subdued than he had at the beginning of the week. “There comes a point where I have to look out for the welfare of what’s going on in this building. The fire marshal could close down the whole building, not just the immigrant part of it. There are 12 congregations here, there are three medical clinics here, there’s a food ministry here. All those could be affected.”

Just then, Durandisse knocked on the door, saying he had managed to get in touch with some distant relatives for one of the families and was hoping the shelter could buy them a plane ticket to go live with them. Jenkins approved the purchase, then sat back and sighed, looking at his hands.

“Yeah. So they’re going to be in a better place,” Jenkins said quietly. “I think we’re going to land well. I have a feeling we’re going to have a soft landing on this.”●

Jessica Bal for BuzzFeed News

Normal Heights United Church in San Diego, a church near Christ Ministry Center, which is part of the Safe Harbors Network.

Adolfo Flores contributed reporting from El Paso, Texas.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice in the Americas program.

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