Floor plan of rejected youth-shelter project
Mayor Sam Abed, feeling the pressure of the American Civil Liberties Union speaking in favor of an immigrant youth shelter in Escondido, accused the ACLU of discriminating against his city's residents.
"They are here to attack the civil rights of Escondido," Abed declared at the city council meeting on October 16. "It's unprecedented aggression on local governments. They should be able to make their own land-use decisions."
Abed made those comments before the council voted 4-1 to uphold the city planning commission's votes in June and July to reject the facility — a vote that seemed to run against their own staff report.
Southwest Key, a nonprofit, contracts with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to run about a dozen immigrant youth shelters in Texas, Arizona, and California, including two in Lemon Grove and El Cajon. They applied for a conditional use permit to convert a vacant nursing-care facility to a 96-bed shelter; the location is about two miles southwest of the Valley Parkway exit off the I-15.
The ACLU took up the cause when the planning commission rejected the proposal in June — legal director David Loy noting that the ACLU has a history with Escondido, including fighting a 2006 ban on renting to illegal immigrants and fighting for the First Amendment right to protest and record the police in 2012.
The proposed shelter for the Central American kids is a hot-button issue — at least 80 people spoke during public comment, while another 200 people gathered outside and demonstrated both for and against the facility.
At the meeting, the majority of councilmembers voted to support the neighbors of the building who worried about parking, noise, crime, property values, and disease. They voted against granting a use permit that would have brought $8 million a year in federal contracts and an estimated 100 new jobs to the city — along with up to 96 mostly Central American kids who came into the U.S. illegally and would be awaiting their day in immigration court.
Patricia Del Rio, who lives in the neighborhood near where Valley Parkway and Del Dios Road intersect, challenged the shelter advocates' contention that it would not hurt property values.
"I know that Southwest Key likes to say they have not affected property values, but have they looked at property values in high-value areas? — our homes are worth $600,000," Del Rio said. "It doesn't fit with our schools, our gated communities, our upscale properties."
While the staff report found the shelter would be "similar in operation" to the care facility, local residents vehemently disagreed. "I don't want 96 17-year-old boys that can run to my house in a couple of seconds to live that close to my [two-year-old] daughter," Josh Bliesath said. "They can have little girls or young boys, but not 17-year-old boys near my daughter."
Residents who favored the project blasted the city for what they saw as the underlying motivation.
"It is a shame that our city representatives perpetuate this racism," said Escondido resident Lilian Serrano. "The problem is not about land use. It's about who's using it.”
Serrano pointed out that residents don't complain when the facility’s empty parking lot is used for driver checkpoints. Many in favor of the facility spoke about the violence and degradation the Central American kids are fleeing from and urged compassion. Some spoke about the city's need for jobs and tax revenue.
Escondido resident Laura Hunter liked the idea of jobs and additional taxes paid but said she spoke with her heart. "We do not any of us live in isolation," Hunter said. "The America I want to live in leads with compassion; the city I want to live in leads with compassion."
Others who opposed it talked about immigration policy — with Raymond Herrera declaring that "The American government now works hand-in-hand with the drug cartels to bring illegal immigrant children to America. We should be talking about getting our United States Marine [Andrew Tahmooressi] out of Mexico."
At the end of the meeting, councilmembers Michael Morasco, Ed Gallo, John Masson, and Abed voted to stand with the planning commission in rejecting the youth shelter.
"It does not mean Escondido is cold-hearted. It does not mean Escondido is racist," Morasco said. "There are so many ways to satisfy this need, but not this facility and not this neighborhood."
Dissenting councilmember Olga Diaz explained her vote by going over the city planning staff report that notes the police had no concerns, health experts had no concerns, and that the number of employees and traffic to the facility would probably be less than when it was a skilled nursing home — at worst, about the same. Her vote might cost her reelection, she observed.
"Am I going to die on this hill? I might," she said. "But I am not going to vote against my conscience."