An ACLU lawsuit filed on May 18th against the city of Escondido brings Allegations of racial discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment over its refusal to allow a temporary residential facility for undocumented children operate in various parts of the city. Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit that contracts with the federal government to house unaccompanied minors who had been arriving in the U.S. from Central America in droves, has been trying unsuccessfully to establish a facility in Escondido since February 2014. The Texas-based company accuses the city of obstructing the effort by “manipulating the land use process, amending zoning code and unjustifiably refusing to grant necessary permits,” the lawsuit states. The complaint, filed in San Diego federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the nonprofit, is the latest action highlighting long-simmering tensions when it comes to the illegal immigration issue in Escondido, a city with a predominately Latino population.
Local ACLU spokeswoman Anna Castro said much of the city’s discussions surrounding the project focused on concerns about the character of the neighborhood, health, crime and opinions blasting federal immigration policy. “It seems these were feelings of discrimination and xenophobia that contributed ultimately to the denial of housing for unaccompanied children,” Castro said. The city is being sued on claims of violating federal and state fair housing laws and violating the Supremacy Clause, which holds that a city cannot restrict or prohibit the operations of the federal government in its territory.
Mayor Sam Abed, a vocal critic of illegal immigration who spoke out repeatedly against the project, said the city will be “strongly” defending its position. “We are very confident we have done the right thing, and everything that has been done was purely a land-use decision,” he said in an interview. Southwest Key reached out to the city last year in hopes of opening its third facility in San Diego County, due to increasing demand for housing for unaccompanied minors fleeing the violence and poverty of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The proposed facility would have housed up to 96 children, who would likely have stayed an average of 27 days while their immigration status is sorted out. Undocumented children who arrive at the U.S. border alone are allowed special rights under federal law, which calls for them to be housed in facilities such as the kind Southwest Key offers. They include access to health care, education, recreation, legal services and 24-hour supervision.
Southwest Key first identified a site where motels used to operate but was thwarted by zoning regulations. Southwest Key then found the former home of a skilled nursing facility that had operated for years on Avenida del Diablo on the city’s southwest side and had recently closed. The project would also need a conditional use permit to proceed in the residential zone. A Planning Commission report noted the facility would likely have similar impact on the neighborhood as the nursing home did, would create about 90 new jobs and have an operating budget of up to $7 million in federal money. The report did not note any major adverse impact to the area, the lawsuit claims.