Migrants seeking asylum in the United States are being temporarily housed at the Ramada hotel at Barbara Worth Country Club in Holtville as a quarantine measure for potential COVID-19 exposure. Several could be seen congregating outside their rooms. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
HOLTVILLE — As uncertain as the future may seem for Cuban brothers and asylum seekers Reynaldo Marquéz Giniebra and Marco Antonio Marquéz Giniebra, both maintain they will never see Cuba again.
That’s because the brothers’ opposition to the political regime in Cuba is so strong that both suggested they would rather to take their own lives than to be deported back to their homeland.
The brothers spoke while they stood in the doorway to their hotel room on Saturday, April 3, at the Ramada by Wyndham Hotel at the Barbara Worth Country Club outside Holtville, where they and more than 150 other asylum seekers and migrants were temporarily being housed.
Listening to the brothers, one gets the sense that their return to Cuba could potentially subject them to further political persecution, arbitrary incarceration, and unemployment, as they said they have been for most of their adult lives.
Whether they are granted political asylum depends entirely on the case they present during their pending immigration court hearings in the United States, which they both said they have every intention of attending once they are reunited with family members in Miami.
“I didn’t come here to hide,” the 52-year-old Reynaldo said in Spanish. “I will present myself in court and explain my situation.”
The Ramada Hotel Opens its Doors
The brothers were placed at the hotel through a contract that the resort owner signed last month with the California Department of Social Services to temporarily house asylum seekers and migrants who are in the process of being reunited with family and sponsors outside of the county, a county official reported.
The housing of migrants at the Holtville hotel has resulted from an increased number of migrants being apprehended at the border by U.S. Border Patrol, as well as the inability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain subjects, a local Border Patrol official said.
New guidelines limiting the distance that federal immigration officials can transport subjects who are released from custody also is contributing to the number of migrants being temporarily housed in the Valley and transported elsewhere, sources said.
Starting April 17, the Ramada hotel is scheduled to start serving as the sole temporary lodging for migrants awaiting to be reunited with family and sponsors elsewhere, said Gilbert Rebollar, with the County Executive Office’s Joint Information Center.
Currently, the county, with the assistance of various state agencies and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), is operating a Quarantine and Isolation Shelter (QIS) at Imperial Valley College. The QIS temporarily houses migrants who have tested positive for COVID-19 after their release from the custody of immigration officials.
The state’s agreement with Barbara Worth Country Club owner Eddie Mejorado will allow for the transition of the QIS’s functions to the Ramada hotel, Rebollar said in an email on Tuesday, April 6.
“The demobilization of the QIS at IVC is expected to begin in the coming days,” he said.
Imperial County Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Kelley said on Tuesday in a text message that the resort’s hotel appeared to be the only local venue temporarily housing migrants amid the reported surge.
Previously, Mejorado said that providing shelter for the vulnerable immigrants was the right thing to do, personally and professionally speaking.
When contacted for comment on April 1, Mejorado said he was not at liberty to disclose details of the hotel’s agreement with the state, or whether additional housing, such as tents, would be erected at the resort grounds to temporarily house migrants.
Quick, Coordinated and Unsustainable Response
The temporary housing of the migrants locally appears to have started on March 23. Two days prior, county officials hosted a meeting between state officials and representatives of local NGOs to determine whether temporary housing and assistance for migrants could be readily made available.
Officials had requested at least 100 rooms, prompting attendee Margaret Sauza, Sure Helpline Crisis Center executive director, to call Barbara Worth golf resort owner Mejorado to inquire if the resort’s hotel had the capacity to host such a number. Mejorado responded that it could.
When Sauza then told the meeting’s attendees that she had secured the rooms, many expressed astonishment and relief, she said.
With the housing secured, it then fell to Sure Helpline to provide the migrants with some wraparound services, such as coordinating the delivery and distribution of three daily meals and additional onsite COVID-19 testing.
“We have not stopped since then,” Sauza said on April 3, as she coordinated the nonprofit’s efforts from a hotel room at the resort that was serving as the organization’s makeshift office.
Sure Helpline staff has also found itself in the uncomfortable position of constantly reminding the migrants to remain inside their hotel rooms at all times, mostly to help prevent any potential spread of the coronavirus. The admonition is also meant to protect the migrants from any harassment by people who are opposed to their presence.
On Tuesday evening, April 6, some of the migrants could be seen congregating outside their rooms, some wearing masks and some not.
Prior to arriving at the Ramada hotel, migrants that have been apprehended by Border Patrol or released from the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement are transported to the QIS at Imperial Valley College.
At the QIS, migrants are tested for COVID-19, with those who test positive remaining at the site and the rest being transported to other destinations with the assistance of NGOs, the county has reported.
An average of about 50 individuals have been arriving daily at the QIS, Sauza said. Only those who are suspected of having been exposed to COVID-19 while being transported in groups by the Border Patrol are taken to the Ramada hotel, where they remain in isolation for at least seven days, she said.
“They get tested when they arrive (at IVC), they’re getting tested and fed while they’re here (at the hotel), and then they are on their merry way,” Sauza said.
Sauza estimated the three meals alone cost about $6,000 a day to prepare and deliver. Her staff, aided by volunteers, typically will spend a few hours each day distributing the meals to the migrants housed at the hotel.
Sauza said the meals have been prepared and delivered by people associated with the Puerto Nuevo restaurant in Calexico. They have done so without any payment over the last couple weeks, but on good faith that they will be reimbursed, Sauza said.
Nor had Sure Helpline been reimbursed for its efforts as of April 3, although Sauza said she is not overly concerned about the temporary lapse in compensation. State officials had indicated that some $12 million was reportedly available to assist the increased release of immigrants along the border and that some $2.4 million was to go to NGOs, she said.
The situation has proven untenable for the county. On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors voted to send a letter to U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, alerting both senators of the county’s response to the increased number of migrants that are being released locally and to request federal assistance.
“The increased number of arrivals coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have exhausted the local resources we have to aid this population without the federal government providing ongoing infrastructure and resources,” the letter stated.
Of particular concern to the county is the fact that the migrants being released from federal custody are being transported to the IVC QIS without any prior COVID-19 testing or medical screening, creating risks for them and those they encounter.
The county’s letter specifically requests that the federal government establish a COVID-19 testing protocol for those migrants who are being released in the county. It further requests that the federal government establish short-term lodging for the migrants in need of quarantine or isolation as well as those who are not ill or who have not been potentially exposed.
“As we look toward the future and the evolution of immigration policies, we stand ready to continue the dialogue beyond today’s emergent needs, to the infrastructure needed to provide a humane and safe entry to our nation for those seeking to cross the border,” the letter stated.
Border Patrol’s Response to Migrant Surge
The increased number of migrants being apprehended at the border has also placed an added strain on the operations of the El Centro Sector Border Patrol.
On March 31, the sector reported that its Calexico station had encountered a group of 64 undocumented immigrants, which set a single-day record for the largest group apprehension in the sector’s history.
In the 24 hours preceding the sector’s announcement on its Twitter account, the agency reported that a total of 208 immigrants had been detained.
“A new 10-year high for our Sector,” it tweeted.
So many apprehensions affect the agents’ ability to process individuals’ paperwork, and requires more time to provide meals, welfare checks, movement between cells, and roll calls, Supervisory Agent Carlos Pitones stated in an email on Thursday, April 1.
“Larger numbers of apprehensions also increase the possibility of a detainee needing immediate medical attention requiring an agent to transport the subject to a nearby hospital or clinic,” he stated.
Currently, ICE will notify Border Patrol about who they are able to accept into custody, which typically has been most single adults who do not have any medical conditions that ICE is unable to attend to, according to Pitones.
Family units or juveniles are generally not taken into the custody of ICE at the local level, he added.
Family units, which consist of a parent or legal guardian and child, are currently being processed by the Border Patrol via a Notice to Appear (NTA) and released on their Own Recognizance (OR) with assistance from NGOs. A similar NTA/OR will be issued to those single adults who have medical conditions that prevent them from being processed by ICE.
Additionally, unaccompanied children are provided an NTA and referred to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement for placement, Pitones stated.
Because of the recent migrant surge and the inability of ICE to detain subjects, the El Centro Sector has referred an increased number of individuals to NGOs.
And until there is guidance from Border Patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C., the local sector will not be performing COVID testing on those immigrants it apprehends.
“El Centro Sector will continue to work with the county and NGOs as much as possible to minimize the risk of COVID(-positive) subjects being released to the community,” Pitones stated.
A recent change in policy that prohibits immigration officials from transporting migrants beyond a five-mile radius also appears to be contributing to the increased number of migrants being temporarily housed locally and outside the county.
In the past, the Border Patrol would often transport asylum seekers directly to the Galilee Center for temporary housing, said Claudia Castorena, the Mecca-based center’s co-founder and chief financial officer.
Since the federal government’s March 1 change in immigrant transportation policy, shelter personnel have been traveling to the county Mondays through Fridays to pick up individuals released from Border Patrol custody, Castorena said during an April 1, phone interview.
The shelter has a capacity of about 70 people. Lately, migrants released in the Imperial County and transported to the shelter have accounted for about 50 to 70 percent of those housed there, she said.
Typically, the Border Patrol will provide the shelter advance notice of the number of asylum seekers it is processing.
“They’re doing what they can and they’re pretty good about communicating with us,” Castorena said. “They send us basic information ahead of time.”
In contrast, ICE appears to be operating in a more circumspect manner, said Mark Lane, executive director of the Spring Valley-based nonprofit Minority Humanitarian Foundation.
The organization has also been enlisted by local stakeholders to provide transportation out of the county for recently released migrants and is typically in the Valley about three days a week.
“Border Patrol works with some organizations to get people picked up while ICE just drops them off in the middle of the street and walks away,” Lane said during an April 1 phone interview.
He also praised the efforts of local officials during such trying times.
“Imperial County Public Health is doing a superb job, much better than San Diego, with less resources,” Lane said.
Requests for comment regarding its operation amid the apparent migrant surge were not responded to by ICE.
In Search of a Better Life
Prior to the Marquéz brothers’ illegal entry into the United States on March 16 through San Luis Colorado, Sonora, Mexico, the Havana residents had attempted to reach the southern coast of Florida via a boat from Cuba.
The unsuccessful attempt resulted in incarceration, a hefty fine, and being branded political dissidents, yet the attempt further fueled their collective desire to get out of Cuba.
The brothers decided to attempt to enter the U.S. through Mexico for their most recent incursion and present themselves to the authorities rather than risk potential injury or death by trying to avoid detection in the region’s surrounding desert.
“Whatever person wants to come (seek asylum), if they make it this far, they should turn themselves in,” 49-year-old Marco Antonio said. “Why make it more difficult on themselves?”
In the United States, asylum protection is granted to foreign nationals who are either already present in the country or arriving at the border and who meet the international law definition of a “refugee,” the nonprofit, nonpartisan American Immigration Council website reported.
A refugee is defined as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, the latter of which the U.S. is a signatory.
While President Donald Trump had required that migrants seeking asylum at the Southwest border remain in Mexico, creating a backlog of an estimated 70,000 cases, the Biden administration suspended the policy for those newly arriving at the border.
The shift in policy explains how 23-year-old Ecuadorian national Nelly Chimpantiza came to find herself and her 6-year-old daughter at the Ramada hotel in Holtville.
She, too, had turned herself in to the Border Patrol after being smuggled into Calexico. The pair had initially taken a flight from Ecuador to Mexico City, from where they boarded a two-day bus trip to Mexicali.
Chimpantiza said she was “escaping” an abusive partner and domestic situation that also placed her daughter’s life at risk. After seven days of hotel isolation, she said she was looking forward to soon joining her cousin in Brooklyn, New York, as well as the opportunities her daughter could access in America and which were largely unavailable to her in their home country.
“I want to her to have a future,” Chimpantiza said in Spanish, “to work and get ahead.”