Hundreds of migrants have recently crossed the U.S-Mexico border into Riverside County — many of them fleeing violent and dangerous situations in their home countries.
After days of interrogation at a nearby border patrol station, those that can provide proof that their lives are in danger in their home countries are conditionally approved as “asylum seekers” and assisted by the county.
After being granted asylum-seeking status and getting tested for COVID-19, the migrants are housed temporarily. Those with a positive COVID-19 test are put up in local motels to quarantine. Those that are negative, are brought to various valley nonprofits or organizations to receive food and shelter before continuing with their journey.
The Galilee Center in Mecca welcomes asylum seekers almost daily.
“Many of them have not eaten for days. They come with what they are wearing and for many, that’s their only possession,” said Claudia Castorena, co-founder, Galilee Center.
Castorena says most asylum seekers stay at the center for only a couple of days.
“I came from Venezuela. I’m looking for what all immigrants come looking for. Which is stability for myself and for my family,” said Marta Celedon, a 26-year-old asylum seeker housed temporarily at the Galilee Center.
Celedon shares she recently graduated as an attorney in Venezuela. But with political violence and instability reaching explosive levels in recent months, she fled.
“I want to reach my goals and have my family be well,” she said.
She says her mother and sister also escaped. She’s hoping they all reunite with family in Orlando, Florida. They’ll stay there until a judge formally hears their case and decides whether they can stay in the U.S. or have to return to Venezuela.
“Life is really hard in Cuba,” said Hector Leonel Nuñez Lamaru, another asylum seeker staying at the center.
For Lamaru, his ultimate destination is Miami. His goal? “To work really hard to bring my family too…to take my family out of Cuba.”
He says his mother, wife and three children are still in Cuba. After his difficult 14 month journey, he says the Galilee Center was the first place to welcome him, offering refuge and kindness.
“It’s been the best thing that has happened to me since I started my journey,” he said.
Each asylum seeker at the Galilee Center is offered a place to sleep, a hot shower and three meals per day.
The center helps connect them with family or sponsors they can stay with while they wait for their court date that will decide their fate.
Fernando Ruiz and his family shared with News Channel 3’s Madison Weil that they’re trying to reach relatives in New York. The four of them traveled from Ecuador.
“It became very dangerous to be over there,” he said.
Ruiz says his family lived close to a prison. When riots broke out back in February, inmates escaped.
“A lot of prisoners escaped and arrived at our neighborhood and they started stealing the kids...trafficking the kids,” said Ruiz.
He says his family’s journey to the U.S. took them twenty days. They were held at a border patrol station for three.
“They put us into those rooms and we had to sleep on the floor with those blankets made out of aluminum,” said his daughter.
“That was the saddest, hardest part,” added his wife.
“I want safety for my children,” said Ruiz. “For my family to be stable. I’m hoping for a better future for them. And I know we’re going to reach it here with the help of God.”
Their family is just one example of the more than 1,000 asylum seekers that Riverside County has helped so far this year. The county spent $242,000 helping in March alone.
The pandemic is partly blamed for ballooning the costs in comparison with previous years (the county says the costs are significantly higher this time due to the need for motel room accommodations for those who need to isolate or quarantine).
However, this year’s numbers are also impacted by a recent policy change.
“Now with the new Biden administration and the change in policy, the message travels fast,” said Castorena.
The Biden administration recently got rid of a policy enacted under former President Trump which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico or other countries for their court dates.
“More and more people are thinking right now is the time,” she explained.
The Galilee Center expects the number of asylum seekers to rise in the coming months. Meanwhile the federal government has promised to help reimburse costs here in Riverside County.