San Diego County could become a destination for tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrants to be housed indefinitely by the U.S. Government, under the zero-tolerance policy implemented by President Donald Trump.
According to a report published Friday afternoon by Time magazine, military leaders are drawing up plans to create a tent city at Camp Pendleton to detain as many as 47,000 illegal immigrants from Central America and other locations over the coming months.
The facility at Camp Pendleton would be one of multiple temporary detention centers designated to house immigrants making their way into the United States.
According to an internal memo obtained by Time magazine, the U.S. Navy has been directed to establish “temporary and austere” encampments on military installations in Alabama, Arizona, and California that each could host tens of thousands of detainees.
The document, prepared by an assistant secretary for approval by Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, suggests construction could begin at one site within 60 days. The structures would be designed to last for six months to one year, Time magazine reported.
The memo has not yet been approved by Spencer or Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the report said.
The plans detailed in the internal document match the executive order Trump signed earlier this week in response to growing political pressure to halt the separation of parents and children crossing the southern border illegally.
The order does not end the Trump administration zero-tolerance program that aims to prosecute all illegal border crossings. Rather, it calls for families to be housed together in detention facilities instead of separated while parents go through both the criminal court system for illegal entry and then immigration proceedings after that.
The order says immigration courts should prioritize detained-family cases, but it will still likely take longer than the 20 days the government is currently allowed to hold children in detention, even if they are held with their families.
Officials at Camp Pendleton said they know nothing about a temporary immigrant-housing project.
“Camp Pendleton is unaware of any plan to house detainees on our base at this time,” Capt Luke Weaver said in a statement. “Contact DoD Office of the Secretary of Defense public affairs for information on this subject.”
The Time magazine report quoted a U.S. Navy spokesman saying it would be inappropriate to discuss internal deliberative planning documents.
The detainment plan estimates the Navy would spend more than $230 million to build and run a single facility serving 25,000 people for a six-month term.
According to a Government Accountability Office report published in April, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office requested $3.6 billion in 2018 funding to pay for immigrant housing -- $1 billion more than the amount of funds requested the prior year.
The GAO report recommended several recommendations aimed at improving ICE’s cost estimates and making sure the budget documents are accurate.
The ICE budget for 2019 proposes a nearly 33 percent increase in the average daily count for unauthorized immigrants, from about 38,000 in 2017 to more than 51,000 this year.
Advocates who work with San Diego immigrant communities were stunned by the Time magazine report.
Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee San Diego office, said he had been hearing rumblings about new detention centers but never expected Camp Pendleton to be selected.
“I think it’s a mistake to suggest that housing families in austere temporary Navy bases is a solution to the humanitarian needs of people seeking asylum,” he said Friday. “The possibility that families will be held indefinitely is a clear violation of human rights standards.”
Elizabeth Lopez, an immigration attorney with the Southern California Immigration Project, worried about what this might mean for court hearings and what services the detention facilities would have.
"First off, I doubt the government is going to transport them to court, so they will have to build video conference rooms to be able to have hearings," she said. "Secondly, it is going to be a nightmare to allow the attorneys on to Pendleton to visit our clients."
Lopez also said she was concerned about the level of medical care migrants would receive while being detained.
Immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs said, “I am also concerned about the extremely high expense of these camps. It looks like it would take approximately $500 million to house people at Camp Pendleton for only a six month time period. That is an enormous waste of government resources. It would be far less expensive to allow the asylum-seekers to live in their own communities with GPS monitor ankle bracelets on, so ICE can keep track of their whereabouts.”
Peter K. Nunez, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California and board chair of a conservative think tank, said he favors erecting as many different detention spaces in as many different places as needed in order to enforce the law.
“There was a time back in the Clinton administration when they started using military facilities to detain people, so it's not a new idea,” he said. “They have to be treated humanely, but that doesn't mean they have to be put up in a five-star hotel.
“If they can create temporary detention facilities at Camp Pendleton or any other military base that are adequate to the housing needs, then certainly we can do that," he said.
According to the Time report, a similar tent city would be established at the former Naval Weapons Station Concord, east of San Francisco. It too would be constructed to hold as many as 47,000 people.
Other facilities that are expected to house 25,000 immigrants would be established at abandoned airfields outside Mobile, Alabama. The memo also proposes studying the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona. as a possible site for an additional immigrant detention center.
The arrival and housing of tens of thousands of immigrants at Camp Pendleton would not be a first for the military base that buffers between San Diego and the Greater Los Angeles area.
In April 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the first of 50,000 or more refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos began arriving at Camp Pendleton for processing before they were resettled to other parts of Southern California and beyond.
The temporary quarters closed by November of the same year.
©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.