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Like the Ramada hotel at the Barbara Worth Country Club in Holtville, the Travelodge in El Centro off Cottonwood Circle is functioning as a quarantine and isolation site for asylum seekers released from federal custody who are either COVID positive or who have been exposed. Both the Travelodge and Ramada in Holtville are being run by Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego, under a contract with the state. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Sure Helpline Trades Barbs Over Migrant Sheltering

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HOLTVILLE — After three weeks of what has often been physically and emotionally demanding work, Sure Helpline Crisis Center staff find themselves on the sidelines of a humanitarian initiative many credit them for having facilitated when no other nongovernmental organization was able to step forward. 

The nonprofit’s break from its past efforts was prompted by an apparent falling out with the California Department of Social Services, the agency responsible for contracting with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide wraparound services for migrants who are being released into the county.

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 on Tuesday evening, April 6. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

On one side, the state Department of Social Services (DSS) is alleging that El Centro-based Sure Helpline staff “abruptly stopped providing services” at the Ramada by Wyndham Hotel at the Barbara Worth Country Club, requiring DSS personnel to step in and fill in the gaps.

On the other side, Sure Helpline Executive Director Margaret Sauza has claimed that a DSS official assigned to the site had verbally mistreated her and some staff members, and that the agency did not provide any meaningful assistance to the nonprofit, despite it having initially enabled and sustained the expansive humanitarian effort.

She also alleged that DSS never had any intention of awarding the wraparound service contract to Sure Helpline. The agency disclosed that that contract was ultimately awarded to Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego.

The allegations against Sure Helpline detract from what some say otherwise would have been a significant accomplishment by the local nonprofit in response to the influx of migrants that are being released into the county by federal immigration officials.

And despite the unfavorable outcome for Sure Helpline, Sauza said she remains proud of her staff’s tireless efforts.  

“I’ve always wanted to prove to the county that I got the people and that I can do it,” Sauza said during a phone interview on Tuesday, April 13.

That feeling of validation stems in part from Sure Helpline having in the past been overlooked for local and state grants that have traditionally gone to other NGOs like WomanHaven, A Center for Family Solutions, and Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego.

Allegations of Unprofessionalism

Sauza denied the allegation that her staff abandoned the work that they had been undertaking seven days a week on behalf of the more than 150 migrants housed at the Ramada hotel since March 23.

Her staff had arrived at the site the morning of Saturday, April 10 to find additional state personnel not only performing the work that Sure Helpline had been doing, but effectively ignoring the nonprofit’s staff members and volunteers, Sauza said.

The reported slight proved to be too much for Sauza, who claimed she had been subjected to verbal mistreatment by a DSS employee in the days prior to April 10. Wanting to avoid any further incidents and disregard, she directed her staff to gather their belongings and leave that day.

A Sure Helpline Crisis Center employee displays some of the donated items that the nonprofit has received to distribute to migrant children housed at the Ramada hotel at the Barbara Worth County Club in Holtville. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO

“They are feeling like they were betrayed,” Sauza said about her staff’s reaction to the sudden end of their humanitarian efforts.

However, Sauza’s version of events contrasts with what DSS is claiming took place.

“On Saturday (April 10) Sure Helpline, the Non-Governmental Organization assisting with intake and transportation at the Quarantine and Isolation Site at the Ramada, abruptly stopped providing services, leaving the state to step in and fill the gaps,” said DSS spokesperson Scott Murray in an email on Tuesday, April 13.

At the time of the separation, Sure Helpline had an application for funding pending with DSS. Murray further explained that DSS “was in close communication and actively providing detailed technical assistance to the Sure Helpline for consideration as a contracting partner.” 

If the state was providing Sure Helpline with any assistance, it wasn’t visible to Luis Olmedo, executive director of the nonprofit environmental justice organization Comite Civico del Valle.

Olmedo said he had visited the hotel last week to provide technical assistance to Sure Helpline. He was expecting to see state officials attempting to build local capacity to meet the demands of the evolving situation, but instead claimed to have seen a state DSS employee making demands of Sure Helpline staff in an “adversarial” manner.

“We did see some things that were questionable,” Olmedo said in a phone interview on Monday, April 12. “It almost seemed confrontational and personal.”

Just as troubling for Olmedo is what he perceived to be a complete lack of support for Sure Helpline from the state. Specifically, Olmedo questioned why medical resources and personnel that were assigned to the Quarantine and Isolation Shelter at Imperial Valley College were never deployed to the Ramada hotel to assist Sure Helpline.

“That’s very peculiar to me,” he said, “and I want answers.”

Like the Ramada hotel at the Barbara Worth Country Club in Holtville, the Travelodge in El Centro off Cottonwood Circle is functioning as a quarantine and isolation site for asylum seekers released from federal custody who are either COVID positive or who have been exposed. Both the Travelodge and Ramada in Holtville are being run by Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego, under a contract with the state. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

What Olmedo said he had observed prompted him to make a formal complaint with the state in the hopes that it investigates the actions of the DSS employee serving as the agency’s representative at the hotel, as well as the apparent lack of personnel and resource deployment from the IVC QIS, which is scheduled to cease operations on Friday, April 16.

As for whether the state intends to deploy the resources it has at the IVC QIS, DSS spokesperson Murray said the state is closely monitoring the evolving situation.

“Such details are not available at this time,” he said.

The IVC QIS had been established at around the same time that the state began housing migrants at the Ramada hotel at the Barbara Worth Country Club. The state’s agreement with the golf resort was made through its Department of General Services. The agency has also contracted for similar services with the Travelodge by Wyndham, located at 2015 Cottonwood Circle in El Centro, a DGS spokesperson stated.

Previously, this newspaper incorrectly reported that the Ramada’s contract for the housing of migrants was with DSS, based on information provided by a county official.

Sauza said that the state had promised in advance that Sure Helpline would receive about $540,000 for its efforts. In good faith, the nonprofit redirected its staff to the Ramada hotel, racking up significant overtime expenses in the process.

She had also enlisted the help of a Calexico restaurant to prepare and deliver three meals a day for the more than 150 migrants housed at the hotel. She estimated that invoices for food totaled about $80,000 during Sure Helpline’s tenure.   

“We went in without getting any money,” Sauza said.

Sure Helpline to the Rescue

When state officials had initially alerted local stakeholders of the emergent need to house migrants that were increasingly being released from federal custody into the county, Sure Helpline was not among the NGOs that were notified.

But when Sauza got wind of a March 21 meeting in Heber where state and local stakeholders were going to discuss and identify a potential plan of action, she said she decided to invite herself.

Her involvement, or more precisely her extensive contacts in the community, led to the state’s arrangement with the Ramada hotel after she had placed a call to Mejorado, the golf resort’s owner, and inquired if he had at least 100 vacant rooms to accommodate the migrants.

“When I said I had the rooms, you should’ve seen their faces,” Sauza said. “They thought I was Wonder Woman.”

Nor has Sure Helpline’s assistance gone unappreciated by local stakeholders. Although the county had been working with state officials at the time to identify potential sites for the migrants’ temporary housing, Sauza’s ability to secure on such short notice a non-congregate setting was a welcome development.

“With the assistance of Sure Helpline, the Ramada Inn at Barbara Worth Country Club was secured, allowing for the sheltering of COVID-19 positive and/or COVID exposed migrants and asylum seekers in need of a safe place to quarantine or isolate during recovery and allowing for the QIS at IVC to demobilize after the intended timeframe,” said Rebollar, with the County Executive Office’s Joint Information Center, in an email.

Sauza, who conceded she can be abrasive at times in her dealings with people, said she considers Sure Helpline’s ability to step up and deliver in such a time of need further proof of the organization’s value to the community. The crisis center traditionally has provided assistance and resources for victims of sexual assault and rape.

Yet, she was also quick to credit the organization’s initial successes with its partnerships with Comite Civico, the Puerto Nuevo restaurant, a Calexico-based local transportation provider, and the local physicians who provided onsite COVID-19 testing.

“I feel so content because we showed the county that we can do it,” Sauza said.

The Role of Catholic Charities

On April 6, the DSS entered into an approximate $329,000 contract with Catholic Charities to provide wraparound services for migrants housed at the El Centro Travelodge between April 1 and Feb. 28, 2022, the DSS reported.

The contract is part of the Rapid Response Program, a statewide initiative that began in February and enlists qualified entities to provide shelter, transportation, medical care, and other services to immigrants during emergent situations.

By law, temporary shelter agreements under the Rapid Response Program are not subject to formal competitive bidding, DSS reported. 

“Given the time-sensitive nature of the humanitarian and public health efforts in border communities to support the temporary care, safety, and shelter of arriving migrants, CDSS implemented an expedited application process to review shelter proposals by qualified nonprofit organizations, including the evaluation of applications and supporting documents, to ensure that organizations meet all eligibility requirements,” Murray, the DSS spokesperson, said.

On Saturday, April 10, Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego requested that DSS expand the scope of its current contract with DSS to provide wraparound services to the Ramada hotel operation, said Nadine Toppozada, Catholic Charities director of Refugee and Immigrant Services.

As of Tuesday, April 13, Catholic Charities did not have any of its personnel onsite at the Ramada hotel but was in the process of ramping up its staffing levels to assign dedicated personnel to the site.

“We had to onboard brand-new staff who reside in Imperial County for this operation, so they could serve migrant needs (seven) days a week,” Toppozada said Monday, April 12 in an email.

Like what Sure Helpline was doing, Catholic Charities is currently providing non-congregate shelter in the form of hotel rooms, translation, and interpretation services for people with limited English proficiency, three meals a day and hygiene items, coordination of medical services during hotel stay, travel coordination for migrants to reach their destination, and transportation to the airport. 

To date, Catholic Charities has not enlisted the aid of additional community-based organizations to assist with sheltering services. Its ongoing efforts appear to be the organization’s first venture in the Valley.

Throughout 2016 and again in 2020, Catholic Charities had provided similar wraparound services for Haitian asylum-seekers coming through the San Ysidro port of entry.

As part of the Rapid Response Program, the organization is working alongside Jewish Family Service of San Diego to provide shelter and wraparound services for asylum-seekers in San Diego who are released by federal authorities, Toppozada said.

Regarding the DSS contracts with local NGOs for sheltering services, the county did not take any formal position about whether Catholic Charities or Sure Helpline was more deserving or qualified, Rebollar said.

“As the current emergency is so grand, fluid, and unpredictable in size, the County of Imperial has encouraged the California Department of Social Services to coordinate a collaborative effort with multiple local NGOs, including, but not limited to, both Sure Helpline and Catholic Charities,” he said. “This is an emergency that will require the support and services of various agencies and organizations working together in the spirit of collaboration.”

Sauza said she had received feedback that the county was supportive of Sure Helpline’s sheltering services, with some community members even rooting for the organization to be awarded the DSS contract. But even with that encouragement, Sauza said she had anticipated the contract would go to Catholic Charities.

“They wanted the whole enchilada,” she said.

Like the Ramada hotel at the Barbara Worth Country Club in Holtville, the Travelodge in El Centro off Cottonwood Circle is functioning as a quarantine and isolation site for asylum seekers released from federal custody who are either COVID positive or who have been exposed. Both the Travelodge and Ramada in Holtville are being run by Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego, under a contract with the state. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

CORRECTING THE RECORD: This article was updated on Friday, April 16, to remove a reference stating that a California Department of Social Services employee had allegedly verbally abused county employee Gilbert Rebollar. The person that Sure Helpline Executive Director Margaret Sauza indicated had been subjected to verbal abuse was an employee of the nonprofit, not the county. We strive to be as accurate as possible.

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