SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As the son of a pastor whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti 25 years ago, Jimmy Marcelin has dedicated his life to helping migrants seeking asylum.
Marcelin serves as the immigration and refugee manager for Safe Harbors Network, a nonprofit started by Christ United Methodist Church in San Diego that offers shelter, food, health care, and placement services to migrants of all ages who are applying for asylum.
“I have a heavy heart when it comes to immigrants because I used to be one of them,” Marcelin said.
Marcelin showed Spectrum News 1 around his church facility, walking us through a large social hall room with a kitchen. He explained how, in the past, 200 migrants would be offered cots to sleep in that room each night. But then someone called the fire marshal, and they could no longer offer the room for migrants to rest.
"We have a lot of people that don’t like immigrants, and the community found out," said Marceline. "they [reported] it to the fire marshal."
Marcelin showed a series of sheds behind the church where those cots are now stashed away, unused. It made him emotional.
“When I see this, I have a heavy heart, knowing that someone is probably sleeping on the street,” Marcelin said.
After the fire marshal’s visit, Marcelin said his team changed course and moved migrants into nearby homes and apartments the church either owns or rents. He gave us an exclusive look inside one of the homes that shelter migrants seeking asylum. It was a one-story, three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch where 17 people from a range of countries were staying.
Marcelin explained that his organization works with migrants from Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean Islands, but they all come to San Diego through the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s easier to come that way,” Marcelin said. “Once they get here, they’re not in good spirits at all. Some of them have been through tough times. It’s a long journey for them.”
Marcelin is hit hardest by the children and pregnant women his church helps. He introduced us to some of the kids in the house, ranging in age from toddlers to teens. They appeared for the most part to be in good spirits. They played with one another with toys donated to the church.
“It makes me feel sad to see the condition they’re in,” Marcelin said, adding that all the migrants in the house are documented and have been interviewed by Customs and Border Patrol before arriving at the church.
Many came to the border with the church’s address and phone number. They are now in the process of applying for asylum and will make their cases before judges. Most of the adults wear ankle monitors for tracking. The migrants cook their own food with groceries the church offers them.
“I have different nationalities, and everyone is accustomed to their own food, so I prefer they cook their own meal,” Marcelin said.
ICE is aware of the shelters, and the church works with the agency to help the migrants make their court dates. ICE is not who Marcelin worries about when it comes to disclosing the location of these shelters. It’s people in the community.
“We call them the haters,” Marcelin said. “But see, this is a church. In church, everybody is welcome. Everybody. In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus said, 'I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you put clothes on me.' And the people we call the haters, they also go to church. See, this is my problem with them. If you go to church you know that you have to help everybody. And yet they hate what we are doing by helping the immigrants. So what I like to tell them is, go back and read your bible again because this is a community. We love everybody.”
Marcelin added that the plan now is to expand their help to the children inside the San Diego Convention Center who are unaccompanied and have been placed at the facility for temporary housing. Officials will work to reunite them with family members or find sponsors in the U.S. that will care for them.
Finding sponsors is an area Marcelin said his church has a lot of experience in, and he is waiting to hear from the federal government this week if his organization can step in and help the children in the convention center. And he stands ready to offer a helping hand and a place where everyone is welcome.