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Partner Spotlight: Asylum Seekers Shelter, San Diego

Asylum seekers getting off a bus
Image from Sheltering Hope documentary

In San Diego, thousands of asylum seekers cross the border every month, looking for a safe haven where they can pursue a better life. Linda Hill, MD, MPH, the Executive Director of Asylum Seekers Shelter, leads a team of clinicians within the immigration shelter to screen asylum seekers for common infectious diseases, “in order to help them live a better life,” she said. Dr. Hill has four decades of experience in community health. Her specialty in preventative medicine has made her more than able to assist those most marginalized by our immigration systems.

Asylum Seekers Shelter has assisted upward of 100,000 asylum seekers since they resumed operation in March 2021, according to Dr. Hill. The organization was temporarily out of operation due to COVID-19 regulations that prevented asylum seekers from entering the country. Now, thousands of families enter California as asylum seekers every year.

Dr. Hill featured in the Sheltering Hope Documentary
Image from Sheltering Hope documentary

Before working exclusively with asylum seekers, Dr. Hill operated the medical side of the Refugee Health Assessment Program, a refugee-specific screening that operated with community partners Jewish Family Services and Catholic Charities. A few years ago, Dr. Hill and her team were asked by the funder, the state of California, to shift their work from refugees to asylum seekers – and thus Dr. Hill joined up with Asylum Seekers Shelter, with the goal of providing medical screenings to asylum seekers who pass through the San Diego-area immigrant shelters. 

In the United States, refugees and asylum seekers enter different health systems upon arrival. Asylum seekers ask for asylum upon entry to the US, after which they are brought to detention centers for processing. At present, most asylum seekers are not permitted into the US. Those who are released from detention into the US begin a lengthy wait for their hearing date, where they will present their credible reason to seek asylum and stay within the states. After they are released and during their often years-long wait, asylum seekers are not provided with health resources or systems to link them with care. Refugees, however, arrive with refugee status, and are brought into a system of care and support specifically designed for their needs. Because of these stark differences in access and support, asylum seekers’ health is often left behind, starting right after they are released from detention. With no federal system of support, immigration shelters like those run in California by Jewish Family Services and Catholic Charities pick up the task, providing basic health screenings to ensure asylum seekers are healthy enough to continue to their receiving communities, and to protect public health.

In the age of COVID, screening for the virus and providing places to quarantine became critical and took some of the highest priority, but other needs such as prenatal and postpartum care, as well as care for chronic illnesses like diabetes also take priority at these screening locations. Asylum Seekers Shelter   is able to provide some medications for these ongoing health needs, such as diabetes treatments like insulin, in order to assist these populations and connect them with clinics if these services are needed. 

Asylum seekers gathering their things.
Image from Sheltering Hope documentary

In 2021, when vaccine availability increased and Asylum Seekers Shelter was able to resume operation, the group used a hotel-based shelter system, Dr. Hill noted. “The obvious reason for that is if our guests are waiting to get their COVID results or had tested positive, we’d have a safe place for them to wait.”

Most of those arriving come by bus as a family unit and are provided with a room they can share together. As with all immigration shelters at the border, the facilities are designed for very short-term stays, a time for asylum seekers to take a shower, have a warm meal, contact family, and coordinate their travel to their new receiving communities with the assistance of workers at the shelter.  Those who test positive for COVID-19, however, stay longer, as it can take some time as COVID can move through the family unit, prolonging their need to isolate. Because of this, community partners like Jewish Family Services and Catholic Charities are vital in providing food and clothing to the people in isolation. Volunteers and donations assist with this. Asylum Seekers Shelter on the other hand works with trained and paid medical staff in order to keep a consistent and reliable workforce. They also work with some local universities to bring in clinicians in training, giving these students vital experience and working to build a future where clinicians serve those who are in the most need of medical attention.

While Asylum Seekers Shelter handles medical screenings, Jewish Family Services and Catholic Charities take care of other common needs, partially through donations, including food and clothing. These organizations lean on volunteers in order to meet the needs of asylum seekers. 


Watch the mini-documentary, Sheltering Hope, which features Dr. Hill, to see border shelters in action.

Help asylum seekers through the difficult first days in this country:

Jewish Family Services, San Diego

Catholic Charities, San Diego