Berkeley City Council to support migrant asylum seekers, use Old City Hall as winter shelter

Kaho Otake/Staff

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When Veronica Aguilar’s life was threatened in El Salvador, she left the country she loved with $100 in her pocket to seek asylum in the U.S. Now in California, she awaits the arrival of her 15-year-old son, who is in Tijuana with the migrant caravan hoping to find refuge.

Aguilar spoke in support of an item to approve city contributions for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., during public comment at Tuesday’s regular Berkeley City Council meeting. The council approved the contributions to the caravan. It also voted to repurpose Old City Hall into a temporary shelter and to provide a developer with a use permit for 3000 Shattuck Ave.

The city will donate the money for the migrant caravan to the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, not to exceed $250 per council member. Funds will help provide food, shelter and basic needs to caravan members detained at U.S. ports of entry or traveling to immigration hearings.

“We’re not bad people. We’re not criminals,” Aguilar said at the meeting. “We just want a better opportunity for ourselves and our families.”

Council members also unanimously approved an item converting Old City Hall into an “inclement weather shelter” for the winter season. The shelter will be open for 45 nights when Old City Hall will otherwise be virtually unused and empty because of the relocation of City Council meetings to Addison Street.

Though Old City Hall is not seismically retrofitted, Mayor Jesse Arreguín noted that the Veterans Memorial Building has similar seismic issues but continues to be used as a shelter. He added that if there is a sign posted that says the building is seismically unfit, the building can still be used.

“It is just important that we have to house the unhoused in some way,” said Councilmember Cheryl Davila at the meeting. “It gives them a community. … We have to show empathy, compassion and love for our unhoused people.”

In a contentious vote, City Council also approved a motion to provide the Rhoades Planning Group developer with a use permit for 3000 Shattuck Ave. Councilmembers Kate Harrison and Davila voted against it, and Councilmember Sophie Hahn abstained.

The decision came despite the fact that the Zoning Adjustments Board, or ZAB, denied construction on the land.

“This is extremely rare for the ZAB to deny a project of this type,” said ZAB Commissioner Patrick Sheahan. “It was done so over extensive deliberation and consideration.”

The council also approved a referral to the city manager to consider boycotting Amazon for alleged cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in tracking immigrants, abusive work conditions and labor practices. Council members also voted to expedite those proposals outlined in the More Student Housing Now Resolution that do not require environmental impact review procedures.

Near the end of the meeting, the council determined how to allocate excess funds from the 2018 fiscal year into the first quarter of 2019. The budget includes recommendations from Arreguín and other council members.

“What I am most excited about here is all the fiscal responsibility we are exercising,” Hahn said. “This moment is really important. This is huge.”

Alyssa Bernardino is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alybernardino.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Councilmember Susan Wengraf abstained on the vote for the Zoning Adjustments Board appeal. In fact, Wengraf voted in favor of the motion, while Councilmember Sophie Hahn abstained from the vote.