The City of San Antonio will dole out $1.5 million of its federally allocated pandemic relief funds to nonprofits that aid immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship. 

City Council members who approved the plan Thursday say the move matches the city’s dedication to welcoming immigrants and provides a necessary infusion of cash to groups that are dealing with a surge of immigrants seeking their help.

It’s a stark contrast to the decision by Gov. Greg Abbott to divert roughly $1 billion of Texas’ federal COVID-19 relief money to fund his border security efforts.

“The pandemic exacerbated already existing barriers to resources and created new challenges for those seeking citizenship, including lawful permanent, asylum-seeking and refugee residents,” said Melody Woosley, director of the city’s Department of Human Services.

Many of those people were not eligible for other forms of financial support the government provided throughout the pandemic, she said.

“These groups are suffering because of the pandemic, because they had to shut their doors,” said Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) said of the nonprofits focused on helping immigrants in San Antonio and those passing through the city. “If we are going to be a compassionate city, which we are, we need to place the focus on this.”

The vote was 9-1 in favor of the proposal. Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) was the only no. Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) was absent.

In a nod to the city’s vastly different approach from the state, Perry, the council’s lone conservative, said he opposed Thursday’s proposal because he believed the money would be better used helping small businesses that were hurt by the pandemic.

“I’m a small business guy … and that’s what this money was meant for, to help people and businesses that were affected by the pandemic,” said Perry.

Asked whether he supported Abbott’s approach to using federal relief funds for border security, Perry said state policy was the governor’s prerogative.

“I’m not part of that,” Perry said.

San Antonio received $326.9 million in recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan Act Congress passed in March 2021.

When the City Council set a framework for spending some of that money earlier this year, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) pushed for nonprofits to receive $4 million of it. Thursday’s proposal to fund immigration nonprofits came through the Community Health and Equity Committee Sandoval leads; the committee approved the $1.5 million allocation last month.

The process for doling out the remaining $2.5 million in relief money designated for nonprofits will begin in August, with a focus on groups that help older adults and young people, Woosley said.

Thirty-one groups that serve the immigrant community in San Antonio attended feedback sessions with the city’s Department of Human Services earlier this year. The department will advise City Council on which groups should receive awards of a minimum of $100,000 over a two-year contract.

To obtain a portion of the ARPA funds, each immigrant assistance organization would need to submit a proposal for how the funds would be used. 

American Gateways, an Austin-based legal advocacy organization for immigrants with an office in San Antonio, said it would use the money to provide legal assistance to immigrants, to pay for outreach efforts and to support the organization’s naturalization clinics, according to Rebecca Lightsey, co-executive director of the legal advocacy organization, to assure more immigrants have access to services.

“For almost any work with an attorney, you’re going to be talking about fees starting at $1,000 and going up, depending on how complicated your case is, it could easily be $6,000 or 8,000,” said Lightsey. 

The organization works with migrants seeking asylum, people at risk of deportation and recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. 

ARPA funding for the immigrant community will “just make a huge impact for the community because so many of the immigrants in San Antonio are low income,” Lightsey said. “Without some support, they wouldn’t have access to legal services.”

An official at Culturingua — a nonprofit that works with low-income Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian refugees — would use any ARPA funding it obtains to train leaders in ethnic communities on city resources so that they can share information with other members of their communities. 

Nadia Mavrakis, CEO of Culturingua, also said funds could be used to connect noncitizens legally eligible to work to job training opportunities and to expand a partnership with the city’s Workforce Development Office and Ready To Work SA, the city-funded job training program. 

“If we received funding, we would look to expand that to all the immigrants and refugees that we serve,” she said. 

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.

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Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.