The Terminal B ticketing lobby at the San Antonio International Airport had become a waiting — and sleeping — area for migrants with upcoming flights.
A corner of the Greyhound station had been turned into a migrant hub, where volunteers delivered sandwiches and tried to help translate directions.
And as record-high temperatures were setting in, volunteers and migrants alike milled around an uncomfortably hot Travis Park, where nonprofit groups worked to secure transportation for people who still needed a plane or bus ticket to reach family or sponsors in other parts of the country.
Faced with a rising number of asylum-seeking migrants arriving in the city — currently as many as 800 per day — San Antonio leaders were at a crossroads.
“When the numbers got so large, and then with Title 42 hanging over our heads, if that’s eliminated, we’re going to have more numbers, we needed a facility to handle this,” said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, who oversees the city’s Department of Human Services.
So on July 7, the city quietly opened a centralized migrant processing center on the North Side in a building previously occupied by CPS Energy.
Even in a city that’s willing and eager to help immigrants, local officials are scrambling to deal with the fallout of policies from which they are far removed and over which they have little influence. And as an increasing number of migrants arrive at the border claiming asylum, the city is gearing up to take on a bigger role facilitating those efforts.
Gearing up for Title 42’s end
San Antonio has long been home to a network of nonprofit organizations that aid migrants with everything from food and clothing to translation help and legal services.
In the height of asylum-seeking migrants arriving at the border in 2019, Houston said San Antonio saw roughly 200 people passing through the city per day, mostly from Central America. Those numbers died down during the pandemic, when many migrants were afraid to travel and when policies invoked by then-President Donald Trump mandated that even migrants seeking asylum be kept from entering the country.
“Once the pandemic started lifting, and there was a change in administration … we started to see numbers come back up,” said Tino Gallegos, an immigration attorney who serves as the city of San Antonio’s Immigration Liaison.
The Biden administration hopes to lift Title 42, the public health rule the Trump administration invoked to keep migrants from entering the country during the pandemic, which will almost certainly lead to a new influx of migrants through San Antonio.
That decision is currently held up in court, but city officials expect it will be lifted sometime this fall, and they’re preparing now.
“That’s why we’re staffing up — to make sure that we are ready,” Houston said in an interview this week. “We’ve opened the center… in preparation for that.”
Even while Title 42 remains, Gallegos said there are still many exceptions that allow migrants from certain countries or who are unaccompanied minors to enter the country and stay here while seeking asylum, all through the legal process.
A record-breaking summer
So far more than 70,000 migrants have arrived in San Antonio since March of 2022, according to city staff.
“Primarily what you see from 2021 until now is people from Venezuela, people from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haitians, as well,” said Gallegos, compared to the mainly Central American migrants who were seeking asylum in 2019.
“In order to repatriate somebody … or deport them from the United States, you have to get a hold of their host country and say, ‘We’re returning this person back to you,’” Gallegos said. “[Those countries are] just not taking people back … that’s why the Border Patrol makes a decision of allowing them to proceed on.”
Gallegos said asylum-seeking migrants typically enter the country through normal ports of entry in Del Rio or Eagle Pass, or seek out a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent to declare their intention to claim asylum.
The agent will then take their picture, run a background check and assign them someone to check in with while awaiting their hearing in court.
From there, nonprofits like Catholic Charities help transport migrants elsewhere in the country where they have family or sponsors. Many are sent directly from the border to San Antonio, for access to the airport and bus station.
“[Migrants were] being dropped off at the Greyhound bus station, they may not even have any money to purchase a ticket at the Greyhound bus station, or the resources or communication skills to figure out what they need to be doing,” Houston explained.
What the resource center does
The city is now asking nonprofits and border agents to bring migrants straight to the processing center, where they can receive resources and help getting to their final destination. An average of 632 migrants have arrived daily at the site for assistance since it opened, according to the city.
Many of the migrants arrive in San Antonio with a ticket to another destination already, but about 25% still need a ticket or to be connected with the resources to get one. Once they arrive at the center, officials figure out the window of time they have to help each migrant or family get where they need to go.
“If your flight is leaving within so many hours we’re going to say the airport immediately, if not, wait here until your flight leaves, and within so many hours of your flight, we will take you to the airport,” Houston said.
Logistics aside, the opening of San Antonio’s migrant processing center surprised some residents who remain confused about where the migrants are coming from, who is paying for the center and why the area is surrounded by security.
Located on busy San Pedro Avenue, the resource center is close to fast food restaurants and shopping, surrounded by residential neighborhoods. On Friday afternoon the area was bustling with migrants running across the street to Cicis Pizza, while others walked back from North Star Mall.
The center itself is fenced-in and guarded by security to protect the migrants themselves, city officials said. In Texas, state and local approaches to immigration differ widely, as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has made clear that even those seeking asylum aren’t welcome.
On Friday, police officers sat next to a portable air conditioning unit, denying access to the center to anyone without a wristband designating their status.
“We have several partners… including [the city’s] Department of Human Services, our [Office of Emergency Management], the San Antonio Fire Department, and the San Antonio Police Department at the facility,” Houston said. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Criticism and controversy
As the temperature hit roughly 109 degrees Monday afternoon, conservative activists gathered outside to protest beneath a small white tent just across the fence from the center.
“We are not hateful people. … I don’t wish harm on anybody,” said Michelle Gonzales, who organized the protest. “But how do we know the true identities of these people? …that’s my biggest concern.” She also pointed to the migrants and charter buses going in and out of the facility, asking where the money was coming from.
“The mayor didn’t call a meeting and say, ‘Hey, let’s vote on this,'” she said of the center.
Migrants awaiting an asylum hearing in the U.S. are free to be in the country and come and go from the facility. The charter buses are paid for by nonprofit organizations or the migrants themselves, city officials said.
In the past, San Antonio leaders have feuded with the state on the handling of migrants who’ve entered the country without legal protections.
“We have these leftist cities like San Antonio that are becoming ‘sanctuary cities’ and basically that’s just another synonym for illegal immigration,” Gonzales said.
Houston said the center is only open to asylum-seekers.
Local needs, federal funds
San Antonio’s newly opened migrant resource center and its staff are paid for by a federal grant administered by FEMA, which has agreed to cover the cost of the center through the end of the year. That grant also pays for hotel rooms and food for migrants who need to stay in the city overnight before continuing. City Council voted last month to request $10.8 million through the grant to reimburse the city for those efforts, but it’s not clear when the process to stand up the center began.
The city’s Department of Human Services declined to say when they chose the location or began work preparing the center. The City entered into a lease agreement for the property on June 10.
“From our vantage point, we applaud the city for leading [on this],” said Eric Cooper, President and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, which works closely with city staff to help feed migrants on their journey. “Back in 2019 they really started to directly communicate up to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and Border Patrol on a humanitarian effort that said it’s unacceptable to drop these guys off at 2 a.m. and leave them in downtown San Antonio.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote to Department of Homeland Security earlier this year asking for help distributing the migrants across other Texas cities, saying the influx to San Antonio was unsustainable. As the numbers of migrants continue to rise, Houston said the city is now in much closer communication with Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security than it was back in 2019.
“They’ll let us know when there’s a bus coming in, they keep in touch about the numbers,” Houston said. “We are really pressing them to make sure that individuals they are sending to San Antonio are ticketed,” meaning that they arrive with a bus or plane ticket to their next destination.
In the meantime, both San Antonio and Bexar County governments are simultaneously expanding their partnerships with nonprofits that help migrants on their paths to citizenship.
This summer City Council approved a plan to spend some of its federal pandemic relief funds on groups that help people seeking permanent legal status. And this month the Bexar County Commissioners Court approved $1 million for the creation of a legal fund to help migrants make their case for asylum in court.
Many of the city’s critics don’t understand how complex the process is, Houston said, making sure to clarify that the center is only open to asylum-seekers.
“These are people thinking their life is in danger to take this track, which means things must be pretty bad at home,” Houston said. “It’s such a complicated, complex, sad situation. I’m very proud of the City of San Antonio and how we’re addressing it.”
Nick Wagner and Shari Biediger contributed to this report.