A discussion about approving funding to assist migrants traveling from San Antonio’s airport turned contentious Thursday after Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he would like to make sure the migrants have tested negative for the coronavirus.

Since April, around 30,000 migrants who have been admitted to the U.S. while seeking asylum have come to San Antonio, with all but a few hundred passing through en route to other destinations, according to Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. For the past several weeks, somewhere between 300 to 500 migrants arrive at the San Antonio International Airport each day. Nonprofit agencies such as Catholic Charities have been providing assistance to migrants in the form of food, transportation, and shelter.

On Thursday, City Council voted unanimously to provide $200,000 in reimbursable funds to help Catholic Charities continue that work.

Before council members approved that funding, Perry said he was concerned that city officials did not require migrants to be tested for the coronavirus before arriving in San Antonio. He pointed to travel requirements in Canada, where people must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering the country (although some fully vaccinated foreign nationals are exempt). He argued that the federal government also must do more to make sure that migrants coming from the southern border test negative.

“Here, we’re just opening the door letting people come in and we don’t know how many are actually positive [for COVID-19],” he said. “And how many different countries are we talking about that are coming across our border? It’s not just from Mexico. There’s [people from] hundreds of countries that are coming in through our southern border.”

This year has seen a sharp increase in the number of people apprehended at the U.S. Mexico border, reaching a 21-year high in July. The Biden administration recently extended a policy that allows the U.S. to expel migrant adults and families to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks.

Houston said that nonprofit agencies stationed at the border offer COVID-19 testing to migrants, but not all of them get tested.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) sharply criticized Perry for his comments. 

“I believe that calling this item out for discussion is calling it out because the people who are receiving these services are people of color and because they have a different national origin than some of the people sitting on this dais,” she said. “And as a member of this community and someone who was not born in the U.S., I take tremendous issue and offense to that.”

Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) said she would recommend a few books on race, Mexican migration, and “several books on eugenics” in response to the question about migrants potentially spreading the coronavirus.

“I just wanted on the record that the rhetoric characterizing immigrants, migrants, or refugees as disease or virus carriers is very dangerous,” she said.

Perry objected to the criticism lobbed his way, emphasizing that he was advocating for the federal government to ensure that migrants are tested before they leave border facilities.

“If they are carrying the virus, that could affect our communities out there,” he said. “It has nothing to do about race, and I, too, take great offense that we always play the race card on something like this. That’s preposterous.” 

Claiming that migrants from the southern border are a major part of the coronavirus pandemic has become a popular conservative talking point.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who participated in the meeting remotely because he has recently been diagnosed with a chronic immune system disorder, defended Perry strongly.

“Anybody out there who would suggest that my friend Clayton Perry is a racist or a bigot or anything like that, them’s is fighting words and you can meet me in the parking lot,” he said. “Clayton Perry is a man I respect very much, with a very big heart. He knows my politics and his politics sometimes contradict each other but that’s OK. He wakes up the same way the rest of us wake up: with a desire to help San Antonio and make it a better city.”

Councilman John Courage (D9) also spoke up both in defense of Perry and to stave off what he called any “hysteria” over migrants that might be prompted by Perry’s comments.

“I’m concerned that the remarks my friend has made are going to be misinterpreted by a lot of people in this community,” Courage said. “And they’re going to be misinterpreted along the lines of what some of the other council members here are afraid of: that it’s going to cause fear and anger among some of the people in our community because they believe that we may be allowing thousands of people to come in here who are going to infect us and make us sick.”

Migrants are required to wear masks while waiting in the airport just like all other airport customers, Houston said. Courage pointed out that people fly into the San Antonio airport every day without getting tested, and drive in from out of town or out of the state without being tested. Though Perry’s questions had merit, Courage said he did not want them to “enhance some prejudice and racial tendencies” that some community members may have. He, along with staff and council members, also emphasized that the migrants that come to San Antonio are going through the legal process of asylum and are given the right to stay in the United States.

“The folks that we are seeing in our community are here legally,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “They’re going through the legal asylum hearing process. And so our job is to make sure how we can support the efforts underway, to lessen the impact and deal with the humanitarian crisis.”

City staff will seek full reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the $200,000 approved by City Council, Houston said. The funding is good through Dec. 31, though she said the city is open to providing more resources if necessary. 

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.