Mayor Ron Nirenberg listens to outgoing City Manager Sheryl Sculley's speech.
City Council will dip into its emergency fund to help nonprofits continue providing services amid an influx of migrants. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

An emotional Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he had never been more proud of San Antonio than he was when “watching the City spring into action” after City Manager Erik Walsh suggested Thursday that City Council dip into its emergency fund to help nonprofits provide services to an influx of migrants.

And it wasn’t because the City staff was ordered to or threatened to, he said, but “because that is in our DNA as a compassionate community.”

The $141,000 expenditure received unanimous approval from City Council, as did $3.8 million in other spending initiatives, but not without debate by Council members – two of whom questioned why City staff hadn’t asked for help from the federal government sooner.

City Council was briefed on the budget adjustments last week – when the body would normally discuss spending emergency funds – but the City wasn’t notified of a coming increase of migrants until Monday, Walsh said. That “jolted” the City to help the already-strained nonprofits.

The City sent a letter asking the federal government to reimburse its costs late last night.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) challenged the logic behind what he called subsidizing a federal issue with local taxpayer money. He suggested waiting for a response to that letter.

“Why today? … I don’t see this as a crisis point,” Perry said, later adding that while he supports the funding this time, “this is a one-time-only [expenditure] for me.”

With no clear end in sight of the waves of those seeking asylum in the U.S., Perry said he wants to see a clear plan that does not depend on local funding.

“I don’t like to place bets on the federal government,” Nirenberg told reporters after the vote. “If they are indeed focused on the right thing to do, the cities … will get reimbursed for the good care that they are giving people who are here in America legally.”

The federal reimbursement may never come, but the alternative – straining resources to the point that shelters close and food runs out – is not an option, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said. “[Congressional action] doesn’t happen overnight … but people are arriving here overnight every night.”

The City helped with volunteers and resources during Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey, and other emergencies that impacted nonresidents and visitors, Nirenberg said. “Compared with the immediate need of natural disasters … this is very small amount of  resources.”

About 8,000 migrants have passed through since the end of March, Walsh said, and more than 300 City employees volunteered to help at a temporary migrant resource center. That center serves as a “family friendly place to wait for the bus,” he said, and connect to nonprofits and churches that shelter and help asylum-seekers reach their final destinations across the country.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) chided City staff for not reaching out to the federal government earlier.

“We knew this was coming,” said Brockhouse, who is in a contentious runoff election against the mayor.

However, there is a clear need to support these nonprofits because they also provide services for San Antonians, he said.

“They’re going to answer this challenge no matter what,” Brockhouse said of Catholic Charities and the Food Bank. “So what are [the citizens] going to start to lose if [they] falter?”

Commentary on social media that the City is somehow facilitating illegal immigration, he said, is unfounded. The same people would protest if the City didn’t help migrants leave, Brockhouse said. “Then they’ll be upset about the fact that they’re in the city.”

Catholic Charities is accepting donations through its website. Interested donors can also call Christina Higgs at 210-222-1294.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at