United States Representative Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) holds a press conference regarding federal reimbursement for migrant aid at Travis Park United Methodist Church. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

The City of San Antonio and other local nonprofits are ready for federal reimbursement for responding to the influx of migrants passing through San Antonio – though it’s unclear when the process will start.

The City, Travis Park Church, Catholic Charities, and San Antonio Food Bank have spent more than $1.3 million assisting asylum seekers since March, according to a document provided by the City. Travis Park Church houses migrants overnight before they continue their journeys. Catholic Charities provides transportation and basic needs to migrants. And the San Antonio Food Bank’s chief of government and public affairs, Mario Obledo, estimated that the organization has prepared more than 60,000 meals for migrants this year.

“We want to be able to meet the need for those of us on their way through our community,” Obledo said at a Monday news conference. “We want to make sure we do everything we can to help those families and individuals.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) pushed in June to include reimbursements in a $4.5 billion emergency funding package. The bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate included $30 million for cities and nonprofit organizations that assisted asylum seekers on their way up from the border.

The Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is responsible for processing reimbursement applications and distributing the money. The funding package directed Emergency Food and Shelter to begin distributing reimbursements within 30 days of the bill being signed into law, which happened July 1. But Cuellar said the program might not start distributing federal funds by July 31. 

“Practically speaking, talking to them on Thursday, we know they may not meet the 30-day deadline of disbursement,” Cuellar said. “I can tell you what the law says. Whether they meet that, we don’t know, that’ll be hard. … Tomorrow, when I’m back in Washington, I’ll talk to them again.”

Cuellar reiterated that for the past five years, the border has received only $400,000 from the federal government for humanitarian relief. 

“For us, who waited five years, a few more days [of waiting] is nothing,” he said.

Cuellar also said FEMA is looking at opening up federal reimbursement eligibility to all 50 states. He said his original intention was for reimbursement funds to be limited to the border states – Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said the City does not expect to break even with federal reimbursements. 

“If we’re going to get any money to reimburse our costs, we’re thrilled [and will] put it back into the cost to continue this response,” she said. “We don’t expect to be fully reimbursed. We’re appreciative of what we can get.”

Cuellar said emergency funding will go toward costs such as food and shelter. He added that he did not imagine that transportation to asylum seekers’ final destinations would be covered but that he would speak to FEMA about including that. Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio, has spent more than $350,000 on migrant-related costs – the bulk of which went toward buying tickets for families to travel to their final destinations. 

Spokeswoman Christina Higgs said she was optimistic that the federal government would provide reimbursement for those costs in the next appropriations bill. 

“We’re working really closely with [Cuellar’s office] and I think they understand the strain,” Higgs said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who helped advocate in the Senate for reimbursing local entities, said the federal government must take financial responsibility for aiding migrants.

“Texas communities have gone above and beyond, expending resources to provide shelter and food for migrants in need,” Cornyn said in a statement Monday. “With federal reimbursement money Rep. Cuellar and I fought to include in this bill, Texas cities and non-profits will be able to return their focus to serving the community the way they know best.”

The federal reimbursements are applicable to any migrant care-related expenses incurred since Jan. 1. Reimbursement applications from San Antonio-area groups will go to United Way, which will organize applications and present them to a local board of the Emergency Food and Shelter program, which then will send applications up to the national board. The four organizations plan on applying for federal funds with one application, Bridger said.

But if there are no reimbursements available for the City, migrant assistance will not stop, Bridger said: “We’ll figure it out.”

Higgs agreed and said everyone is working together to help the influx of migrant families, though there is no clear end in sight. 

“We’re all committed to continuing to help as long as we’re able to and not stopping,” Higgs said.

The Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio is taking donations online here, or call Christina Higgs at 210-222-1294. Donate to the San Antonio Food Bank online here. Donate to Travis Park Church’s Migrant Ministry here.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.