On Oct. 12, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) passed new rules aimed at drastically reducing the flow of Venezuelan migrants into the United States. Effective immediately, the rule aimed to ease pressure on cities dealing with an influx of migrants along the Southwest border. 

At San Antonio’s migrant resource center, it hasn’t.

“We have not seen a decrease,” said Tara Ford, chief development officer of Catholic Charities, the religious nonprofit that took over operations at the center from the city last month. “We welcomed 1,290 Wednesday.” 

The City of San Antonio told the San Antonio Report in September that 90% of migrants served at the center were Venezuelan. Cubans made up the second largest group, followed by migrants from Nicaragua, Guatemala and Colombia.

Ford declined to say whether the center has seen a drop in Venezuelan migrants since the new rules took effect or share the nationalities of those who are still arriving. Similar questions put to the city have yet to be answered.

On Monday, Ford said buses transporting migrants arrive at the center on a fluctuating basis. 

That evening, two buses transporting migrants arrived about 20 minutes apart. Two medium-size taxis dropped off a large family that signed in to the center. 

A Colombian family who spoke to the San Antonio Report outside the center said migrants they had spoken to inside the center were Nicaraguan, Cuban, Colombian and Ecuadorean. 

Border cities seeing ‘significant drop’

About a week after DHS announced its new program for Venezuelan migrants, the City of El Paso closed its migrant “welcome center,” citing a “significant drop” in the number of migrants reaching the El Paso-Mexico border. Mayor Oscar Leeser said community partners, such as nongovernmental organizations, will take over assisting the smaller number of migrants still arriving in the city.

The City of El Paso did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the Humanitarian Respite Center there, told the San Antonio Report the migrant flow at the center has slowed this year overall and said the center has not served Venezuelan migrants since the DHS program launched.

The first week, Venezuelans who had crossed the border were sent back to Mexico, she said, but no longer. “They’re recognizing that if they enter they will be sent back, so they’re not coming to the U.S. anymore through the river,” she said.

Pimentel said the center is serving between 300 and 400 migrants a day. At its peak in 2019, Pimentel said the center served 2,000 a day.

A DHS spokesperson said Friday in an email statement to the San Antonio Report that since the new process for Venezuelan migrants took effect, the data shows “substantially reduced attempted irregular entries of Venezuelans at the southwest border,” from 1,100 a day on average the week before the announcement to just over 300 a day currently.

Why DHS targeted Venezuelans

Venezuelans were targeted by DHS in part because they were crossing the Texas-Mexico border at four times the rate they were the year before, fleeing financial and political instability in their home country. Last year, 109,106 Venezuelan migrants entered the United States from the southern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol figures.

Illegal migration from other Central American countries, by contrast, is “down by a quarter from the level encountered last year,” DHS said.

The new rules create a lawful pathway to seek asylum for 24,000 Venezuelan migrants annually, but they must apply before arrival, have sponsors in the United States and enter the country by air. Once in the United States, they will be eligible to apply for work authorization.

As part of the program, Mexico is working with the United States to reinforce operations. This includes new migration checkpoints, additional resources and personnel, joint targeting of human smuggling operations and expanded information sharing related to hotels, stash houses and staging locations, the DHS spokesperson said Friday.

The majority of those who have walked across the border since the new policies went into effect have been expelled to Mexico, which is now setting up emergency shelters to deal with the influx.

Edna Yang, co-executive director at American Gateways, a nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income immigrants across Central Texas said Venezuelan migrants with no ties to the United States will be the most impacted by the new federal rules.

“Those who have more resources and are able to fly and have ties here to the U.S. will more easily apply for this program,” Yang said. “Those who have no means, who are poor, who don’t have access to money to buy plane tickets, who don’t have family or friends here in the U.S. already, it disadvantages them disproportionately.”

Migrants come and go outside of the city’s migrant resource center on September 16.
Migrants come and go outside of the migrant resource center in San Antonio. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Yang said the new program highlights that the Biden administration and previous administrations have tried to fix the country’s immigration system “piecemeal.”

“What really needs to happen is a comprehensive reform bill that looks at patterns of migration, the problems that currently exist,” she said. “We have to … see how we can have immigration reform that benefits not only those individuals coming to the United States, but those individuals who are already here.”

The area outside San Antonio’s migrant resource center buzzed with activity on Monday evening as joyful family reunions played out in the parking lot.

At one point, a couple walked out in masks, empty-handed.

They spied a man standing outside a black BMW. They began walking more quickly in the direction of this clearly familiar face, then began running. Others nearby watched the emotional reunion, as the man embraced them both. They all wiped away tears, exchanging more hugs.

The man ushered them into the car, lit a cigarette and drove away.

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. A 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, her work has been recognized by the Texas Managing Editors. She previously worked...