Gov. Greg Abbott should have known better than to come down to San Antonio for a staged photo op in which he called on the Biden administration to pack up nearly 2,000 migrant children housed at Freeman Coliseum and send them somewhere else, anywhere else.

Flanked by members of his security detail, stone-faced under their Stetsons, Abbott certainly won the media attention he craved, as he sternly cited unsubstantiated reports of a sexual assault inside the all-boys facility, inadequate meals and supervision, and an especially unlikely claim that COVID-infected minors were being housed together with healthy migrant residents.

Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees the temporary migrant shelter at Freeman Coliseum, Catholic Charities, a nonprofit arm of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, is providing the volunteers. The faith-based organization is deeply experienced in migrant care.

The immigration crisis, of course, should discomfort us all, regardless of political affiliations.

The governor’s made-for-television appearance had the feeling of a hastily organized, highly orchestrated political stunt. Empathy for unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and hopelessness in their Central American homelands was not part of the script. Abbott did not provide any evidence to support the unattributed complaints received by state agencies, nor did he explain where he thought so many homeless children ought to be temporarily housed if not here in San Antonio.

That puts him out of step with people here, and days later a caravan of Democrat lawmakers offered their own press conference decrying Abbott’s “political bombs” and demanding that he back up his assertions with evidence, even as the governor asked Vice President Kamala Harris in a letter to close the facility.

Aquí puede leer sobre la conferencia del viernes en la que los legisladores demócratas criticaron al gobernador Abbott por “lanzar bombas políticas”.

Perhaps it’s our city’s own daily experience with poverty and exclusion that makes San Antonio so receptive to helping others in need. Someone should have told Abbott that San Antonio makes for a poor backdrop of his exclusionary instincts and opportunistic attack on the Biden administration.

Kudos to newly elected Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) who provided the much-needed voice of reason and comfort to the moment. Clay-Flores is working as a vetted volunteer with Catholic Charities, conducting Bible study classes for teen migrants. Her view of the situation inside the temporary shelter is a far different one than the one alleged by Abbott.

Bexar County Pct. 1 Commissioner Becky Clay-Flores speaks during a press conference about unaccompanied children being housed at the Freeman Coliseum on Tuesday in San Antonio.
Bexar County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores speaks during a press conference about unaccompanied children being housed at the Freeman Coliseum. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Remember Abbott flying to the Texas border to hold a press conference attacking the Trump administration for its inhumane treatment of detained migrants two years ago? Neither do I. That’s because it never happened, despite widespread abuses against adults and minors, and the preventable deaths of migrants in federal detention. Suddenly, the presence of migrants in the state is a problem for the governor.

Given the chance, governor, San Antonians are inclined to take whatever fishes and loaves we have on hand and multiply them for less fortunate people seeking refuge here. Especially children.

When Phil Hardberger was in the opening months of his first term as San Antonio mayor in 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, leaving tens of thousands of residents homeless. Many of them were welcomed here at massive shelters established at the former Kelly Air Force Base and the former Windsor Park Mall recently purchased by a young tech investor the city would come to know quite well named Graham Weston.

An assistant city manager from Phoenix named Sheryl Sculley was due to start work as city manager in San Antonio a month or two later, but seeing thousands of Louisiana residents bussed into the city, she hopped a flight to San Antonio to get a hands-on look at the situation alongside Hardberger. That’s where I first met her.

I remember watching a CNN interview with Hardberger where he announced the city’s arms, despite scarce resources, were open to all who needed shelter, in contrast to other mayors who said their cities lacked the space and resources to take in so many temporary residents.

Department of Homeland Security police officers stand guard near buses used to transport migrant children from the border to the Freeman Coliseum.
Department of Homeland Security police officers stand guard March 29 near buses used to transport migrant children from the Rio Grande Valley to the Freeman Coliseum. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

The moment helped define a very successful mayor, and how people outside San Antonio came to see the city and its culture. Fast forward 13 years and San Antonio became the northbound way station for thousands of desperate migrant families fleeing Central America. This time the influx was mostly mothers with children, released from detention cities on the border and traveling to various states to connect with family and friends already established in the United States.

Once again, a city with scarce resources and no appreciable state or federal assistance, opened its arms to thousands of vulnerable people needing food, shelter, comfort and clothing, and a helping hand as they continued their journey.

In both the 2005 and 2018 surges of people in need coming here, San Antonio became a better city, showing its best side even with far fewer resources than wealthier cities. So for now, let’s do whatever we can to comfort and shelter migrant children while we await the facts on the vague complaints cited by the governor. That’s the San Antonio way.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.