A town hall on immigration held Monday night grew heated when some attendees learned after they arrived that the forum would be held entirely in Spanish.
Hosted by Univision and Telemundo, the event, titled “Sheriff Javier Salazar’s Immigration Town Hall,” was a chance for local officials to answer questions about how Bexar County is handling the current influx of immigrants.
But after hosts Antonio Guillen of Univision 41 and Jessica Montoya of Telemundo 60 opened the event, many audience members learned for the first time that it would be conducted in Spanish, since it was hosted by the Spanish-language networks. Panelists did take questions in English.
Heavy security presence at the event at UTSA’s Buena Vista Theater didn’t stop several attendees from disrupting the hosts by yelling “English, please!” and “This is America!”
Those yelling were warned that if they didn’t stop, they would be escorted out. By the end of the event, several people had been removed from the auditorium.
Beyond the disruptions, the event gave Salazar, state Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio), County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Precinct 1) and others the chance to answer questions and correct misinformation.
They also spoke directly to migrants and undocumented residents watching via livestream on social media, encouraging them to trust law enforcement if they become victims of a crime and letting them know what resources are available.
To those concerned about migrants’ negative effect on the local community, officials spoke to the economic value migrants bring to the country.
The forum comes in the wake of the June 27 tragedy in which 53 migrants died in an abandoned 18-wheeler in Southwest San Antonio, and as the number of migrants passing through the region has increased dramatically.
In response, the city recently reopened its migrant resource center to help organize the hundreds of migrants passing through the city each day. The numbers have grown so much that city officials recently asked border agencies to pause new arrivals to the city for a few days.
The conflicts around immigration that have fallen on San Antonio’s shoulders are weighing heavily on the community — by locals upset at the center and migrants’ presence in their neighborhood and by the city, which is facing criticism for using resources to help them.
‘Please stay in your country’
The town hall kicked off with a video of Sheriff Javier Salazar asking migrants not to come to the United States.
“As law enforcement officers, we know that most of those who come as immigrants are doing so out of necessity, seeking honest work to help their loved ones out of suffering,” said Salazar in the pre-recorded video.
“Many of these good people… are dying without water and without food in the dense areas of the Southern United States… Until we achieve a better solution, I beg every resident of Mexico, Central America, other South American countries and around the world, please stay in your country. Traveling to the United States right now is not the best solution for your family,” he said.
Undocumented residents not reporting crimes or abuse due to fear of deportation ended up being a big topic of discussion.
Salazar noted that those coming to the U.S. “to seek jobs and a better life,” are “more fearful of us than the traffickers putting them at risk of death.”
He said migrants should feel safe sharing information with law enforcement, adding that they have the right to public safety and legal protection, regardless of their legal status.
Antonio Fernandez, CEO of Catholic Charities, said that as part of its work with migrants, the nonprofit provides resources, including attorneys, to migrants who have been victims of crime and abuse.
Solving the U.S. labor shortage
Menendez said the most important thing residents can do is to demand a comprehensive immigration system that allows migrants to come into the country, work for some years and return to their country.
“The migrants, most of them don’t want to live here. They want to come to work, earn some money and return to their homes,” he said. “This shouldn’t be a polarizing issue. This is a human issue. They come because they know there’s work and they know they’ll get paid.”
Menendez’s words stirred more emotional commotion from the audience, as a woman yelled, “They don’t pay taxes!”
Some migrants do pay taxes, and they do work few Americans are interested in doing, often at illegally lower wages, Daniella Salas-Chacon, an attorney with Justice for all Immigrants told the San Antonio Report in a July interview. Fear of deportation or hurting the chance for asylum stops many migrants from reporting such practices, she said.
Rene M. Zenteno, professor of Demography in the College for Health, Community and Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told the audience that immigration could solve some of the biggest challenges facing the country right now.
“This country is growing elderly. Baby boomers are retiring and leaving the workforce. Secondly, fertility in the country has declined at levels no one expected… Immigration is the only source the U.S. can solve demographic and economic problems,” he said.
Zenteno cited data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed more than 11.2 million job openings in May 2022. In the construction industry alone, there were an estimated 434,000 job openings that same month, yet just 389,000 were unemployed in that same industry in June.
“There’s a deficit in manpower in the U.S… only immigration can help cover those jobs. We need to put immigration at the center of this discussion,” he said.
Many in the audience disagreed, yelling “No!”
Attendees and viewers also learned about processes undocumented workers could explore to seek permission to live in the U.S., about the city’s migrant resource center and local nonprofits’ efforts to get migrants from San Antonio to their host cities.
Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1), in whose district the 53 migrants were found, noted that the county recently created a $1 million immigrant legal fund for organizations who help migrants with legal services.
In her closing remarks, Clay-Flores stirred the crowd to both applause and heated responses.
“How easy it’s been for you to forget this country is a country of immigrants,” she said in Spanish, then in English. “Unless you are 100% of indigenous blood from one of the sovereign nations of the U.S., then you too have blood running through your veins of immigrants.”