This story has been updated.
After a day of volunteering at the San Antonio migrant center, Antonio Fernandez will often grab a blanket and choose a cot in the resting area among dozens of asylum seekers.
There, Fernandez, the CEO of Catholic Charities, which took over operation of the center on Oct. 1 from the City of San Antonio, listens to migrants’ stories.
Fernandez recalled one night when a Venezuelan man to his left shared a traumatic experience. On his right, two Colombian women told him they left their home country in a group of 80 women and children. Only 70 arrived in the United States.
“If I don’t spend time with them, it’s going to be very hard for me to understand” their experience, Fernandez said.
Doing so helps Fernandez, who is also a licensed professional counselor, reflect on what to him is a foundational question: “How do we treat them with respect and dignity?”
Catholic Charities recently offered local media a tour of the 71,000 square-foot center, which the city established in July. The nonprofit continues to work with the city, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which reimburses the nonprofit directly for center operations, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The city still holds the lease to the property, provides building maintenance and transportation to the San Antonio International Airport.
Since it opened, the center has served over 92,000 migrants, according to city figures. Those numbers could be affected by a new plan announced Thursday by President Joe Biden that would permit 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the country each month. The aim is to reduce the record numbers of asylum seekers entering the U.S. through Mexico.
Fernandez summed up the changes Catholic Charities has made since it took over this way: “It’s not an emergency site for us, it’s a humanitarian site. We call it Centro de Bienvenida,” or Welcome Center.
Small rooms in a large building
A former CPS Energy building, the center sits behind chain link fences on San Pedro Avenue on the edge of the Shearer Hills-Ridgeview neighborhood. Past the entrance gate and through the doors, all entrants must pass through a security checkpoint that includes a metal detector.
A hallway includes informational posters and QR codes about asylum on the walls leads to an area where migrants who are flying out of San Antonio wait for transportation to the airport.
During the tour, children laughed and played with toys and each other, their parents nearby, in the long hallway and in another room nearby.
Catholic Charities is a religious nonprofit whose mission is to provide humanitarian response to vulnerable populations in times of need. Founded in 1941, the organization today offers dozens of different programs, such as helping people experiencing homelessness, resettling refugees, running free after-school programs and hosting a food pantry.
When 53 migrants died in the back of a sweltering truck in a human smuggling tragedy, survivors were released into Catholic Charities’ care, which transported victims’ families to local hospitals and helped survivors, supporting them even months after the tragedy.
Small changes, big differences
Catholic Charities made changes big and small when it took over the center, including the name change.
Before it took over, many migrants stayed outside the center most of the day. Some single men and families who had timed out of the center ended up sleeping in a nearby lot. Others were lured onto a plane to Martha’s Vineyard.
One small change made a big difference, Fernandez said.
“They’re from Central America, South America, where they live [on] coffee, so one of the first things we changed is to have coffee here,” he said. Over 8,000 cups of coffee are now served at the center per week, in addition to three warm meals a day.
“It doesn’t take anything, it’s just compassion,” he said. “From the person who is welcoming at the gate … to everything that we do. … Everything is for them to feel at peace. That’s what we try to do, like we would do with anyone in San Antonio.”
In another small room past the security area, Catholic Charities set up an interfaith chapel for those who would like to pray or meditate. Some migrants created a small ofrenda, or altar, in the room, where they leave heartfelt notes and money to La Virgen de Guadalupe.
“Virgencita, please take my brother Alvaro Jimenez out of Mexico safely and soundly,” read one note in Spanish.
Across the altar, coins and bills from various countries have been left behind. Though many migrants come with almost nothing, Fernandez said, they still share the little they have.
The result of all the changes, he said, is that “not a single person has slept outside since we took over.”
Addressing ‘mind, soul and body’
The center provides services to address migrants’ “mind, soul and body,” Fernandez said. The nonprofit operates using a model proven to help individuals and communities heal — trauma-informed care.
This approach centers around listening and acknowledging harm, so a person feels safe enough to process their feelings. Fernandez said that doesn’t always look like traditional counseling — his act of simply listening to migrants’ stories in the rest area is an example of trauma-informed care.
Migrants arrive at the center from a border patrol sector, where they are detained after turning themselves in and requesting asylum. Many arrive exhausted and overwhelmed; during the tour, babies could be heard crying while parents strained to listen to an orientation.
During orientation, migrants get an overview of the center’s operations, plus general asylum information. They learn what resources are available to them, including counseling and legal services. Then they meet with a caseworker to determine their individual and immediate needs, including help getting to their final destination.
Next, they can visit the clothes closet, a small room inside the orientation area that contains socks, underwear, jackets, pants, shoes — even shoelaces, to replace those taken away by the border patrol. There is clothing for children and adults. Many migrants arrive in thin T-shirts and sandals, heading to northern states without the proper clothing.
Each migrant is allowed to take one of each item they need — but Fernandez said sometimes he breaks the rules. He recounted a time when he and his 11-year-old daughter were volunteering at the closet. A man approached and said he hadn’t had a pair of underwear in three months.
He was allowed to grab more than one pair.
“It broke my heart,” Fernandez said. “That’s the reality of the people we have.”
Although the center is large, it is almost always at capacity. The nonprofit had been making contingency plans for Title 42 being lifted, which would likely have increased the number of migrants through San Antonio. Those plans included looking for a second location, with better accommodations.
With the Biden Administration announcement Thursday, however, to expand Title 42 expulsions as part of its strategy to reduce illegal border crossings, it’s unclear whether that will ease the influx.
In October, the administration’s rule to limit the number of Venezuelans crossing the southwestern border into the U.S. did not reduce the number of migrants being served by the center.
Regardless of how many migrants arrive, or where they come from, Catholic Charities will continue its humanitarian mission, Fernandez said.
“Every person here is a human being,” he said. “This is a Centro de Bienvenida, it’s a welcoming center and our job is to provide for these people as much as we can in San Antonio.”