The City of San Antonio’s best efforts to help the growing number of migrants seeking asylum from places like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua faced obstacles from the start.

First, federal agents working at the border flooded the city with more migrants than it could handle, forcing Mayor Ron Nirenberg to write the Department of Homeland Security seeking help. Next, the city’s decision to open a resource center in July to prevent migrants from crowding the city’s transit hubs faced backlash from residents who say they were blindsided by its unexpected opening in a residential community.

The issue reached a breaking point last month, when some migrants were told they could no longer stay at the packed San Pedro Avenue resource center after three days.

Desperate for work and shelter, 43 people were lured onto a flight to Martha’s Vineyard that was orchestrated by Florida governor and likely Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis — part of an attention-grabbing political statement against federal immigration policies.

The outcome, while predictable, came as a disappointment to Nirenberg after all the city’s attempts to welcome asylum-seekers and ease their journeys.

“Unfortunately, because of the tenor of the political discussion in recent years, it is not surprising … that a politician would seek to make a political point and do so by exploiting migrants,” Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report in a wide-ranging interview at City Hall this week. “It does illustrate the depths of moral depravity on the part of some of these politicians who are doing this.”

On Sept. 19 — five days after the flight to Martha’s Vineyard — the city began transitioning management of its migrant resource center to Catholic Charities, according to documents obtained via an open records request by the San Antonio Report. Nirenberg says the handover had always been part of the city’s plan, and a June 22 memo from city staff to City Council said that after the center was established, “day to day operations will transition to Catholic Charities of San Antonio with the continued support of the City of San Antonio.”

Council members voted to request Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to pay for the center back in June.

Despite the initial challenges and political firestorm of recent weeks, Nirenberg is standing by the city’s unilateral approach to creating the center, which is now being used as a model in other cities like El Paso.

“Our job,” Nirenberg said, “regardless of what’s happening or not happening at the federal level, is to treat people with compassion.”

The mayor and other city staff members recently advised U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on what they’ve learned from running the resource center in the nearly three months since it opened.

If the choice is between what existed before — migrants sleeping in the terminal at San Antonio Airport and being dropped off outside the Greyhound station downtown at all hours of day or night — or the city stepping in and facilitating the migrants’ journeys with the help of nonprofits and the faith community, Nirenberg said he would do it again.

A young migrant boy sleeps on a chair across from his parents at the San Antonio International Airport in August 2021.
A young migrant boy sleeps on a chair across from his parents at the San Antonio International Airport in August 2021. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“If those are the two choices, I’m going to go with the compassionate choice that’s organized and minimizes disruption,” he said.

The mayor is also making a long-term commitment to help the latest influx of migrants, regardless of federal action on comprehensive immigration reform — even as the city distances itself from the national political controversy.

Though the city’s agreement to rent the building on San Pedro Avenue only runs through the end of the year, Nirenberg signaled in Wednesday’s interview that the center would still be needed beyond that deadline.

“I don’t see congressional action taking place anytime soon, unfortunately,” Nirenberg said. “And until that happens, as we see migrant flows come through our communities, we’re going to need an MRC.”

Day-to-day operation of the resource center is now handled by Catholic Charities.

The daily staffing needs vary, but the social services organization has budgeted for 146 staffers daily at the site, chief development officer Tara Ford said Friday. The group hasn’t yet had any conversations with government officials about plans to keep it running past December, according to Ford.

Seeking help

In May, as the number of migrants arriving in San Antonio was reaching new heights, Nirenberg wrote a high-profile letter to Mayorkas seeking help dealing with the “unsustainable” increase and requesting that migrants be sent to other cities in Texas, including Houston and Austin, to share the burden.

“We know how to do this work. We’ve been through this before under multiple administrations,” Nirenberg said in Wednesday’s interview about his mindset at the time. “What we really needed at that time was better coordination with the officers and the departments that are immediately on the border.”

A man carries two children as he walks toward a military checkpoint to seek asylum on the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass on August 9. Many migrants at the migrant resource center say they crossed from Piedras Negras, Mexico into Eagle Pass.
A man carries two children as he walks toward a military checkpoint to seek asylum on the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass on Aug. 9. Many at the migrant resource center say they crossed from Piedras Negras, Mexico, into Eagle Pass. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Since then, Nirenberg said the city received assurances that it would be reimbursed for the cost of opening and running a resource center.

The city has not requested any additional funds since the City Council voted to pursue $10.8 million from FEMA back in June, Nirenberg said this week.

The Mayorkas letter opened communication with DHS about the number of migrants arriving and the city’s capacity to help, the mayor said. For example, shortly after the resource center opened, staff requested that U.S. Customs and Border Protection stop sending buses for several days because the center had already exceeded capacity.

“We are right up at the edge of capacity on a frequent basis,” Nirenberg said of the migrant resource center.

Since the letter to DHS, Nirenberg said communication between the city and federal agencies has improved significantly.

“We’ve hit challenges, we’ve communicated that and they’ve addressed them,” he said.

Still, some migrants told the San Antonio Report last month that they were being asked to leave the center after three days when it was at capacity. Migrants began sleeping on the streets and searching for work to support themselves, though they aren’t legally permitted to do so while they await asylum hearings.

San Antonio Department of Human Services officials said that when migrants leave the MRC, they’re given resources, including Catholic Charities’ contact information, in hopes that they won’t be without shelter.

Asked whether the center’s three-day-stay policy was at all to blame for the migrants being lured to Martha’s Vineyard, Nirenberg said he “couldn’t speak to unofficial policies” and directed the question to Catholic Charities staff now at the center.

Nirenberg stressed that while San Antonio wants to help migrants seeking a better life, “they’re here legally, which means they’re not in custody of anyone, not the federal government, local government or anybody else.”

Martha’s Vineyard

In mid-September, a 27-year-old Venezuelan migrant told the San Antonio Report he was paid $200 in cash to recruit people from outside San Antonio’s migrant resource center to board a flight that later landed at Martha’s Vineyard. Some later said they overlooked red flags about the situation in hopes that taking the flight would lead to better work opportunities.

Nirenberg and other city officials offered little comment in the immediate aftermath of the incident, which occurred shortly after reports of migrants being asked to leave the resource center.

“We were gathering facts and trying to be helpful,” said Nirenberg, who added that he spoke directly to Mayorkas after he was made aware of the situation. “We want to ensure that justice is done all the way around and that, if people are perpetrating the exploitation of migrants in our backyard, that they’re brought swift justice.”

A bus departs the city’s migrant resource center while migrants gather on a sidewalk on September 16.
A bus departs the city’s migrant resource center while migrants gather on a sidewalk on Sept. 16. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

The city is now making migrants aware of potential threats in San Antonio, Nirenberg said. Signs have been posted around the center providing the number for the National Human Trafficking hotline.

After the Martha’s Vineyard flight, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar opened an investigation into whether the people who lured the migrants did so “under false pretenses.”

On Thursday, a San Antonio Report reporter was questioned by investigators from the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office after talking with migrants near the Advanced Auto Parts store across from the migrant resource center.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office did not confirm whether investigators are monitoring the area, but on Thursday said they’re working to obtain statements from the migrants who were flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.

Handing off the center

“Many things are changing,” in the resource center’s transition to Catholic Charities, Ford said — including the fact that now hot meals and clothing are being provided to migrants who come through the center.

“The center will provide a humanitarian approach to all people,” Ford said.

Under the new arrangement, Catholic Charities’ staff members at the center will oversee case management, sheltering, reception and intake, food and commodities distribution, as well as travel assistance necessary to get migrants to their final destination and hearing date, according to the city.

Catholic Charities has “a contract with the government to support operations at the center,” Ford said, but she didn’t confirm if the FEMA funds will be redirected to the organization for the management of the site.

On Thursday, migrants outside the center already had good experiences to share. A group from Cuba said the resource center’s cot beds had been replaced with new ones, and the migrants are now being given clothes, shoes, backpacks and personal hygiene products.

One small group of migrants reported meeting other migrants who had been staying at the center for more than three days, but the group said they’re not sure what the requirements are for being able to stay longer. The group said their only concern was cold temperatures inside the center, which is why they were sitting outside during the day.

While Catholic Charities is running most operations, the City of San Antonio said its staff will continue to “oversee partnerships with local and border non-profits and site contractors, manage local transportation to the airport and bus station, and provide building maintenance, custodial services, and other logistical support.”

The transition also comes as the city is trying to resolve a dispute with the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, which complained that an unknown number of its members were being pulled off their normal duties and forced to advance the city’s political agenda by staffing the shelter.

A San Antonio Fire Department engine drives through the parking lot outside of the migrant resource center on Friday.
A San Antonio Fire Department engine drives through the parking lot outside of the migrant resource center on Friday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

City staff contends that the use of firefighters to assist with the shelter is in line with San Antonio’s protocols for emergency management situations, according to a letter shared with the San Antonio Report. The city plans to keep two SAFD staff members as shelter managers at the center going forward, as well as an around-the-clock police presence.

Joe Jones, president of the firefighters union, is considering dropping the grievance now that he said the city agreed to their requests.

After this story published, city spokeswoman Laura Mayes clarified that firefighters, through SAFD’s Office of Emergency Management, will continue to still serve as the shelter management team. The city’s staffing has not changed in the handover or as a result of the union complaint, she added.

Even with the handover to Catholic Charities, there will always be some level of official involvement, Nirenberg said.

“We’ve learned throughout the years, dealing with the migrant inflows through San Antonio, there is a level of coordination that’s required between nonprofits, our faith community and then, of course, our local government,” Nirenberg said.

No regrets

Though the city is reducing its involvement at the resource center since it opened, Nirenberg said the initial work to open the center was a crucial step in getting the players aligned to solve a major problem.

“There are a lot of lessons learned for us that are relevant to what other cities are experiencing,” Nirenberg said. “I think there’s always a role for the local government to at least start to facilitate the process to get it organized.”

Nirenberg also defended the decision to put the center in the north-central residential neighborhood of Shearer Hills/Ridgeview, as opposed to downtown, where the city had opened a similar center in the past.

“The truth of the matter is, this is located in an ideal position between where many folks go, which is the airport, or to the bus depot, on a major commercial corridor, in a way that’s consolidated,” the mayor explained.

Nerlys Velasquez helps migrants pick out donated clothes outside of the city’s migrant resource center on July 22.
Nerlys Velasquez helps migrants pick out donated clothes outside of the city’s migrant resource center on July 22. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

On Thursday, City Council approved spending $1.5 million of its federal pandemic relief ARPA funding to help nonprofits that seek to provide immigrants with a pathway to citizenship.

Asked whether he expects more migrants arriving in San Antonio to stay, Nirenberg said he believes the vast majority are here for less than 24 hours on their journey to a final destination, but he directed the question to Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities has indeed met migrants who have said they love San Antonio and are changing original plans to instead stay here, Ford said.

As for what’s next, Nirenberg said the onus is on Congress to figure this out for communities like San Antonio across the nation.

“It’s an issue that every city, every community should be concerned about and should be asking for our federal government, our Congress to address in a more comprehensive way,” Nirenberg said.

This story has been updated with additional comment from the city and corrected to state that firefighters will continue to serve as the shelter management team.

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.

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...