Last weekend, dozens of San Antonians filtered into Southtown’s Mennonite Church to provide food, translation services, and warm clothes to the more than 500 women and children who were abruptly released from South Texas family detention centers and turned over to local nonprofit agencies.

Freed Migrant Women and Children Find Refuge in San Antonio

Even City officials such as Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) showed up to the doors of the church to help once they got word of the “chaotic” situation.

Representatives from the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Legal Services (RAICES), a local nonprofit that provides refuge to immigrant families released from detention, said they believed the sudden surge of released families was due to the Dec. 2 ruling issued by a Travis County judge in Austin preventing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from issuing child care licenses to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement that the releases during the Dec. 3 weekend “were part of normal operations and not in response to the court ruling in Austin made the previous day. However, a higher percentage of released family units over that weekend did not have prior travel arrangements and so were referred to local non-governmental organizations for service.

“ICE routinely works with local non-government agencies, and we will continue to do so if a high volume of shelter space capacity may be necessary to accommodate releases from the South Texas Family Residential Center.”

Regardless of the real reason for the large increase of women and children released at a time, RAICES staff members and other volunteers were overwhelmed as bus loads of migrants, mostly fleeing violence from Central America, began to arrive at all hours of the night last weekend without proper warning from ICE. Many volunteers stayed up until 3 a.m. Sunday for a bus full of mothers and children that was supposed to arrive at 6 p.m.

“There was a great disconnect,” Gonzales told the crowd gathered at a town hall meeting Saturday at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, where several elected officials gave statements regarding last weekend’s events. “This is my district and I was only told about it (at) 7 p.m. Sunday night, and they had already been dealing with it for a day and a half.”

Gonzales retold how she walked into the church and saw inflatable mattresses placed all around the church, including hallways, to accommodate the large flow of people. This, plus the large amount of food donations, prompted the San Antonio Fire Department and the Health Department to arrive at the scene.

“They said ‘People can’t stay here, these are dangerous conditions, we don’t have the standards, you can’t have people all over the floors,’” Gonzales said. But even with the lack of hot water, sufficient showers, and food donations that were “not up to standards for running a service,” in the end, the families and volunteers were permitted to stay.

Many mothers and children were taken to the hospital to get treated for pneumonia, Gonzales said, and one child was even left alone to be cared for by volunteers after his mother had to be taken in for treatment.

“As a mother, you can’t just turn your back,” said Gonzales, adding that there were children the same age as her son, Zachary, 1 . “I can assure you that the mothers who brought their children on this dangerous journey – they had to leave there, they couldn’t stay. Either they’re forced to become a part of that violent society or they become victims of it.”

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) said that the positive outpour of support and donations from the community is what San Antonio is all about.

“We cannot go back to saying that’s a city issue, a state issue, a federal issue,” Bernal said. “At every moment where people need help – where there is a crisis and there are children involved – you should expect and demand that  all of us work together all the time.”

RAICES Executive Director Jonathan Ryan thanks the community for their support.
RAICES Executive Director Jonathan Ryan thanks the community for their support. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

The biggest challenge for nonprofits that help families released from detention is “the lack of meaningful coordination and communication from ICE,” RAICES Executive Director Jonathan Ryan told the Rivard Report Tuesday. “They claim to be concerned about the security of our nation, yet this has been one of the most destabilizing events – and they had absolute control over it.

After the Saturday town hall meeting concluded, Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio), Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), Mayor Ivy Taylor, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), and San Antonio Police Chief William McManus attended a private meeting with ICE San Antonio Field Officer Director Daniel Bible and other ICE representatives to address the lack of coordination involving the family releases. Also present at the meeting were representatives from RAICES, Catholic Charities, and the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, as well as San Antonio Mennonite Church Pastor Jonathan Garland and Travis Park United Methodist Church Pastor Monte Marshall.

“To Mr. Bible’s credit, they accepted responsibility for last weekend and said it was a mistake,” Doggett told the Rivard Report over a phone interview after the meeting. “They do not envision a situation like this to happen again, but there are still uncertainties of (the number of) people coming across the border.”

Doggett said that “last week should never have happened” and that there are still other specific, unresolved issues, “but this is some progress to prevent this from happening again.”

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Congressman Lloyd Doggett speaks about how he is meeting with ICE to discuss how and when families are released from the detention centers.
Congressman Lloyd Doggett speaks about how he is meeting with ICE to discuss how and when families are released from the detention centers. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

During the meeting, Doggett said, Bible committed to sending out an advance 24-hour email notice to the City and nonprofit organizations like RAICES before families are transported to San Antonio. Bible also said ICE would make an effort to ensure that women and children released from detention arrive to the city before 9 p.m. at night.

“There also will be a stop to leaving people at the bus station or airport who do not have a confirmed reservation,” Doggett said, which is a response to women and children staying in shelters for hours and days on end while travel plans are figured out. “We had a good discussion about the public safety aspects of this. The City needs to know.”

The Dec. 2 ruling was a major victory for immigration rights groups, but federal litigation aimed at stopping ICE from holding migrant women and children in detention facilities is still pending.

And although ICE has promised more coordination in the future, Ryan told those present at the town hall Saturday that more women and children will continue to be released from detention centers and will need assistance. The effort to close down family detentions for good, he said, is “the moral issue of our time.”

“This wasn’t a natural disaster, this was a product of bureaucratic indifference,” Doggett said during the town hall. “It didn’t happen under Trump, it happened with people who are supposed to be on our side of the struggle, even though there have been so many deportations.”

What we need, Doggett added, is to ensure that a humane system is in place, no matter who the president is.

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Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Congressman Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) said that citizens need to change their mentality when it comes to the meaning of the word refugee.

“A lot of the attention has been focused on what’s gone on in Europe, because Europe is facing its largest refugee situation since World War II,” Castro said, “but in that conversation is often left out the fact that in our own home state and home city, there are thousands and thousands of people who come here seeking asylum and refuge.”

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State Sen. José Menéndez addresses the crowd at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

State Sen. José Menéndez (D126) said efforts are needed to teach Americans not to be afraid of immigrants.

“Somos un país creado por inmigrantes,” he said in Spanish, which translates to: We are a country created by immigrants. “The change has to start here in Texas – we have the population to make a difference. There are 42 days left (of this administration) and (both Democrats and Republicans) must start talking. We are better than primary politics.”

The Rivard Report asked Nirenberg, who was present Saturday and announced his bid to become mayor of San Antonio that morning, what he would do for migrants and refugees who continue to arrive to San Antonio.

“I plan to continue the work that we’ve been doing for the last four years and beyond,” he said. “We will continue to work with our refugee community and make sure they are provided with the services they have every right to be provided.”

As to the possibility of San Antonio becoming a Sanctuary City, Nirenberg said that San Antonio must accept and embrace its role as a compassionate city.

“San Antonio will continue to do what it does, which is basically to allow our police to do their job and make sure they are not tasked with the job of federal immigration,” he said. “I am glad to say that is the position of our chief of police and our San Antonio police department and that will continue to be our position. We are a community that embraces all, we are not federal immigration authorities.”

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...