Rudy, a Clergy at Celebration Circle, plays guitar for the children.
Rudy, a member of the clergy at Celebration Circle, plays guitar for the children in an area where cots are set up for asylum seekers at Travis Park Church. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Hundreds of thousands of mostly Central American asylum-seekers continue to flood across the border from Mexico into Texas and other border states, overwhelming federal law enforcement agencies and facilities. What to do about a humanitarian crisis with no end in sight remains the subject of partisan debate and gridlock in the nation’s capital. President Trump’s latest proposal appears to be falling flat with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Here in San Antonio, the gateway city on the road north to a new life for migrants, there is no time or space for such standoffs. A City-directed network of municipal staffers, nonprofits, and church volunteers is welcoming a daily wave of asylum-seekers released by federal authorities along the border and put on buses or private shuttles bound for the downtown Greyhound station.

San Antonio has never declared itself a sanctuary city, but it is a city that has always offered sanctuary to people in need, from Mexicans fleeing revolution in the early 20th century to New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and, now, fleeing Central Americans. A city with a majority Mexican-American population has a culture and history rooted in migration.

“San Antonio is a city of compassion that has always been a ray of hope in both the good and the tough times,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Wednesday after touring the resource center. “Our city has never hesitated to embrace anyone needing a place of refuge. Today is no different as we support children and their parents seeking asylum.”

The cycle of national politics cannot change that. Asylum-seekers arriving here see their long journey turn from terror and uncertainty to relief, their first glimpse of a better life ahead. It’s a second, invisible border the migrants cross in San Antonio, one evident in the faces of parents and children alike who suddenly feel welcomed.

Some days, 100-125 migrants arrive. Other days, the number flares to 200 or more. Officials here experienced a surge in late March that overwhelmed Catholic Charities and its volunteers, leading city officials to step in and broaden the city’s response.

“Together with our community partners, the City of San Antonio is humanely treating people who are here legally and going through the asylum seeking process,” said City Manager Erik Walsh. “I’m proud that the City and our community has stepped up to help those in need as they travel through San Antonio.”

Families line up in a hallway to get their room assignments.
Asylum-seekers line up in a hallway at Travis Park Church to get their room assignments. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Sister Denise LaRock, a Daughters of Charity nun who spends long hours every day at the bus station, said about 21,500 family members had been processed and then put on departing buses this year, and another 8,200 had departed by air. April saw 4,000 arrivals locally, while border authorities say they are detaining that many or more on a daily basis in the Rio Grande Valley.

The number of migrant crossings and detentions along the border changes by the day. One day last week a federal official said 14,000 asylum-seekers were awaiting processing that day in detention centers, tent camps, and other makeshift facilities. The next day, that count grew to 18,000. Another official told me weeks ago that more than 100,000 asylum-seekers had been detained and processed since the start of the year. He was contradicted by another official who said more than 200,000 had crossed in March and April. The numbers, however inaccurate, reflect an overwhelmed ICE and Border Patrol.

Nuns and lay workers with the InterFaith Welcoming Coalition, formed here in 2014 as the first waves of unaccompanied children began crossing the border, greet arriving families and unaccompanied women. The bus station’s 24-hour lighting is harsh, its seating uncomfortable, but for the migrants it looks and feels like freedom. It’s their first stop en route to a new life, far from the gangs, corrupt police, and violence and poverty they have fled in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

“The migrants arrive only with the clothes they are wearing and what they can carry. And what they can carry in most cases is their young children,” said Dr. Colleen Bridger, the city’s senior public health official who oversees San Antonio’s humanitarian, medical, and shelter response. “We get no help or funding from Washington, even though we are, in effect, acting as an extension of the federal government by processing and providing vital services to these asylum seekers, who are here legally, on to their final destination.”

Each arriving adult receives a new backpack with a Red Cross blanket, a bag of 20 snacks, soap and toiletries, crayons and a coloring book, a small stuffed animal, a used English-Spanish paperback dictionary, and a reusable water bottle. Sanitary products, over the counter medicines, and diapers are distributed as needed.

Bilingual relief workers escort the migrants on a short walk from the bus station to a  Migrant Resource Center, formerly a vacant office in a city parking garage. Volunteers serve a hot meal prepared by the San Antonio Food Bank. Physicians and nurses deliver  medical services. Goodwill provides fresh clothing and footwear to replace the often tattered, dirty garments worn for weeks and months on the road.

The City of San Antonio opened a vacant storefront across from the Greyhound bus station and near Travis Park Church to serve as a migrant resource center on April 1, 2019.
The City of San Antonio opened a vacant storefront across from the Greyhound bus station and near Travis Park Church to serve as a migrant resource center on April 1. Credit: Jackie Wang / San Antonio Report

Catholic Charities, which operates its own migrant shelters around the city, helps fund the purchase of bus tickets that will take the migrants on to their final destinations after being processed and spending the night at the nearby Travis Park Church, a Methodist congregation established in 1846 with a long history of serving the homeless and welcoming the LGBTQIA community.

“After working for many churches, this is why I work here now,” said Travis Park Pastor Gavin Rogers, 37, who traveled to Mexico five times in 2018 to accompany migrant caravans on their journey to the border. “People of faith have a hard time wiggling out of immigration care, but they do wiggle out because their politics pushes them in that direction. Jesus was a migrant. To me, it’s not a debatable theology. God calls us to love our neighbors. The Greyhound bus station and all the people moving it through it are our neighbors.”

A few fortunate migrants with family or friends in the United States who can afford airfare will board flights one day after arriving in San Antonio. Most face one to two days of bus travel, with many stops, layovers, and bus changes. Bilingual maps help the migrants understand travel routes, geographic destinations, and how to navigate stops and transfers. The migrants guard bus tickets and documents establishing their legal status as asylum-seekers with distant court dates like treasure.

The aging church hall is a warren of rooms crammed with cots, a safe haven for the migrants who retire early – lights out at 9:30 p.m. – with plans for early morning departures. Children hyped up by the sudden change in conditions after the long trip north and time in detention camps keep fatigued adults from their sleep.

I spent the evening speaking with migrants, listening as they shared harrowing stories that led them to flee their homelands, déjà vu for a reporter who lived in Central America in the early 1980s, covering the region’s civil wars. The lawlessness and political chaos that has reverberated down over the years now provides the setting that so many impoverished and threatened people are desperate to escape, no matter how long or dangerous the journey.

The Trump administration’s punitive cutoff of funds to the region’s agencies working to stabilize conditions there is only expected to add to the mayhem and the growing numbers of U.S.-bound asylum-seekers who have credible reason to fear for their lives at home.

Heidi Serrano, 20, a graphics designer and third-year university student, arrived here 70 days after fleeing her home in El Progreso outside San Pedro Sula, Honduras. She did so  after being threatened by a local policeman who showed up at her door one night and demanded weekly protection payment of 1,500 lempiras, about $60.

“He said he knew my family must have money if I was attending a private university, but I was there on a scholarship,” Serrano said. “Someone I know must have been part of extortion plan. They gave the policeman my cellphone number and he began to track me. He finally told me he would kill me if I didn’t have the money for him by the next day. I fled at dawn.”

Jeremy Herrera Mendoza, a slightly built 12-year-old Guatemalan boy, said he was leaving school one day in March when three men who identified themselves as members of La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, approached him with a choice.

“They told me they knew where I lived and I could either join their gang or they would kill my mother and younger brother,” Jeremy said.

The vicious street gang controls many of the poor urban neighborhoods in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Jeremy decided not to tell his mother, Karen Mendoza Centeno, 33, about the threat, and for the next week he hid out in Guatemala City, skipping school to avoid gang members. School officials contacted his mother to ask why one of their top-achieving students was no longer attending classes, forcing Jeremy to return to school where the men once again confronted him and gave him one day to decide whether to join the gang or lose his own life.

Jeremy went home and broke down crying as he told his mother the truth. She took him to local authorities, where he gave a sworn deposition documenting the gang threat. She carried the papers with her as proof in her quest for asylum.

Local officials said they could not protect the family, so Mendoza, Jeremy, and 9-year-old Abrahám boarded the first bus the next morning bound for Mexico, abandoning their home and all their belongings. Their journey turned treacherous at the U.S.-Mexico border after U.S. Customs workers in El Paso denied them entry.

“They said there were too many people from Central America seeking asylum, and even if someone told us we have the right to apply, they were not going to let us in,” Mendoza said. “We took a bus to Nuevo Laredo and lived on the streets for three days, but a policeman told us the Zetas controlled the city and we had better leave.”

Mateo Perez, 57, a family friend living and working in Louisville, wired $2,500 to Mendoza, which she paid to a coyote to smuggle them across the Rio Grande on tire tubes from Piedras Negras to Eagle Pass. Shortly after crossing, the Border Patrol detained them. One month after their departure from Guatemala they were finally in the United States and, after a stop in San Antonio, would be on their way to Kentucky to live with Perez, who Mendoza said is like his godfather.

Bridger said San Antonio’s efforts to deliver comprehensive services to the arriving migrants is straining local budgets, but the city does not intend to curtail services, regardless of how long the humanitarian crisis continues.

“At first we said, ‘Let’s gear up for a two-week response,’” she said, “but that was in late March. This is not a two-week crisis. It’s not getting any better. We now realize it’s just nonstop, it’s the new normal.”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.