Amid a series of abrupt, federal immigration policy changes in the past six months, the City of San Antonio says the number of migrants passing through the city has plummeted.

Yet nine months after the city opened a Migrant Resource Center (MRC) to address an influx of migrants, the city is making plans to keep the facility open through at least May, and potentially longer.

The move comes as local officials say they’re still unclear about how the pending end of Title 42, a public health rule that’s been used to quickly expel migrants entering the country to seek asylum, will affect the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Title 42 is expected to end May 11, when the Biden Administration says it will end the federal COVID-19 public health emergency.

“We want to get through May at least,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told reporters Thursday. “… If numbers spike, then of course we are keeping [the MRC] open, but nothing changes and they continue to decrease, we might make a change.”

Complicating the city’s work is a White House that has drawn heavy criticism for the record numbers of illegal border crossings last year and now is mulling drastic measures to keep migrants out.

A record high of 37,000 migrants who had been legally admitted to the U.S. seeking asylum came through San Antonio in December 2022, according to city staff.

After a series of federal policy changes aimed at asylum seekers from certain countries, however, those numbers decreased to roughly 5,500 migrants coming through the city in February.

And despite significantly improved communication with the federal government on logistics surrounding the migrants arriving in San Antonio, city staff said Thursday they remain largely in the dark about the policy changes drastically impacting the number of people they’ll need to assist.

In October the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) moved to reduce the number of Venezuelans who could enter the country to seek asylum. Venezuelans and Cubans have made up a large percentage of migrants passing through San Antonio and utilizing the MRC.

In January DHS expanded that change to include Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans. The administration is also reportedly considering reinstating a policy used by previous administrations to detain migrants who enter the country illegally with their children.

“Every [border] community is talking to [the federal government] about this right now,” Houston said of the uncertainty after Title 42 is lifted.

Funding the MRC

City staff members said they expect their efforts assisting migrants will be fully paid for by Federal Emergency Management Agency grants.

As of this week the city is still owed roughly $9.2 million for services provided during the last half of 2022.

“We are constantly pushing for reimbursement,” City Manager Erik Walsh told City Council. “… I think they’re dealing with a lot of other localities around the country looking for a response.”

Indeed, last week San Antonio city staff participated in a webinar about the FEMA funding with representatives from Los Angeles County, New York City, Seattle, Denver, Del Rio and other cities and counties.

City Council voted unanimously Thursday in support of allowing the city seek another $6.5 million in federal grants to fund its migrant services through the end of 2023.

Reimbursements are typically requested quarterly, and the city has received roughly $1.5 million to cover the first half of 2022, according to the city. It expects to receive roughly $5.8 million in April to cover expenses from the third quarter of 2022, Deputy City Manager María Villagómez said.

As of the beginning of 2023, the city has received some FEMA funding up front, Villagómez said.

San Antonio received $2 million in advance to pay for migrant services for the first three months of 2023, and staff plans to request an addition $630,000 to cover the full amount they anticipate they’ll need.

Houston said the city’s costs to assist migrants, including operating the MRC, are relatively static regardless of the number of migrants arriving in San Antonio. The city also funds transportation and staff to help them get to the airport or bus station.

When numbers drop, “we can decrease some of that transportation … when there’s a spike, we hire staff to be at the airport,” said Houston. ” …There’s some wiggle room for us to decrease when we need to and then increase when we need to, but a lot of this is hard costs that have to be paid regardless.”

The migrant resource center, located at 7000 San Pedro Ave., is being leased by the city. In September the city turned over its day-to-day operations to Catholic Charities, which also receives funding from FEMA grants to cover its expenses.

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Andrea Drusch

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.