Boys gather around a book to read together.
Migrant children read together at Travis Park Church, where nearly 20,000 have been housed overnight since March. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has released the guidelines to apply for federal reimbursement for migrant response-related expenses, Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said Wednesday, but no mechanism for applying exists.

Bridger briefed City Council members on the City’s migrant resource center and partner organizations’ activities at a meeting Wednesday afternoon. Between the City and its nonprofit partners – including the San Antonio Food Bank, Catholic Charities, Travis Park Church, and Interfaith Welcome Coalition – Bridger said she expects to request more than $1.2 million in reimbursements.

The City has seen more than 29,000 migrants pass through San Antonio since March. The Food Bank has served more than 71,000 hot meals to migrants, and Travis Park Church has housed nearly 20,000 migrants overnight in the same time period.

The City was able to defray some costs that nonprofits had incurred in assisting asylum-seekers, but each organization still had expenses beyond what the City was able to cover, Bridger said.

“For Travis Park Church, their average monthly cost is $50,000,” Bridger said. “By the end of the fiscal year, they will spend $133,000 that is not covered by the City. Each organization will tell you the City dollars were helpful, but they didn’t cover the entire cost. That’s why we’re excited to work with the federal government to get maximum reimbursement that we can for the City and this response.”

Catholic Charities has focused much of its migrant assistance on buying bus and plane tickets for asylum-seekers to travel to their final destinations. In July, the organization said that it had spent more than $350,000 on migrant-related costs, and most of that was for tickets. They are optimistic about receiving reimbursement for travel expenses in the next federal appropriations bill.

Bridger assured Council members that the City would be applying for the federal reimbursement as soon as the application goes live online.

“[FEMA has] said the top two priorities for reimbursement are food and shelter,” Bridger said. “That’s good because that’s the predominant expense we are having.

“What they haven’t done is given us the application, they haven’t given us the application date,” she said. “So all that has happened is they said [that] of the $30 million, $25 million is going to border states and this group is going to oversee the process.”

The Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program, an arm of FEMA, will be overseeing applications along with United Way organizations around the country. Local governments and nonprofit organizations will apply through their local United Way, who will pass applications up to the national board.

FEMA has not given any indication when the application for federal reimbursement will be made available, Bridger said.

“We are cheerfully acknowledging this is a challenge but not one that is going to prevent us from applying as soon as that application hits the internet,” she said.

The City and nonprofit partners plan on applying for federal reimbursement together. 

Like San Antonio, City Manager Erik Walsh said, other local governments that handle asylum-seekers passing through their boundaries all have strong relationships with nonprofits to manage the workload. He recommended looking into establishing a longer-term solution for migrant assistance.

“I’m super proud of the number of employees that have assisted the leadership,” he said. “The leadership has been carrying a heavy load since March. There are a lot of departments engaged, but I do think we need to think through a longer-term perspective on how we’re going to deal with this.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) agreed.

“We’re demonstrating to the world that [helping asylum-seekers] can be done but the way it’s being conducted is not a permanent solution and we’re going to need one,” Nirenberg said.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.