Boys sleep in cots after arriving at Travis Park United Methodist Church.
Boys sleep in cots after arriving at Travis Park Church with other migrants. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio and other local governments are poised to receive federal reimbursements for money spent assisting migrants passing through the city.

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on a $4.5 billion emergency funding package Tuesday, which includes $60 million allocated to local governments and nonprofits in border states who have spent their own dollars on providing asylum seekers shelter, transportation, food, and other services.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) said on a conference call Monday he expects the Senate to vote on its own emergency funding package Thursday. The House and Senate have different versions – the Senate only has $30 million for federal reimbursements – but Cuellar said he hopes to have a resolution finalized by the end of the week.

“In between Tuesday and Thursday is going to be very important because they will work with us,” Cuellar said. “Hopefully we can work out differences between the House and Senate because we want to finish this by Thursday, because the offices are running out of money down there [at the border].”

In a letter last Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) urged Senate appropriation leaders to provide $30 million in federal reimbursements to border communities.

“Along the border and throughout Texas, cities, counties, and NGOs have felt the effects of the historical levels of the migrant influx into the United States, primarily occurring in Texas,” he wrote. “Those local governments have gone above and beyond the call of duty in meeting the needs of transiting asylum seekers, [unaccompanied children], and migrants through the diversion of millions of dollars in local taxpayer funds to provide transportation, food and housing.”

The proposed reimbursement program allows local organizations and governments to apply for funding directly from the federal government, Cuellar said. Texas has been receiving an average of $20 million each year for the past five years from the State Homeland Security Program – and only $400,000 had been distributed for humanitarian relief at the border, Cuellar added.

“Now the local governments and nonprofits can bypass the state of Texas because [the state was] not giving us the federal funds they were getting, and we can make the request directly,” Cuellar said.

The City of San Antonio has been looking toward federal reimbursements since it opened its migrant resource center in March. The center has seen visits from 200 to 450 migrants per day.

In May, the City approved using $141,000 from its emergency fund to support migrant assistance. San Antonio has served over 18,000 migrants at the resource center and sheltered more than 11,000 at Travis Park Church and other locations as of June 20, according to the City’s Department of Human Services. City staff have worked more than 12,000 hours on migrant assistance. Some have devoted all their time to the migrant resource center, but most are working extra hours on top of their normal work weeks, interim Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said.

Nonprofit partners helping the migrant assistance effort have spent $413,338 as of June 24, according to the City. As of June 9, the San Antonio Food Bank has spent $254,144 through in-kind and monetary donations to feed asylum seekers. During the same time frame, Catholic Charities spent $346,204 in in-kind and monetary donations; Catholic Charities deploys volunteers to help migrants continue to their final destinations and often buys bus tickets for people who have no other resources.

Cuellar said the bill would require emergency funding to be distributed within 30 days after the measure is approved. Cities and nonprofits will apply for funding on a first-come, first-served basis from the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program, which is a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) entity. Costs related to humanitarian relief on the border since Jan. 1 are eligible for federal reimbursement.

While reimbursement is welcomed, Bridger said the government needs to fix the system and ensure that cities are not doing the federal government’s job in assisting migrants.

“This is a $60 million Band-Aid,” she said. “They’re going to have to get in front of the problem, and permanently solve the asylum-seeking process so that we’re not doing it this way.”

She added that the City and its nonprofit partners would to continue to provide aid to migrants that pass through San Antonio.

“I just can’t fathom a situation where we would throw our hands up and say, ‘We’re done, we’re just going to let these folks sleep on the street tonight because we’ve run out of money,’” she said. “This federal reimbursement gives me hope that we won’t have to see it.”

The bulk of the House’s proposed $4.5 billion aid package would go toward processing facilities, food, water, transportation, and other basic needs for asylum seekers. The package also allocates $866 million to licensed shelters, and $100 million for legal services for unaccompanied children, child advocates, and post-release services.

Cuellar pointed to $200 million dedicated to establishing a multi-agency processing center where migrants can receive all the care they need in one place.

“This is so we can get assistance over to those kids as soon as possible,” he said. “Instead of running around [to different organizations] we can do this at one time and [have] food, clothing, shelter, hygiene, activities, free telephone communications to outside family, and hopefully access to legal representation and case management [in one place].”

None of the $4.5 billion was dedicated toward construction of border barriers or adding beds at detention centers.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.