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Immigrant assistance is unsustainable without congressional action, officials say


To San Antonio now - one of the cities feeling the strain of an ongoing flow of asylum-seekers crossing the Southern border. The city's immigrant assistance center has become a vital waystation where, each year, hundreds of thousands of migrants seek food, shelter and legal aid. But the center operates on tenuous federal funding from the federal emergency management agency, or FEMA, and local officials worry this cycle of crisis financing is unsustainable without broader congressional action on immigration reform. Texas Public Radio's Josh Peck reports.


JOSH PECK, BYLINE: San Antonio's Centro De Bienvenida Migrant Resource Center is a 71,000 square foot facility with a cafeteria, outdoor mobile showers, entertainment rooms, an interfaith chapel and two floors with hundreds of cots for asylum-seekers to sleep. At times, the center's population has been double its internal capacity of 707. That crowding has forced migrants to sleep in the parking lot and in the nearby street.

ANTONIO FERNANDEZ: In November, December, we'd have hundreds of people every day. It was really, really sad because you wanted to have people sleeping in beds or cots, and we couldn't because we didn't have enough.

PECK: That's Antonio Fernandez, the executive director of the Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio, which has operated the FEMA-funded center since 2022. When he gave me a tour of the facility recently, it housed between 300 and 350 people. The center has helped more than 280,000 migrants over the last two years. Migrants are given fresh clothes and can play games, shower, eat culturally familiar food and even watch Disney movies on TV.


PECK: Outside the center, children play with scooters and toy trucks on a dead-end street between the facility and a strip mall while parents chat and get fresh air sitting on nearby concrete walls. Malcri Sanchez is from Venezuela, and she's seeking asylum here along with her husband and daughter.

MALCRI SANCHEZ: (Through interpreter) There's nothing to eat in Venezuela, and they don't pay well for work.

PECK: Sanchez says her family plans to go to Chicago, where she's heard there's lots of help for migrants. The person who is going to house them in San Antonio hasn't returned her calls. Right now, she's trying to get her November 20 asylum court appearance moved from San Antonio to Chicago.

SANCHEZ: (Through interpreter) I feel worried, to be honest, because if you don't have the funds to pay for an attorney or the attorney doesn't show up, or if we don't show up, I don't know what the consequences will be.

PECK: The consequences could be deportation. Fernandez with Catholic Charities is also worried. A recently passed federal spending package will let Catholic Charities continue operating the center through September of 2025, but its long-term funding is uncertain. Migrants get to the center after immigration authorities release them with a pending court date for their asylum petition. They can stay in the center up to 45 days from the date they cross the border. Fernandez says they inform them of their rights and about legal aid groups that can offer help, but he says the center no longer has the federal funds to pay for bus or plane tickets if migrants intend to leave San Antonio. So many, he says, are stuck in the city.

FERNANDEZ: They have to have their own resources to get to their final destinations, which makes things a lot difficult because many of them don't have the money. So they have to pay.

PECK: The center also relies on city services, like police officers who provide security and city sanitation workers. City officials are not sure how long they can continue to support the center. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, an independent who aligns himself with Democrats, says they need key federal changes, including more resources to speed up the asylum process, and he'd like to see migrants have the ability to work legally while their court cases play out. Lack of congressional action on those border issues, he says, means an indefinite state of crisis.

RON NIRENBERG: And until we have some legislators with backbone to deal with those issues upstream, we're not going to see an end of the waxing and waning of the migration impacts at the local level.

PECK: The mayor says that means large numbers of migrants will keep crossing the border, eventually ending up in one of Texas's largest migrant resource centers for asylum-seekers.

NIRENBERG: This is dealing with the impacts of an issue that the federal government - i.e., Congress -has responsibility for.

PECK: Mayor Nirenberg says, if Congress doesn't pass immigration reform, San Antonio will be destabilized by a seemingly endless wave of migrants in need of services that they may not be able to provide.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Peck in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARTYAT4 SONG, "FMW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Josh Peck | Texas Public Radio
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