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SAN ANTONIO — The tile floor near the entrance to San Antonio’s migrant resource center still has the Quiznos logo on it. The center, which the city opened in the former sandwich shop in late March, has become a hub for migrants, many of whom arrive in San Antonio with no money, no resources, and no idea how to reach their final destinations.
From the outside, the center looks like any other nondescript building in downtown San Antonio: It no longer looks like a Quiznos (minus the tile), and it certainly doesn’t look like a place that’s taken in more than 23,000 migrants in the past four months. Migrants spend, on average, just one night there, but some, especially those who can’t afford to make travel plans, stay for much longer.
Inside, the place feels like equal parts travel agency, community center, and daycare, but with sparse furnishings. It’s clean but chaotic and loud. Babies cry and laugh in their parents’ arms while toddlers and children play and color. The adults call friends and family in far-flung locations like New York City and Denver, in hopes of leaving as soon as possible.
“The alternative was to have 25,000 people dropped off in the heart of San Antonio with no help, no food, and two or three nights ahead of them,” Colleen Bridger, the assistant city manager, told VICE News. “These are all families, most of whom have children. That’s not how you want families and kids spending a couple nights in your city.”
"The alternative was to have 25,000 people dropped off in the heart of San Antonio with no help, no food."
Until recently, caring for the migrants wouldn’t have fallen to San Antonio, a liberal city in south Texas with about 1.5 million people. Last October, the Trump administration ended Safe Release, an Obama-era policy that discharged asylum-seekers who passed their initial screenings to family, friends, or other sponsors and helped them coordinate their travel plans. Now, Border Patrol drops migrants off in big cities and small towns alike near the border and forces them to make a difficult choice: spend money and resources to help migrants just passing through — or leave them to fend for themselves.
At first, 25 to 35 people were arriving every day in San Antonio, a surge the city’s nonprofits could handle on their own. But toward the end of March, the number of asylum-seekers nearly tripled — and nonprofits needed help. That’s when the city got involved.
“We were at the point where even if somebody had the money to buy a ticket, they couldn’t get one for two or three days,” Bridger said. “They needed some place to stay until their bus left.”
One side of the center — the former Quiznos, now owned by the city — welcomes arriving migrants and helps prepare those ready to leave. Each day, volunteers sit near the building’s entrance and conduct one of the center’s most important tasks: intake interviews. They ask each family a few questions: Where are you going? Where did you come from? Is your travel already booked? Are you sick?
The volunteers work in shifts of about a dozen people. Many are city employees who volunteer in their free time. Others are college or high school students.
The other side of the center, in another city-owned storefront, is essentially a lounge with a television and a makeshift play area for young children. The city knocked down the wall between the two sides to create the 4,600-foot center, including a separate medical area.
Nowhere else to go
On a single day in July, more than 200 people passed through the doors of the onetime sandwich shop, though the number changed by the hour as some migrants prepared to leave and others arrived. Most of the migrants who come to the center are Central American. More recently, there’s been an increase in Congolese, Angolan, and Haitian migrants, which has posed a new challenge: finding volunteers who speak their languages.
Yasmin, a Honduran woman staying at the shelter, told VICE News she wasn’t sure when she’d be able to get to Washington state, where one of her siblings lives. A few hours later, though, she was on her way out the door. She and her daughter had spent just one night in the shelter.
“I came because I was having problems in my country — one of my brothers was killed by a gang,” the 40-year-old said through tears. “I sold nearly everything I had to come here.” She and her 7-year-old daughter left Honduras in late June.
Like all the migrants quoted in this piece, Yasmin asked to be referred to by a pseudonym to protect her identity.
At the center, migrants are free to come and go as they please, though many choose to stay nearby. They either don’t know the city, or they’re heading to the airport or bus station later in the day. Every few hours, a volunteer calls out a list of people whose flights are set to leave later that day. Another group of volunteers takes those families to the airport, usually several hours before their flights are scheduled to take off. At night, a volunteer escorts the migrants to the nearby Travis Park Church, where cots have been set up for them to sleep.
The process starts again the next day.
Everyone stays at the resource center until they no longer have to. One group of eight migrants from Haiti, who arrived here after a three-month journey from Chile, said they had been in the shelter for nine days and had no idea when they’d be able to leave.
“We have half the money for our tickets,” Evens, one member of the group, told VICE News. “Each ticket costs around $200, but there are too many of us. We just don’t have enough money. We spent a lot of it on the journey: on food, on buses.”
Catholic Charities and donors from the community pay for the fund that the resource center uses to help some families pay for travel — but it’s drying up quickly. In one week, Catholic Charities spent close to $200,000 on bus tickets alone, Bridger said.
But many migrants don’t seem frustrated by the wait, especially compared to the conditions at Border Patrol stations, which are often so cold that migrants refer to them as hieleras, or iceboxes.
“They treated us terribly in Border Patrol. I got sick from the dirty water and undercooked food, and we weren’t allowed to shower — I didn’t shower until I got out,” said Wilson, a 39-year-old migrant from El Salvador who spent 40 days at the Border Patrol station in Eagle Pass. “But here, they give us three meals a day, they give us water and whatever else we need. They’re kind to us.”
“Who pays for it?”
Border Patrol doesn’t drop the migrants off directly in San Antonio. The agency releases migrants in smaller cities closer to the Texas-Mexico border, like Uvalde and Eagle Pass. But since those cities don’t have the resources to help migrants get where they’re going — much less to take them in while they figure out how to get there — the asylum-seekers head to San Antonio, the biggest nearby transit hub.
“At Eagle Pass and Del Rio, they release them into a parking lot that has buses, 95% of which are going to San Antonio,” Bridger said. “Who pays for it? Not the federal government.”
Some of the families pay for the bus ticket themselves, and local nonprofits cover the cost for families who can’t afford it. From there, the migrants arrive at San Antonio’s resource center, located right by the local bus station. Even migrants with the means to book travel typically pass through the center.
“I wouldn’t know how to tell you where we came from,” said Yasmin, the Honduran immigrant. “We came here on a bus. I don’t know from where — somewhere in Texas.”
Many of the cities being forced to take in asylum-seekers welcome them, like San Antonio has. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for communities to handle the logistics and associated costs once covered by the federal government and its nonprofit partners.
San Diego County, which has spent more than $1.3 million taking in tens of thousands of migrants since January, sued the Trump administration over the end of the Safe Release program in April. Deming, New Mexico, a small town of about 15,000 people that set up its own shelter on its county fairgrounds, declared a state of emergency over the migrant releases in May. New Mexico sued the administration over the Safe Release policy a month later.
Like any place, San Antonio has limited resources. Between March 30 and July 5, the city’s human services department spent about $2,500 a day caring for migrants. Those funds went to housing and feeding the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who have arrived in the city in recent months.
But officials may find some relief soon: The recently passed $4.6 billion border appropriations bill includes $30 million for reimbursing cities and counties that have taken in asylum-seekers, although that may fall short of covering costs for every community.
“I don’t know if that’s going to go very far,” Bridger said, “when you think about all of the states and towns that have been doing the federal government’s work when it comes to asylum-seekers.”
Cover image: An immigrant seeking asylum peers out the door at a makeshift resource center, Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in downtown San Antonio. The surge of migrants arriving at the southern border has led the Trump administration to dramatically expand a practice it has long mocked as "catch and release." (AP Photo/Eric Gay)