SAN ANTONIO—Three Congolese men are hovering around Marc Wonder while he tries to fire up Google Translate. But the phone app is sluggish and unresponsive, so he can’t understand a word they’re saying.
The mystery is solved after a French-speaking reporter interprets: The men are flat broke and lost all their phone contacts but are wondering if someone can help them get bus tickets next door at the makeshift administrative office, adjacent to the temporary health clinic—both part of San Antonio’s brand new Migrant Resource Center.
Wonder, the center’s operations manager, explains that the newly arrived migrants will have to take that up with Catholic Charities, whose volunteers are on the premises, too.
“Tell them to find Sister Charles,” he says. Once the message is translated, off the men go in search of the French-speaking nun, who’s in high demand around the center these days.
Welcome to the new Texas transit hub for migrants, located far from the border in downtown San Antonio, where the city, churches, and volunteer organizations are doing their best to cope with a huge influx of migrants. Typically, a couple hundred people a day spill out of overcrowded border detention centers that no longer have the bandwidth to handle them; more than 20,000 have been served in the past three months at the Migrant Resource Center, conveniently located across the street from the Greyhound bus station.
The spillover is not only impacting the immediate border areas where migrants first arrive. It has also hit smaller towns like Uvalde, about halfway between San Antonio and the border town of Del Rio.
Mayor Don McLaughlin said Uvalde began seeing large numbers of migrants coming through the town of about 16,000 residents last month. At first, the Border Patrol wanted to release them in front of local stores after they were processed, McLaughlin said, but the town’s leaders pushed back.
"It's something we're not prepared to deal with,” he said. "We're into streets, sewer, water, gas, economic development. We're not into immigration or handling immigration problems.”
McLaughlin said the town doesn’t have the facilities to handle the surge, so the strategy is to bus them to San Antonio, the seventh-largest city in the United States.
While the predominantly Mexican-American city is no stranger to immigrants, San Antonio is used to seeing them after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released them and they are much further along in the asylum process—people who generally know where they’re going and have the means to get there.
What they’re seeing now is different: migrants who have just crossed into the U.S., typically in the border cities of Eagle Pass or Del Rio, then were released after two or three days in federal custody. They’ve typically spent weeks or even months traveling from their home countries and may not have a firm destination in mind or the financial means to get there. For many, San Antonio is the first major city outside the border area where they can clean up, sleep and get some help plotting their next move.
“We suddenly had people who didn’t know where to go, and in some cases they didn’t know where they were,” said Melody Woosley, director of the Department of Human Services for the city of San Antonio.
“It’s like nothing we’ve done before,” she said.
Inside the center, it’s a sort of organized chaos, where restless kids run and play while their parents—last week, they were mainly migrants from Africa, Haiti and Central America—stand in line for food, talk to volunteers about travel options and nervously thumb through the pages of immigration paperwork many of them can’t read because they don’t speak English.
On the wall behind the counter of what used to be Quiznos restaurant—its etched Q still visible in the concrete floor—posters indicate departing buses, flight times and phone numbers for airlines at the San Antonio airport. Colorful drawings left by migrant children brighten the far side of the wall next to windows that look out onto St. Mary’s Street.
In late May, with the center bursting at the seams, the city had to knock out a wall to connect the old Quiznos to administrative office space the city owns next door. Now that space is usually full, too.
Every evening after dinner, the migrants walk to dormitories at Travis Park Church up the street and then back in the morning to start the day again.
Most of the Central Americans and Haitians know where they are going and have relatives waiting for them. Many of the Africans, though, either have no idea where to go or know only the names of cities, like Chicago and Portland, Maine, whose names roll uneasily off their tongues.
“With the Africans, they’re like, we made it across the border, now we don’t know what to do,” Wonder said. “What money they did have, they spent it on the journey.”
That was the case last week for a 44-year-old migrant at the center who only wanted to give his middle name—Evaristo. He said he and his wife and three children left Luanda, Angola, on Dec. 18 and flew to Brazil before making their way over land all the way to the U.S. border, where they waded across the Rio Grande in a human chain with other migrants and requested asylum in Del Rio.
After the journey, Evaristo only had $2 left; he had no idea last week how he was going to scrape together the money to get from San Antonio to Portland, Maine, by Tuesday to make it to his ICE check-in on time.
He doesn’t know anyone in Maine—only that there is a big Congolese community in town.
“If I could send out a message, an alert, perhaps an SOS, if someone with a good heart could get us a bus ticket to get us to where we are supposed to go,” he pleaded in French. “What can I do with $2?”
Evaristo, a Portuguese speaker who learned French in his adopted Congo homeland, said he and his family—including three children ranging in age from 7 to 14—are fleeing government oppression and discrimination after returning to their ancestral Angola. He said U.S. authorities told him he would have been detained if he didn’t have kids in tow. Under the Flores Agreement, a court settlement over migrant detention conditions, children (including those traveling with parents) must be released promptly.
“They told us that ‘you’ve been freed not because you’re adults but because of your kids,’” Evaristo said. “‘If it was just you, you would have stayed in detention in accordance with the law.’”
The flow of migrants into Del Rio has strained resources there, too. The city leased a portion of one of its neighborhood centers to the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition to utilize as a transition center during the day to help the influx of migrants, and the city has spent almost $19,000 in janitorial supplies, building repairs, and other cleaning services so far.
Janeen Young, treasurer of the coalition, said many migrants are a “mess” when they show up to the center, often wearing the same clothes and undergarments as when they crossed the border. Young helps people get in touch with their families and provides showers, meals, and other basic necessities.
Although San Antonio is better able to cope with the influx, its migrant resource center says it needs immediate help. Although the U.S. Border Patrol detention centers aren’t allowed to take charitable assistance, the center can.
“We have a continual need for volunteers, Spanish speakers, diapers, books, medical volunteers, financial assistance just to Catholic Charities for the travel arrangements that they’re making,” said Woosley, the city’s human services director. “Underwear is another big one.”
The city recently published a flyer spelling out all the ways people can assist—including dropping off supplies at the San Antonio Food Bank, volunteering or sending in donations. The most urgent need right now is financial assistance for travel, which Catholic Charities is handling, Woosley said.
Since San Antonio opened its shelter March 30, it has spent more than $194,000 in hard costs, and that doesn’t include more than 13,000 hours of work put in by more than 800 city staffers, officials said.
Some financial help is finally on the way, thanks to the emergency $4.6 billion relief bill Congress passed last week. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, helped secure $30 million in the bill to reimburse local communities — including cities and charities — that have stepped in to fill the void left by an overwhelmed federal government.
The bill sets up a new funding mechanism—a board made up of nonprofit officials and a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—that will bypass the traditional state bureaucracy. Cuellar says that will ensure the money quickly gets to hard-hit communities like McAllen, Laredo, San Antonio and beyond.
“What we have been seeing at the border, now cities like San Antonio are starting to see,” Cuellar told the The Texas Tribune. “It’s a reimbursement program to the cities and the counties and the nonprofits that have been putting this money in. They really are running out of space; they’re running out of money in many ways.”
The help for struggling cities was part of a rare bipartisan compromise in the gridlocked Congress, where Democrats and Republicans often talk past each other on hot-button immigration issues.
Near El Paso, Texas Democrats visited a border processing facility in Clint this week amid reports that current and former Border Patrol agents had a secret Facebook group in which they denigrated migrants and made vulgar comments about progressive members of Congress. In South Texas, meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, went on a media tour meant to highlight what both migrants and law enforcement officials are going through on the border.
The $30 million will “provide some resources,” Cruz told the Tribune while walking down a heavily crossed patch of borderland with the Rio Grande in view. But until Congress closes “loopholes”—including the Flores Agreement, which he said encourages a “catch and release” dynamic for families with children—the “deluge will keep coming.”
“And that is cruel and heartless to perpetuate a legal system that results in so many children facing enormous hardship,” Cruz said. “What would be compassionate, what would be humane, would be to fix the problem.”
There’s little time for talk about the larger political forces at the San Antonio migrant center. Wonder, the operations manager, spends his days poring over the pages of his “Continuity Binder,” which helps him quickly bring a constantly changing cadre of volunteers up to speed on how to help with travel, money orders, intake and more. He says it’s Groundhog Day every day.
The binder gives a taste of the triage environment that Wonder—a trained emergency management specialist and former Army cavalry scout — encounters every hour: “1. Daily Operations Rhythm. 2. Contact List. 3. Meal Pick Up and Serving Procedures 4. Medical Care Procedures ...” and so on.
“I have a 10-meter bubble. So what happens 10 meters around me, that’s all I care about,” Wonder said. “I don’t care about the politics or where they came from. They’re here — my job is to make sure that they’re safe, they’re secure, that we assist, advise and facilitate all their needs.”
It worked for Evaristo. The Angolan migrant sent a text Tuesday morning to say he’d made it to Maine — just in time for his ICE check-in — thanks to bus tickets bought by Catholic Charities.
“But there is still need for others … who are still there,” he wrote.