As the country’s continued immigration crisis falls upon San Antonio to deal with, the neighborhood surrounding the city’s new migrant resource center expressed concern and outrage during an emotional meeting Thursday evening with city officials.
One resident of the Shearer Hills and Ridgeview Neighborhood Association called the center a “cancer,” another an “eyesore.” A neighbor’s son passed around a petition seeking the center’s relocation. Neighborhood Association President Erik Sanden, who organized the meeting with city officials, tried to keep the conversation civil and on track.
“We are not here to have a debate on immigration,” Sanden said in his opening remarks, but as the meeting progressed, some residents did indeed bring immigration into the discussion, often yelling over one another and city officials about migrants’ legal status and whether they were spreading disease or committing crimes.
Neighbors’ main concerns included feeling blindsided by the opening of the center, accumulating trash, their personal safety and the safety of migrants crossing busy San Pedro Avenue.
Recent communication from city officials indicated that the mission of the center appears to be expanding as well. In earlier interviews, city officials said the center is not a shelter. But at Thursday night’s meeting, Department of Human Services Assistant Director Jessica Dovalina said the building at 7000 San Pedro Ave. includes 600 cots that already are not enough; the city sends overflow migrants to nearby hotels, she said.
Since the center opened on July 7, 9,583 migrants have used its resources, according to city officials, out of 17,397 total migrants who have passed through San Antonio during that time frame.
Choosing San Pedro Avenue
The center’s presence on San Antonio’s North Side is a first. The city’s first migrant resource center, which operated in 2019, was located at 400 North St. Mary’s St. near downtown.
This year, in response to the influx of migrants passing through San Antonio, overflowing the airport and bus stations after claiming asylum at the border, the city opened the new migrant center.
The area along San Pedro Avenue around the migrant center is a busy commercial strip with plenty of vehicle traffic. Off San Pedro Avenue, the Shearer Hills and Ridgeview neighborhood boundaries run from Pinewood Lane to Jeanette Drive along El Montan Avenue, which divides the commercial strip from the residential area directly behind the center.
Since the center opened, nearby businesses have complained that the migrants coming out of the center were disruptive. Many stood outside during the day, hoping to land jobs to earn cash to pay for transportation to their host cities. Others accepted donations, such as food, clothing and cash dropped off by people seeking to help. Many migrants interviewed outside the center (members of the media are not allowed inside the gates or inside the center) said the building was too cold to stay inside.
As of Monday, however, the scene looked nothing like the week before. There was an increased police presence at the adjacent shopping center and more officers at the center’s entrance. Far fewer migrants stood outside. On Friday morning, solid waste crews were picking up litter on El Montan Avenue.
While some neighborhood residents acknowledged the cleanup, many expressed frustration that they weren’t told in advance about the city’s plans to open the center, especially by their City Council member, Mario Bravo (D1).
At the Thursday meeting, Bravo told them City Council only approved accepting the federal funding for the center and not its location. He added he didn’t know where the center would be located until three days before it opened.
“Elections have consequences,” yelled resident Bonnie Cortez, who described herself as an immigrant. Later, she loudly described the center as a “cancer” to her neighbors standing nearby.
“I think what bothers people is that we weren’t involved. We weren’t told anything,” said another resident who said he lives at the Northview Tower condominiums. “I don’t have anything against immigrants — God bless them, everyone wants a better life. My mother is an immigrant. [But] I never once woke up and said, ‘Boy, I’d like an immigration center across [the street].”
Dovalina described the city’s decision to open the migrant resource center and said it chose the San Pedro location for its proximity to the airport. Fully three-quarters of migrants passing through San Antonio fly to their final destination, she explained. Dovalina also reassured residents that the center is temporary, as the city’s lease agreement is federally funded only through December.
She said there are always 20 to 30 people working on site, from the city’s Human Services department, Emergency Operations Center and nonprofit organization volunteers, adding that the temperature has been adjusted inside to help keep migrants indoors.
‘It’ll destroy the essence of our community’
As the meeting continued, residents shouted questions and comments regarding their safety and a desire for police presence on their streets. One woman said she has seen migrants walking around the neighborhood at night on her security camera.
Joe Frank Pizaco, assistant to the San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus, said two additional police units now patrol the area.
Residents learned every migrant at the center has been processed at the border and gone through a criminal background check. Dovalina said those who fail a background check are not released.
“Since 2019, we have had almost zero incidents where we’ve ever had to call SAPD for violence issues, for criminal issues,” said Dovalina, who also tried explain that the migrants at the center are here legally and have permission to travel within the country.
“People are law-abiding. They want to follow the laws, and go through their asylum process. They understand the implications of violating laws in the U.S. and what impact that would have on their process.”
Despite her explanation, some residents insisted the migrants are illegal because they are not U.S. citizens. Bravo attempted to explain further, but residents booed him.
Resident Irene Ortiz said she has lived in the same house since 1963 and told Bravo migrants have “relieved themselves against the walls” of her house.
“I don’t believe that this is in the best interest of our community,” she said. “Having the migrant center there, for me, is a ‘no no’ because it’ll destroy the essence of our community.”
In response, Sanden said the city has added port-a-potties this week to the grounds of the facility due to a low number of restrooms inside the center.
On Friday, Sanden said he thought the meeting laid the groundwork for better communication with the city and that it addressed neighbors’ valid concerns.
“Last night’s meeting was another step in the right direction, where we saw the city showing up to hear our concerns,” he said. “Things have improved dramatically at the [migrant resource center] in the past week and SHRNA will continue to work to keep it that way.”