San Antonio has no clear backup plan as Migrant Resource Center’s funding dwindles

SAN ANTONIO – With federal funding to support the Migrant Resource Center drying up, San Antonio doesn’t appear to have a clear backup plan yet for how to keep the shelter for asylum-seekers open.

Nearly every city council member indicated during a Thursday meeting they want to keep the facility running. But most appeared hesitant to support any specific plan to ensure they can do so if federal funding falls through.

That was especially true when it came to whether they should into the city budget.

San Antonio opened the MRC in July 2022 as it faced an “unprecedented” flood of migrants coming up from the border. Catholic Charities took over day-to-day operations that October.

The facility has helped 280,000 people with food, shelter, and even transportation assistance – so far, on the federal government’s dime.

City staff say that since January 2021 – a year-and-a-half before the MRC opened – the Federal Emergency Management Agency has allocated $121.2 million to the San Antonio community to help with the more than 600,000 migrants who have passed through.

That FEMA money is not only for the city, which got about 30% of the funding, but also non-profits and religious groups like Catholic Charities or the San Antonio Food Bank.

But city staff expects the $10.5 million remaining in the city’s allocation will be used up by September – even earlier, if more migrants start arriving.

Catholic Charities, which gets its funding directly from the federal government, is expected to exhaust its funding by December.

The city also provides general fund dollars to community organizations through a separate process, but Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said those organizations have not been told to provide services at the MRC.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg blamed Congress for not fixing the immigration system and for not providing cities like San Antonio with more money to handle the problem in the meantime.

“So it’s a double whammy. They’re doing worse than doing nothing. They’re creating impacts and leaving local communities to their own devices. And that is not sustainable,” he told reporters.

Nirenberg traveled to Brownsville last week to show support for President Joe Biden and a border security deal that would include $1.4 billion for cities and states providing migrants with services.

City council members loudly echoed similar desire for the federal government to be responsible for continuing to fund the MRC’s operations during Thursday’s meeting. However, they were more guarded when it came to discussing what backup plans they should consider if that falls through.

The contingencies staff laid out included cutting costs at the MRC and a facility at the airport, which they say they’ve already started to do; tapping other federal funds the city has on hand; and dipping into the city budget.

City staff presented four possible backup plans for funding the Migrant Resource Center during the Mar. 7, 2024 meeting. (City of San Antonio)

Houston said the city’s portion is about $1.3 million per month, though it wasn’t immediately clear how much the full operation might cost.

Catholic Charities President & CEO J. Antonio Fernandez told KSAT his group has been trying to stretch its money, but it does not have any contingency plans yet for if the funding is gone. Since Jan. 1, they’ve also stopped helping pay for migrants’ tickets out of San Antonio.

“So we have an emergency, we can try to help people on a one-to-one basis. But that was the government rules,” he said.

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Councilman John Courage (D9) both indicated they were open to using city money to keep the MRC running.

“Because even if we can’t run the MRC anymore, you’re still going to have maybe 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 people coming through our city,” Courage said. “And without us to help guide them through, they’ll be wandering all over the place, and it’ll cost us a heck of a lot more money than what we may have to invest to keep it going for up to $1 million a month.”

Councilman Marc Whyte (D10) was vehemently opposed to that route, though, saying “San Antonio dollars need to be spent on San Antonians. We need to prioritize our citizens.”

Other council members’ comments largely revolved around their desire to keep the center open and cautioning against anti-migrant rhetoric.

City Manager Erik Walsh confirmed to KSAT after the meeting he “didn’t” hear clear direction from the council for contingency funding either, “but I think by the council raising that issue, is indicative of that there needs to be a backup plan.”

Walsh said the only backup plan now is the use of federal funds and then the reallocation of American Rescue Plan Act money.

“I don’t think I would ever recommend using local dollars short of an emergency,” Walsh said. “I mean, we could have a flood event this afternoon and need to use local dollars in emergency contingency, but we’re not at that point here with the MRC.”

Asked about the lack of clear direction for a funding contingency, Nirenberg told KSAT they have “a little bit of time to think about it.”

“This is the first time we’ve had to really look at what those alternatives might be,” the mayor said. “What I did hear is council overwhelmingly supports the good operations of the MRC and recognizes that the impacts created by Congress’s inaction at the border is going to be, something that we have to deal with as a community, and there’s not an alternative to that.”

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