San Antonio offers asylum seekers a glimpse of a better life

Published on Monday, 20 May 2019 20:49
Written by Robert Rivard

Special To The Washington Post

As Central American asylum seekers flood across the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas, overwhelming federal law enforcement agencies and facilities, Washington remains in gridlock. The Trump administration’s latest immigration proposal, put forth Thursday, is sure to be dead on arrival in Congress.

There is no time for such standoffs in San Antonio, where asylum seekers released by federal authorities along the border arrive in daily waves at the downtown Greyhound station.

The influx poses a significant challenge. I spent a recent night with migrants as they were welcomed at the bus station and taken to an adjacent migrant resource center and then a nearby church shelter for an overnight stay. San Antonio is a strategic way station, the point on Interstate 35 where asylum seekers see a long journey turn from terror and uncertainty to a first glimpse of a better life. It’s a second, invisible border crossing, evident in the relief on the faces of parents and children alike.

San Antonio has never declared itself a sanctuary city, but it is a city that has always offered it: to Mexicans fleeing revolution 100 years ago; to New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and now, to fleeing Central Americans. A city with a majority-Mexican American population has a culture and history rooted in migration. The harshness of our national politics cannot change that.

Some days, 100 to 125 migrants arrive from the border. This week, the number flared to 200 or more daily. At times, it has been higher. “The migrants arrive only with the clothes they are wearing and what they can carry, and what they can carry in most cases is their young children,” said Colleen Bridger, the city’s senior public-health official who oversees San Antonio’s humanitarian, medical and shelter response. “We get no help or funding from Washington even though we are, in effect, acting as an extension of the federal government by processing and providing vital services to these asylum seekers.”

Bilingual relief workers escort new arrivals from the station to a makeshift migrant resource center inside a city parking garage where the San Antonio Food Bank serves a hot meal. Volunteer physicians and nurses deliver medical attention. Fresh clothing and footwear from Goodwill replaces tattered garments worn on the trek north. Every adult receives a new backpack with a Red Cross blanket, a bag of 20 snacks, soap and toiletries, crayons and a coloring book, a small stuffed animal, a used English-Spanish paperback dictionary, and a reusable water bottle. Sanitary products, over-the-counter medicines and diapers are distributed as needed.

Catholic Charities, which operates its own shelters around the city, helps fund the purchase of bus tickets that will take the migrants to other destinations after spending the night at the nearby Travis Park Church, a Methodist congregation with a history of serving the homeless and welcoming the LGBTQ community.

The aging church hall is a warren of rooms crammed with cots, a haven. Most asylum seekers leave the next morning on buses for their final destinations and waiting family or church sponsors. Immigration court hearings are likely 16 months or more into the future.

Migrants shared with me their harrowing stories of escape - deja vu for a reporter who covered Central America’s civil wars in the 1980s. The lawlessness that has reverberated down over the decades provides the setting that so many impoverished and threatened people seek to escape.

Heidi Serrano, 20, a third-year university student, arrived here 70 days after fleeing her home outside San Pedro Sula, Honduras. A local policeman showed up at her door one night and demanded weekly protection payment of 1,500 lempiras, about $60. “Someone I know . . . gave the policeman my cellphone number, and he began to track me,” Serrano said. “He finally told me he would kill me if I didn’t have the money for him by the next day. I fled at dawn.”

Jeremy Herrera Mendoza, a slightly built 12-year-old from Guatemala City, was leaving school when members of La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, approached. “I could either join their gang or they would kill my mother and younger brother,” Jeremy said.

The vicious street gang controls many of the poor urban neighborhoods in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Jeremy skipped school for one week to avoid gang members but then returned when his mother, Karen Mendoza Centeno, learned of his truancy. Gang leaders found him again and gave him one day to join or die

Jeremy broke down crying as he told his mother the truth. Karen, 33, Jeremy and 9-year-old Abrahám boarded the first bus the next morning to Mexico, abandoning their home and belongings. Mendoza paid $2,500 to a coyote to smuggle them across the Rio Grande on tire tubes. They were then detained by the U.S. Border Patrol.

City official Bridger said San Antonio’s efforts to deliver services to the arriving migrants are straining local budgets, but the city does not intend to stop, regardless of how long the crisis continues.

“At first we said, ‘Let’s gear up for a two-week response,’ ” Bridger said, “We now realize it’s just nonstop, it’s the new normal.”

Posted in The Bristol Press, Editorials on Monday, 20 May 2019 20:49. Updated: Monday, 20 May 2019 20:51.