(CNN) — Katie Myers has a smile for everyone as she walks through Travis Park in downtown San Antonio, greeting immigrants who have just been dropped off in the city by US immigration authorities.
Myers volunteers with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, a nonprofit organization that helps migrants passing through San Antonio with the basics, like buying bus tickets and making phone calls.
But Myers says there is a new phenomenon complicating this current surge.
Since mid-March, Myers says that, on average, immigration officials are dropping off 150 to 200 migrants at the bus station each day and 300 to 500 at the airport. The sudden increase caught volunteers like Myers by surprise.
In previous waves, most migrants only spent a few hours in San Antonio before traveling north, Myers said. But during a period last month, between 20 and 25 migrants each day needed to spend the night.
“It’s not just about getting a ticket,” Myers said. “You have to find out whether or not there is a place for them to live.”
Now there are two groups of migrants arriving in San Antonio: those with plans and means to continue traveling, and those without, Myers said. And the numbers continue to rise.
At the border, US authorities are bracing for a surge in migrant arrivals when the public health border policy known as Title 42 is lifted next month. This policy has allowed authorities to quickly return migrants to Mexico or their countries of origin during the pandemic.
Some Texas leaders have said local services available to migrants will be overwhelmed when Title 42 ends, but San Antonio officials say the situation is already causing alarm.
An “unsustainable increase” in migrants
In San Antonio, some 150 miles from the Rio Grande, white buses and vans, without signs or logos, already drop off hundreds of migrants at the downtown bus station and airport each day.
In one hand, the migrants carry a manila envelope containing the forms provided by US immigration officials. In the other, they usually carry a small plastic bag with all their belongings and a mobile phone issued by the US government, a device that migrants use to verify their whereabouts and that is the alternative to detention by the Joe Biden government. They wear shoes without laces on their feet, since migrants must give them up during the immigration process.
According to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, the city is experiencing an “unsustainable increase” in migrants. The rising numbers prompted Nirenberg to write a letter to the secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas.
Nirenberg provided CNN with a copy of the letter, dated March 31, which states that from March 19 to 29, an average of 628 people stayed in shelters, sleeping at the airport or in the city park. .
“I respectfully request immediate action from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to increase funding for humanitarian infrastructure and resources,” Nirenberg wrote. Since then, city officials have been in ongoing dialogue with US Customs and Border Protection and FEMA, according to his office.
In a statement to CNN, DHS said it “has been in regular contact with the mayor of San Antonio and other elected officials, local leaders and non-governmental organizations as part of a government-wide effort to manage and plan for any surge in costs.” encounters along our southwest border.
San Antonio city officials have warned that if unpredictable increases continue and Title 42 is lifted, the city’s ability to meet humanitarian need could be limited, according to an April 4 memo.
A coalition of nonprofit organizations has been providing hotels to migrant women traveling with children, Myers said, but this continues to leave many migrant men without places to stay. However, Myers and other volunteers take the raise in stride: They’re used to making it work with funds from generous donors and the efforts of volunteers.
A church converted into a night refuge
Across the street from Travis Park, the Rev. Gavin Rogers, pastor of a church that bears the same name as the park, warms up a plate of rice and seafood to welcome migrants to his newly opened migrant shelter.
“We opened our shelter to relieve those trying to get through San Antonio to their destination cities and just waiting for proper transportation,” says Rogers.
Located in the basement of their church, the shelter can accommodate up to 150 people per night. An improvised dining room, made up of tables and chairs, fills the center of the small space. Green cots line the walls.
Meanwhile, in the park, volunteers from the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, like Myers, set up an informal consultation table under a tree.
One by one, people approach the table in an orderly fashion, asking that their names be added to the list of guests Rogers will host. The line is getting longer, a sign that the news of the refuge has spread among the recently arrived migrants.
“A few nights ago, we had 120, a few days ago we had like 44. So it really varies depending on whether the hotels are open. A lot of those hotels give preference to women, children and families,” says Rogers.
That’s why when Rogers opens the doors of his church, mostly men come in. The stress and weight of waiting for the day are clearly seen on his faces. Most have spent the day in the nearby park, without access to money, food or a public toilet. According to Rogers, migrants spend an average of one or two nights in San Antonio before moving on to other cities.
Jessie Amaya, a migrant from Venezuela, was an exception. She told CNN that she had slept in Roger’s church for more than 20 days. Unlike most of the migrants CNN spoke with, Amaya has no family or friends in the United States. She left her home country for fear of political persecution and hopes to call San Antonio home.
San Antonio officials ‘talk like border officials’
U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat representing San Antonio, says he is concerned about the surge of migrants expected next month when Title 42 is lifted.
In fact, he is so concerned that he joins the growing number of Democrats running for re-election who oppose the Biden administration’s decision to end the policy next month.
“When you start hearing San Antonio officials talking like border officials, saying ‘We need help, we need help,’ … then we know the shock has spread 150 miles or more,” Cuellar said.
Of the more than 220,000 encounters with migrants reported by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in March, almost 50% were expelled under Title 42. But starting next month, border agents will return to pre-CBP protocols. the pandemic and will process all the migrants they find. The Biden administration also says it will increase the number of federal agents on the southern border, though Cuellar argues that continues to put the burden of the humanitarian crisis on municipalities and nonprofits.
When he asked the White House for a plan to deal with the post-Title 42 surge, Cuellar says he wasn’t satisfied with the answer.
“They said we were going to notify the nonprofits that more people were coming,” Cuellar said. “That’s not a plan. That’s just a notification.”
paying in advance
In Travis Park, Myers continues her work, floating from one migrant to another, smiling as she answers questions and reassures people. A man approaches her, worried about not having a place to spend the night.
“Wait here,” Myers tells her, then explains that her name will be added to the list of migrants staying at the reverend’s shelter that night.
Myers, who began volunteering with the migrants in 2018, helps out at the park three days a week. She says she witnesses acts of kindness all the time, and remembers when a migrant recently handed over her last US$3 to “pay in advance.”
Although the solution to immigration is complicated, Myers says, she has found something easy she can do to help: “Treat them with kindness, dignity and respect.”