Sheltering themselves from the 100-degree heat outside, dozens of families gather inside San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center. A mother brushes her daughter’s hair into a ponytail, and a little boy gets his diaper changed near the tiled letter “Q” in the floor, a remnant of the building’s former life as a Quiznos sandwich shop. Over handfuls of orange slices and styrofoam takeout containers, conversations in Spanish, French, and Portuguese fill the room.
Such scenes are increasingly common at the migrant center as the number of immigrants and asylum seekers from Africa surges. From just June 4 to June 18, roughly four hundred migrants from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have arrived at the city-run center. In recent weeks, more than 300,000 people have fled the Congo due to escalating tensions between ethnic groups and violence between local militias and government forces, according to the United Nations. During the first two weeks of June, Border Patrol says it detained 740 African migrants in the Del Rio sector. In contrast, just 211 African migrants were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in all of 2018.
The sudden arrival of African migrants took the Border Patrol by surprise and came with unsubstantiated claims (later refuted by city officials) that many of them were carrying the Ebola virus. The surge is also putting considerable strain on the migrant center in San Antonio. CBP puts migrants apprehended in Eagle Pass on buses to San Antonio, the nearest major transportation hub. But unlike most Central Americans, many of the Africans don’t have family or a sponsor in the United States, and federal immigration authorities frequently leave the city of San Antonio to sort things out. At least half the African migrants sent to San Antonio arrive without a final destination having been arranged by CBP, according to assistant city manager Colleen Bridger. The result is that the migrant center has become more of a halfway house than a brief waystation.
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At the Greyhound station in downtown San Antonio, volunteers greet arriving migrants and steer them to the nearby resource center for food, water, and guidance on how to reach their desired destinations. Local officials have been overwhelmed, putting out calls for interpreters and rushing to find adequate shelter to address the influx. Within their first 24 hours in the city, the first group of these arrivals from Africa were relocated twice due to overcrowding issues and a power outage. While Central American migrants are typically processed through the center and sent elsewhere in the country within 24 hours, it’s taken longer for San Antonio officials to process African migrants, because many more of them don’t have family members in the country.
The city and its nonprofit partners (Catholic Charities, San Antonio Food Bank, and Travis Park Church) have spent more than $600,000 to shelter, feed, and transport migrants since the center opened in March. Additionally, city staff estimates volunteers have worked 11,000 hours during the same period.
“We’re basically free help for the federal government, and they haven’t provided the resources or the notice to help us out,” Bridger said. The city is hopeful, however, that legislation likely to reach the president soon will offer some relief. Though local officials are still unsure how much they might be reimbursed, they’re hopeful that legislation signed by President Trump on Monday will help. The $4.6 billion border aid bill includes $30 million to reimburse local governments and nonprofits for expenses they’ve incurred in dealing with this year’s migrant surge.
Many of the migrants who arrived in San Antonio faced poor conditions waiting in Mexico after months-long journeys from Africa through Central America before finally arriving at the U.S. border. Alliance Francaise volunteer Loren Kruger, who has worked with the migrants throughout the month of June, said several of the people she saw were hungry and hadn’t been able to bathe in Mexico. Others had wounds on the soles of their feet from walking miles without shoes.
Thirty-year-old Emmanuel Shoko had no plans for where he would go, or any understanding of what would happen, when he arrived at the U.S. border. He says he simply needed to escape Congo. Shoko, who walked through the center with a limp, left the capital city of Kinshasa four months ago to escape violence. His injured leg was just one painful reminder of the torture he endured at the hands of soldiers.
“People in my village were shot on site,” Shoko says through a translator. “I was arrested and taken so I could show them the others who escaped. They kept me and beat me for seven days and even broke my leg. They finally left me behind because they thought I was too weak.”
With the help of other former captives, he was eventually able to flee to the neighboring country of Angola, then across the ocean to Colombia, and up through Central America on foot and via bus. For eleven days, he and his group walked through the Darién Gap—a swath of undeveloped land between Colombia and Panama known as “the world’s most dangerous jungle.” Shoko described how a few people he was traveling with drowned one night during a period of heavy flooding. Others at the center reported losing group members to snake bites. By the time he got to San Antonio, Shoko had learned from other Central African migrants of a sizable Congolese community in Portland, Maine where he plans to go.
“I have no friends, no family there,” Shoko says. “But I heard that in America my rights would be protected.”
As Shoko and others prepare themselves for the next leg of their journey, Kruger and the other volunteers explain that everything is far from over for them. In mid-June, as President Trump tweeted out his plans to deport thousands of undocumented immigrants, Kruger broke down in tears. One of the asylum seekers she had helped get to family in Brooklyn called her sobbing after hearing about the proposed raids on TV. His family members are undocumented and were afraid to risk staying in the U.S. Ultimately, he and his brother decided to leave for the Canadian border.
“He kept asking me if they would be okay, but I couldn’t say ‘yes’ in good faith,” Kruger said. “He gave me his case number before he left and said, ‘please, don’t forget me.’”