San Antonio city manager denies using airport building as migrant ‘shelter’

Councilman says migrants are staying several days; city manager says it’s 24 hours or less and only for those flying out of SAT

SAN ANTONIOThis story has been updated to include additional comments by City Manager Erik Walsh on Dec. 12.

San Antonio’s city manager is denying that a city-owned building at the San Antonio International Airport is being used as a “secret” multi-day shelter without the city council’s knowledge.

The Daily Mail reported last week on a “secret migrant camp” at the airport. Councilman Marc Whyte (D10) told KSAT on Monday that council members had only been told it was a possibility the city would bring migrants there, not that it was actually happening.

However, City Manager Erik Walsh says council members were, in fact, aware the city had been using the “Airport Transfer Center” to temporarily hold migrants ahead of their scheduled flights out of the airport.

He also denied it had been kept secret from the wider public. While there did not appear to have been any concerted public messaging about the city beginning to use the building in mid-May, Walsh said staff were able to pull up media statements they had provided.

I don’t think it was a big secret. And frankly, I’m offended at the at the notion that this was a secret or we were hiding individuals. That’s offensive. That’s not our job. And it’s almost ridiculous,” Walsh said.

“The fact of the matter is that there’s 1,200 people on average showing up in San Antonio, or coming through San Antonio, on a daily basis. And if anybody’s got any questions about immigration, they ought to call their congressman or the federal government.”

Though some may end up staying overnight at the ATC, Walsh called it a “transit spot” and said the migrants were staying there “no more than 24 hours.” Then, six to seven hours before their flight, they’re given a ride to the airport terminals.

“It is not a shelter. It is not a place where people who don’t have plane tickets are being housed,” Walsh said. “It is all about having a place for those individuals to go, that have a plane ticket and are flying out the next day.”

Walsh said the city had started using the ATC when it appeared Title 42 was ending and it appeared there could be even more migrants passing through. Before that the city could have up to 300 or 400 people sleeping in the terminals at a time, which caused problems with airlines and other travelers.

Councilman Marc Whyte (D10), whose Northeast Side district borders the airport, said he only learned “individually” in October that migrants were being brought to the ATC. When he asked city management about it, the councilman said he was also told migrants would only be staying less than 24 hours.

“But what we since learned, of course, is that some of these folks are staying at this holding facility for two, three days or more,” Whyte said.

Whyte would not elaborate on how he had learned that beyond saying “by talking to folks that are there.”

He also said council members “were never told when this program was actually going to begin.”

Walsh told KSAT on Monday that council members had, in fact, been informed the city was using the building.

He also said Monday he was “not at all” aware of anyone staying longer than 24 hours, though “at times, probably depends a little bit.”

Asked about the time-frame again on Tuesday, Walsh said “there’s probably times where maybe it bleeds over a little bit, but no more than 48 (hours).”

KSAT texted the other 10 city council members to ask about their recollections about what they had been told. Of the eight who responded, half said they were told it was happening. One of them, Councilwoman Sukh Kaur (D1), whose district includes the Migrant Resource Center (MRC), said she learned about it in an individual briefing and was unsure if other council members were told.

Two others remembered being told it was a plan or possibility. Another said she did not recall a conversation where the building was “for sure“ going to house migrants.

The final council member said she was not present when the council was given an update on the MRC.

The city opened the MRC in July 2022 at a former CPS Energy building in the face of thousands of migrants traveling through San Antonio legally after being processed at the border.

Catholic Charities has handled day-to-day operations at the MRC since October 2022, which includes using it as an overnight shelter.

The city’s migrant dashboard on Monday showed the number of people “sheltered” at the MRC in the past four weeks has often been just under -- or even over -- the building’s 700-person occupancy limit.

An average of more than 300 people a day are “sheltered” at the airport, according to the same dashboard. A city spokeswoman said the ATC has an 800-person occupancy limit.

Migrants are free to leave either location, which troubles Whyte.

“We cannot have them roaming the streets of San Antonio. It’s absolutely a public safety nightmare,” Whyte said, though he did not have specific examples of issues related to either the ATC or MRC.

The councilman thinks the city should close the ATC immediately and consider whether to shut down the MRC as well.

“We need to send out the message loud and clear that there is nowhere -- there’s no shelter for these folks to come and stay here in San Antonio. The migrant center on San Pedro is overflowing, right? We cannot take any more people here in San Antonio,” he said.

The city has “bent over backwards” to do its part to help with the immigration issue, Whyte said, and “we’re now at a point where we can’t do any more. It’s not anti-immigrant to say that we have to prioritize our citizens first.”

When asked if city staff would entertain that idea, Walsh said, “Not at this moment.”

“We’re going to continue to facilitate the onward travel. Utilizing federal dollars to do that, we’re going to continue to do that,” Walsh said.

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Adam Barraza is a photojournalist at KSAT 12 and an El Paso native. He interned at KVIA, the local ABC affiliate, while still in high school. He then moved to San Antonio and, after earning a degree from San Antonio College and the University of the Incarnate Word, started working in news. He’s also a diehard Dodgers fan and an avid sneakerhead.

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