San Antonio says migrant facility at the airport isn’t secret, but it hasn’t pointed to any time it told the public

Airport Transfer Center being used to hold migrants for up to 24 hours ahead of their flights out of San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO – The City of San Antonio says the migrant facility it has been operating at the airport for roughly seven months is neither a shelter nor a secret.

But the city still hasn’t been able to point out when it mentioned it publicly.

Many San Antonians heard about the “Airport Transfer Center” (ATC) for the first time in the past week after the Daily Mail first reported on Dec. 7 on what it characterized as a “secret migrant camp.” City Manager Erik Walsh has said he’s “offended” by the notion the ATC was a secret or that the city was hiding people.

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.”

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

During interviews earlier this week, Walsh told KSAT that in mid-May, the city had started using a city-owned building at the northern edge of the airport to give migrants with plane tickets a place to wait for their scheduled flights -- generally, for no more than 24 hours. Before that, migrants traveling legally up from the border were brought directly to the terminals, where they may end up sleeping overnight.

A city spokesperson said the building has restrooms and climate control, and migrants can access Wi-Fi, hygiene and baby products, and food. The building also has chairs for migrants but no cots.

The city spends $260,000 on the ATC each month, which is reimbursed with federal dollars, the spokesman said.

In the past week, a city dashboard shows between 243 and 466 people per night being “sheltered” at the “airport,” which a city spokesman confirmed meant the ATC.

Walsh says the migrants come from the 700-person capacity “Migrant Resource Center” on San Pedro Avenue, which Catholic Charities operates on the city’s behalf.

Around the time Title 42 ended May 11, which had been expected to bring further waves of migrants through San Antonio, the city was looking for flexibility, Walsh said. It ended up using the vacant building at the airport as a holding area for migrants before bringing them to the main terminals to catch their flights. the airport as a sort of holding area for migrants before bringing them to the main terminals to catch their flights.


Walsh has said the city council was informed about the ATC, though some members have said they do not remember being told it was happening for certain.

But KSAT has been unable to find any public statements the city has made about the ATC prior to the Daily Mail story.

Walsh told reporters on Tuesday that the city had found media statements it had provided in May, though he didn’t know to which outlet.

KSAT requested copies of those statements from the city’s media relations team on Tuesday and again on Friday. The city has not yet produced them.

A city spokesman wrote in an emailed response Friday afternoon that city media relations staff “will check on this,” as well as KSAT’s request for “ANY kind of statements to the public about the city’s use of the ATC to hold migrants ahead of their flights.”

The ATC did not appear to be the subject of any of the 261 city and city council news releases dating back to May 1 in the city’s archives either.

The only possible reference to the ATC that KSAT could find was a statement emailed to two KSAT reporters on May 11. It references vague “contingency plans” for transportation assistance, of which the city promised to share details if it were implemented.

The statement also mentions transporting migrants to the airport but does not say anything specifically about the ATC.

The relevant portion of the longer statement is below:

“In the wake of Title 42 ending, the City, Bexar County, and Catholic Charities are developing contingency plans to coordinate transportation assistance should the number of migrants greatly exceed the capacity of the Migrant Resource Center (MRC)/Centro do Bienveida. We are not developing plans for a mass shelter and do not have the capacity or resources to serve increased numbers of migrants for extended periods of time.

“We will share the details of the contingency plan if/when it is implemented, but for now, the situation on the ground has not changed.

“The MRC/Centro de Bienvenida will continue to operate at capacity, ticketed passengers will be transported to San Antonio International Airport within 24 hours of their scheduled departure, and some migrants will be flown out of Austin Bergstrom International Airport in partnership with the City of Austin.”


District 10 Councilman Marc Whyte’s district borders the airport, and he has been critical of the ATC. Having said he only became aware of the facility actually holding migrants “individually” in October, Whyte thinks the city should have been more open about what it was doing.

“We’ve got to be more transparent. The public deserves to know if we’re holding migrants at our facility other than just the San Pedro facility. And I think it’s clear that the public didn’t know,” Whyte said Friday.

However, Councilman John Courage (D9), whose district includes most of the airport, compared the ATC to an airport lounge and said he didn’t see a need to publicize the facility.

“I don’t think it was of note that it needed to be mentioned,” Courage said in a Zoom interview. “I don’t think it was being hidden. I just don’t think anyone thought much of it until recently.”

KSAT also requested a comment from Mayor Ron Nirenberg. However, a spokesman said the mayor was traveling home and unavailable for comment until next week.

The spokesman also provided a news release about Nirenberg joining the leadership board of the Mayor’s Migration Council in Switzerland on Friday, which made note of the city’s Migrant Resource Center.

Note - The broadcast version of this story incorrectly refers to the ATC as the “Airport Transit Center” based on what Walsh called it during an earlier interview. It has been corrected in the online text of this story.

About the Author

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

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