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COVID-19 Testing For Asylum Seekers Draws Heated Debate Among San Antonio City Council Members

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, and District 9 Councilman John Courage on April 8, 2021
Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, and District 9 Councilman John Courage on April 8, 2021

Funding to assist asylum seekers passing through the Alamo City faced fierce debate at Thursday’s San Antonio city council meeting.

District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry said that migrants may be carrying the coronavirus — that accusation struck a nerve with his council colleagues.

The agenda included a potential item to provide $200,000 to Catholic Charities. That money would be used to help asylum seekers dropped off in San Antonio after they’re released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Thursday’s discussion started with a question from District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry to Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. Perry asked how many migrants had been passing through San Antonio every day.

“We’re receiving about 300 to 500 migrants at the San Antonio Airport every day,” Houston said.

Since April 2021, approximately 30,000 asylum seekers have arrived in San Antonio and moved on to other parts of the U.S. They’re coming from the southern border with federal authorization to be here, and they’re from all over the world. They remain here for a day or so until organizations like Catholic Charities or the Interfaith Welcome Coalition can help get them on a plane or a bus to their final destination.

Without that funding, Houston said the asylees would be on their own.

“You would have hundreds of individuals showing up at the airport needing assistance. There are language barriers to getting that assistance. We would not be able to service that and provide the compassion that we need,” she said.

Perry’s concern was whether or not the migrants were being tested for the coronavirus. Houston said some were, but not all, and that testing couldn’t be made mandatory. That’s where Perry said it should be up to the federal government.

“They’re just going all over the place and we don’t know if they’re positive going into our communities. So I would say everybody ought to be sending letters, emails, letters, texts, whatever to your federal representatives to get this straightened out and I certainly will,” Perry said.

In 2019, the city saw tens of thousands of asylum seekers pass through San Antonio in a similar fashion. For seven months, the city operated a migrant resource center near the downtown Greyhound bus station.

Several members of the council were at odds with Perry’s stance. District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval linked it to racism.

“I believe that calling this item out for discussion, is calling it out because the people who are receiving these services are people of color and because they have a different national origin than some of the people sitting on the dais,” Sandoval said. “And as a member of this community and someone who was not born in the U.S., I take tremendous issue and offense to that.”

District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo, who represents San Antonio’s West Side, warned about the words and how they were being used.

“The rhetoric characterizing immigrants, migrants or refugees as disease or virus carriers is very dangerous,” she said.

Perry denied any racist intent.

“(It) has nothing to do about race and I do take great offense that we always play the race card on something like this, that that's preposterous,” Perry said.

He also denied he intended to characterize migrants as virus carriers.

“Nobody's accusing everybody of coming across the border being a disease or a virus carrier... we don't know how many are being tested and if they are coming across with any type of virus,” he said.

District 9 Councilman John Courage worried that Perry’s comments could be misinterpreted.

“That it's going to cause fear and anger among some of the people in our community because they believe that we may be allowing thousands of people to come in here who are going to infect us and make us sick,” Courage said. “I really believe that's the message some people are going to assume from what you said, Councilman. And I think that that message is pretty far from the truth.”

Courage also alluded to the fact that not everyone coming off a plane at the airport is tested either. District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran pointed out the need for asylum support wasn’t going to wane anytime soon.

“This is a situation that is not going to go away. We know with the recent news coming out of Haiti, coming out of Afghanistan, is we will see refugees. We’ll see asylum seekers,” Viagran said.

The city council ultimately passed the measure in a unanimous vote — including Councilman Perry. In a statement issued after the council meeting, Perry said the federal government has failed on issues of immigration, and this is an extension of that failure.

“This is a humanitarian and a health issue, and as a compassionate city, our leaders should allow everyone space to express their concerns, rather than discarding them as racist. My concerns are related to the lack of action by the federal government to get this crisis under control,” he said.

The $200,000 the city is spending will be reimbursed by American Rescue Plan dollars.

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Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules