Rocío Guenther / Rivard Report
More than 50 immigrant women and children were left stranded by immigration authorities at the downtown bus station in San Antonio Friday afternoon as bus service was canceled due to the imminent arrival of Hurricane Harvey.
The asylum seekers, many of them fleeing gang violence in Central America, were set to travel to destinations all over the country to meet family members or sponsors in the United States. But due to adverse weather conditions accompanying Harvey, Greyhound canceled all afternoon bus trips.
"They’ve just gotten out of family detention centers and passed their credible fear interview so they were on their way to their families," said Sister Denise LaRock, a member of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, who aided the immigrants at the station. "We were told yesterday that no buses are running tomorrow, so Congressman Lloyd Doggett [D-San Antonio] called ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to not drop families at the bus station."
Doggett told the Rivard Report that ICE assured him on Friday morning that everyone would be dropped off at the station in time to make connections before the storm hit. But by the time the women and children arrived, it was too late for them to catch a bus anywhere.
"This is all really unacceptable," Doggett said. "We need greatly improved communication and more attention to genuine humanitarian concerns."
All the immigrants who were transferred to the San Antonio Greyhound bus station on Friday morning "had confirmed tickets and itineraries to their destinations," an ICE spokesperson stated Sunday. "Throughout the process, ICE remained in close contact with bus officials to ensure bus availability, and all aliens had confirmed bus transportation at the time at which ICE officers departed the station. Ultimately, ICE kept two additional families in custody since their bus trip had been cancelled."
The spokesperson declined to answer whether buses were running when the families were dropped off.
After learning of the situation, members of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition called City officials and other nonprofit organizations for help. Assistant City Manager Maria Villagómez said the City contacted representatives of a local church and asked them to open their doors not only for the immigrant families, but also for the homeless.
As of Friday afternoon, 150 people, including the immigrants, received shelter inside the church. Most families were able to depart to their destinations over the weekend, but as of Sunday, around six families destined for Houston – which is suffering massive flooding due to the storm – remain at the church.
"We want everyone to be welcome here always, so it’s at the core of our mission as a church to open our doors to everyone," said Corazon Ministries Executive Director Lori Chidgey. "It’s very important that all of our neighbors feel safe and welcome here. We will be here throughout the storm.”
The City's Emergency Operations Center sent blankets and cots to the church, Villagómez said, and the San Antonio Food Bank was set to provide water and food on Saturday. Once the church reaches capacity, additional evacuees will be directed to the Frank Garrett Community Center at 1226 N.W. 18th St.
Isabel Gonzalez, who is originally from Cuba, traveled through 10 countries to get to the U.S.-Mexico border. She was separated from her son, daughter, and husband when they were apprehended at the border and taken to separate detention centers. Now, tired and hungry, she is thankful they found a temporary place to stay.
"We feel great here at the church now," Gonzalez said in Spanish. "I'm reunited with my kids and I can watch them play. It's a different ambiance than the detention centers, where we felt incredibly uneasy."
Jenny Amaya, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, said she was upset her bus was canceled. "But all that matters is that my children and I are protected from the storm," she said. "I heard it would provoke catastrophic winds and flooding."
Doggett said he also voiced concern to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) about reported deviation from regular procedure during previous natural disasters. Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday that individuals will not be asked about their immigration status at storm shelters.
"It is important that immigrants not feel that evacuation from danger could result in deportation," Doggett said. "I am hopeful that CBP is now following prior procedures so that checkpoints north of the border do not impede evacuations. The rule must be families’ safety first.”
Volunteers from RAICES, a local nonprofit that provides refuge to immigrant families released from detention, were also on hand Friday to help coordinate calls to family members or discuss future travel plans.
"This is a scene to behold," said RAICES Executive Director Jonathan Ryan. “As far as ICE was concerned, these people were going to sit and starve in the bus station for days. They executed their plan and not a thought was given about these people during [a natural disaster]."
LaRock said the City "jumped in right away" to help coordinate a safe haven for the families.
"It’s a relief that they’re not going to be spending the night in the bus station and going hungry," she said. "Most of them don’t have any money either, so they would really be stranded."