SAN ANTONIO — Leaning hard on hope and driven by fear, Jurvania Noemi Apunte Dias struck out for a new life with hardly any money to her name.
One of the many Venezuelans fleeing political turmoil and violence at home, she arrived in the United States after a nearly three-month trek by foot, traversing dangerous jungles and evading violent kidnappers. At the Texas-Mexico border, US Border Patrol officers separated her from her four children; she still hasn’t heard from two of them, who are adults. Apunte Dias and her family asked for asylum and were released to live in the United States while their claim was pending.
They made their way to San Antonio and found respite in a city shelter for migrants.
On her second day there, she earned a few dollars braiding hair and went to a nearby McDonald’s to buy a single coffee for her and her husband to share.
When the employee behind the counter offered her a second coffee for free, she began to cry.
“That was very emotional for me,” she told the Globe in Spanish, as she stood outside the shelter, wearing a pair of donated leggings and a white wristband that guaranteed her access past the building’s black iron gates.
“It’s like every Venezuelan says: It’s the American dream.”
The warmth and generosity of the welcome Apunte Dias says her family received in this south-central Texas city was echoed in descriptions shared by a dozen other migrants here who spoke with the Globe. San Antonio residents welcomed them with new clothes, assistance with plane tickets, and, for many, a prayer, as the migrants made their way to new lives in cities scattered across the nation and to wait for their asylum requests to be adjudicated.
Locals say this hospitality toward outsiders is a longstanding tradition in the city, the first major metropolitan area that many crossing the US border with Mexico encounter. It is an ingrained spirit that marks this as an island of acceptance in ever-redder Texas, and makes it seem like a strange hunting ground for a politician to exploit new arrivals in a political ploy aimed at burnishing national ambitions.
And yet that’s what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did right here, 900 miles from Tallahassee, claiming credit for transporting roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants in two planes to Martha’s Vineyard last month.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has likewise made sticking it to blue-state liberals, and needling President Biden over border policy, a trademark. Abbott’s office says it has sent more than 11,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago so far this year.
Such hard-line tactics may only intensify. At a news conference about the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, DeSantis blamed Biden for failing to stop migrants from crossing the US-Mexico border.
“There may be more flights, there may be buses,” he said to applause.
The dignified welcome offered by so many San Antonio residents amid the demonization of those crossing the border by some in the Republican base captures the duality of America’s immigration debate. It’s a city that is facing the direct repercussions of a lack of federal immigration reforms and an effective border policy, while defining itself as a welcoming place where a “Charter for Compassion” hangs in the doorway of the mayor’s office.
The reality is, for scores of years, the city has served as a gateway for those crossing the border.
“We know when there is a humanitarian need and a humanitarian crisis. We want to treat people with dignity as they come through,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a recent interview. “We don’t ask for your papers. We ask, ‘How are you?’”
On any given day, the city’s Migrant Resource Center, the shelter housing Apunte Dias, is bustling with migrants and volunteers. Here, in a former public utility building near the San Antonio International Airport, asylum seekers can get a hot meal, a place to sleep, and other assistance, before they continue on their journey; there is a three-day limit on stays. City police guard the perimeter to keep unauthorized parties from entering, while pickup trucks from local churches and nonprofits pull up along the black metal fence, offering foil-wrapped tacos or plates of spaghetti, clothes, religious texts — and, many mornings, opportunities to work for US dollars.
“¡Trabajar!” a man yells, offering work, even though newly arrived asylum seekers, like those staying at the Migrant Resource Center, typically haven’t obtained documents yet that allow them to work legally.
Some migrants told the Globe they were shackled and disrespected by border patrol agents when they entered the US. A hundred miles north of the border, the people in San Antonio, by contrast, welcomed them with new clothes, meals, and round-the-clock rides to the nearby airport, which serves as a gateway to the rest of the country for thousands who pass through the city on their way to a new life. At the Migrant Resource Center, anyone who checks in receives a travel bag with basic essentials.
Luis Alberto Rodríguez, 38, and his wife, Maria Elizabeth Salgado Amaya, 32, survived two kidnappings and a near miss with a bullet during their journey north to New Jersey from Nicaragua to build a better future for their young children, whom they left behind until they get settled. John David Moreno, 31, made the 26-day journey from Venezuela alone, since his family disapproved of the plan. He survived a near drowning in Panama and was robbed twice in Mexico, all part of the journey to Orlando, Fla., where he has a restaurant job waiting for him.
Crossing the border, he said, “I felt like I had seen heavenly paradise.”
The number of migrants crossing the southwest US border — a roughly 2,000-mile stretch from San Diego to near Brownsville, Texas — has swelled in 2022. US Customs and Border Protection says it has had 2.1 million encounters at the southwest border this year alone, up 19 percent from 2021 and nearly 79 percent from 2020.
The two most populous crossings are in cities with direct highway routes to San Antonio, which sits at the crossroads of three major highways that run through the state.
Contributing to the recent surge is the upheaval in Venezuela, where the Nicolás Maduro government violently suppresses dissent and citizens face extreme privation.
The most recent migrant surge includes tens of thousands making the weeks-long journey from Venezuela, where Maduro, who assumed power in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez, has terrorized the populace with the detention and torture of students, opposition leaders, and journalists, among others.
In 2019, he won a second term in an election widely denounced as fraudulent. The United States responded with economic sanctions in an attempt to force Maduro out of power; that caused the oil industry, the country’s economic engine, to collapse. Hyperinflation, severe food and medicine shortages, and violence have contributed to an exodus of 7 million Venezuelans, the largest displacement in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in the world.
“In Venezuela, you cannot even eat pizza,” said Arturo Alejandro Perdomo, a 19-year-old who made the 3,000-mile journey to the US border alone with dreams of seeing skyscrapers and building a sustainable life in New York. “You can barely eat anything. Here, it’s like being in one of the movies you see in Venezuela about the United States.”
San Antonio opened the Migrant Resource Center in July 2022, after local officials and service providers reflected on how to better handle the hundreds of migrants who arrive here daily. Its predecessor, a smaller facility near the city’s bus depot downtown, operated from March to September 2019 amid an influx of migrants from Central and South America, said City Manager Erik Walsh. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses the city to operate the current facility — an agreement that lasts through December.
Right now, the city sees an average of 684 new immigrants a day. Just two weeks ago, Walsh said, that number was closer to 1,400. In the last 15 months, nearly a quarter million migrants passed through San Antonio.
Walsh said while some cities may take a more hands-off approach to the waves of migrants coming through Texas, officials in San Antonio pride themselves on their proactive approach. After the 48 migrants landed in Martha’s Vineyard last month, he called the Edgartown town administrator to tell him as much.
“The last thing I wanted him to think was that the city of San Antonio or me had anything to do with that,” he said. “I had our police chief call their police chief, too.”
The city’s efforts to help migrants streaming into Texas extend beyond the shelter. At the San Antonio Food Bank across town, employees and volunteers cook fresh, individually portioned meals and snacks in state-of-the-art kitchens. As part of a partnership with the Migrant Resource Center, about 2,000 of those meals each day go to those staying at the shelter.
“Food is, like, this expression of love,” food bank president Eric Cooper said, conducting a tour of the 40-acre property, which includes a community garden and a venison-processing area for hunters to donate their kills.
The food bank provides other donations as well, such as the box full of Reina Valera Revisada — the Spanish equivalent of the King James Version of the Bible — on a shelf in one of the food bank’s massive warehouses that is labeled: “HOLD FOR MIGRANT YOUTH.”
And there are other ministries for the soul. At Sunday Mass in the San Fernando Cathedral — the oldest standing church building in the territory that is now known as Texas, and one of the oldest in the country, Deacon Ramón Figueroa contemplated the story of Lazarus, a beggar who lay at a rich man’s gate, waiting for crumbs. The rich man didn’t help Lazarus, and was punished in return.
“Our brothers and sisters suffer with war, our homeless population is increasing, and people are looking for a better life. Every year, we receive more and more immigrants,” Figueroa told parishioners. “Do we care for the poor? Or do we ignore them at our gate?”
Amid a seemingly never-ending national debate on immigration, people here see themselves as a community “united,” Figueroa said after Mass. “It’s not like the nation, which is so polarized,” he said. “I thank God we’re not that way. Less politics, more embraces.”
Leaders in San Antonio agree with DeSantis, Abbott, and other border security critics that the immigration system is in dire need of fixing; their beliefs about what to do with those who cross the border is where viewpoints sharply diverge.
“In lieu of congressional action . . . this is what immigration looks like in 2022,” Nirenberg, the mayor, said of the Migrant Resource Center. “If we don’t have additional solutions, we’re going to have to come up with logistical measures to deal with the consequences.”
Republican politicians in border states, along with DeSantis, argue that their communities are overwhelmed by the wave of migrants, and have justified the transport of migrants to blue states as a way to both share the costs and raise awareness of the border crisis. Conservatives want the Biden administration to take a harder stance, and worry that any favorable treatment of migrants coming to the United States will encourage more people to come.
“All those people in D.C. and New York were beating their chests when Trump was president . . . saying how bad it was to have a secure border,” DeSantis said in the wake of the Vineyard flights. “The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day were brought to their front door, they all of a sudden go berserk.”
DeSantis’ description of what happened to the migrants is wildly at odds with the facts; the migrants were greeted by Vineyarders with food and shelter and compassion.
Some in San Antonio share DeSantis’ sentiments. Jason Peña, who owns a CBD shop in San Antonio, has tacked fliers on electrical posts and trees that said: “REPORT ILLEGAL ALIENS. IT’S THE LAW!”
Peña, 36, said he has been hanging up signs and coordinating protests in front of the Migrant Resource Center since July.
At the bustling dining room of Ray’s Drive Inn on San Antonio’s west side, home of the locally famous deep-fried puffy taco, that sort of consternation is hard to find. DeSantis’ rhetoric “wouldn’t last five minutes,” at a place like Ray’s, said Texas state Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat.
“That’s just not who we are as a community,” he said, stabbing a forkful of chicken from his plate of fajitas. “If he wants to make that part of his national campaign platform, we’ll meet him at the city limits. . . . We’re not going to let him, through nefarious ways, deceive people into getting into an airplane and flying them away. . . . We don’t like insiders doing this. And we damn sure don’t like outsiders doing it either.”
Representative Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio native first elected in 2012, echoed Fischer’s take.
“It would be silly if it wasn’t so stupid. He was too [cowardly] to go pick up anybody in Florida because he doesn’t want to offend the Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans there,” he said. “This community sees [migrants] as human beings and as people.”
Inside the B Terminal at the San Antonio International Airport, dozens of migrants with matching baby pink tote bags clutched boarding passes and plastic bags of travel-sized toiletries and documents. They gathered in groups as they awaited flights to Houston, Dallas, and Chicago.
Many of them wore sneakers without shoelaces — border patrol takes shoelaces when people are processed at what numerous migrants described as a cold and overcrowded facility — a “hielera,” Spanish for ice box or cooler.
A young child in a pink sweat shirt indulged in a tube of colorful candy she pulled from a Hudson News bag, pouring the tiny, rainbow-colored tablets directly into her mouth.
A man sitting on the ground sobbed over a video chat on his phone, running his hands through what looked like recently buzzed hair.
A woman holding a smartphone with a glittery “pop socket” smiled and laughed as she spoke to a loved one through the screen. She had 20 minutes before she was to board a flight to Houston, the next stop on her journey toward the future.
“I see you in the video, dancing! Tell me what you are saying to your brother! And be nice!” she said in Spanish. “They gave me this T-shirt, a sweater. . . . all is good here.”
Uriel J. García of the Texas Tribune staff contributed to this story.