FEMA reimbursements for humanitarian care of migrants delayed


San Antonio not likely to be repaid for airline travel for migrants, congressman says

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) ⁠— Tens of millions of dollars Congress appropriated to pay back municipalities and nonprofits for migrant care have been delayed, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar told Border Report on Monday

Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas, said that the reason for the delay is a restructuring of the complicated funding system, and uncertainty over which services and items might qualify, particularly a dispute with the City of San Antonio over reimbursing airline tickets for African migrants.

Cuellar explained the hiccups a day after a news conference in McAllen with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in which Cuellar had touted and praised Congress for approving the reimbursement funds — $25 million of which he said will go to applicants in states that border Mexico, and $5 million to other states, he said.

Announcement of the delay comes weeks after Cuellar came to South Texas on July 19 to unveil the new reimbursement system, which he said is designed “to bypass the state.” It also follows public comments by McAllen’s city manager and a San Antonio city councilwoman who complained about not being able to apply for reimbursement funds for their cities.

As to the delays and disappointments with this program, Cuellar on Sunday called out McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez for his recent comments. “I don’t see the city manager from McAllen. I want to make sure he gets this straight: It wasn’t Congress,” Cuellar said of who should be blamed.

McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, second from left, speaks with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, far right, and Ana Garcia, regional director for Sen. John Cornyn, far left, and McAllen City Commission Veronica Whitacre on July 19, 2019, at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, has been working since 2014 to get federal reimbursement funds back to the communities in South Texas that have been helping migrants. But despite money appropriated by Congress several times, amounting to $100 million sent to the state of Texas, very few funds have found their way back to help cities, counties and nonprofits.

The City of McAllen, for instance, has spent over $1 million in humanitarian aid to help migrants since the surge began in 2014, yet has only received $400,000 back from the federal government. Every year that funds have gone without being reimbursed has caused more angst and outspoken complaints by city officials.

It was the team. We added $30 million.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas

“It was the team. We added $30 million. It was a House initiative of $30 million,” Cuellar said, pointing to his colleagues flanking Pelosi at Sunday’s news conference at the respite center.

‘Bypassing the state’

On Monday, Cuellar told Border Report that a couple factors have contributed to the delay of funds being available. And he said he has been told by FEMA officials that the application site might not be open until the end of the month.

Part of the problem is that they are revising the system to avoid sending funds to the state, which Cuellar says in the past has not passed on funds to the communities that need it. Another issue is a disparity over what items and services should be covered.

“I’m not going to complain. They’re late so instead of taking 30 days to set up, it might take 60 days,” Cuellar said.

President Donald Trump signed an order on July 1 authorizing the funds be given directly to the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP) National Board under FEMA. The board is chaired by a FEMA representative and comprised of members from the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities USA, the Jewish Federations of North America, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Salvation Army and United Way Worldwide.

The board was supposed to be up and running and screening applicants for reimbursement beginning on Aug. 1, Cuellar said.

San Antonio plane tickets for migrants

As the Border Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill wound its way through Congress, various lawmakers wanted to ensure that reimbursement funds would be available for their hometown areas regardless of the numbers of migrants they have helped, Cuellar told Border Report on Monday. “That slowed it down,” he said.

At issue currently is a request by San Antonio city officials for reimbursement for airline tickets purchased for migrants from their Migrant Resource Center. The majority of migrants at the center are from the Congo in Africa, and many have relocated to northern states, like Maine. Plane tickets for their travel were purchased by Catholic Charities of San Antonio, San Antonio City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran told Border Report last Friday.

Viagran said that the City of San Antonio and partnering nonprofit agencies have spent $600,000 in total since March to care for more than 22,000 migrants who have come through the city’s Migrant Resource Center, which is located near the downtown bus stop.

“We do need this reimbursement from the federal government,” Viagran said.

San Antonio City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran talks to Border Report on Aug. 9, 2019, about FEMA not opening up reimbursement applications for migrant care. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez.)

But Cuellar, whose district includes part of San Antonio, told Border Report on Monday that he has spoken with San Antonio city leaders and told them that they should not expect transportation reimbursements, especially not high-dollar amounts like those for airline tickets. The current FEMA program will reimburse only for food and shelter.

“They were using money to buy airplane tickets for folks in Maine,” Cuellar said. “The assistant city manager was not happy but I told them if somebody needs help, then put them on the bus.”

San Antonio officials have racked up far more humanitarian aid costs far quicker than McAllen. Most of this is apparently related to air travel. San Antonio has seen about 22,000 migrants come through its Migrant Resource Center since March, yet has spent collectively $600,000 to help them. In contrast, McAllen has spent $1 million to help 160,000 migrants and families who have come through the Humanitarian Respite Center since 2014.

“We don’t know what they’re (the FEMA board) is going to do, but that’s going to eat up the budget so quickly if they pay for airline tickets, rather than for buying food and diapers for Sister Norma’s Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen,” Cuellar said. “For San Antonio it might be new to them, but for border communities like McAllen, El Paso, Brownsville and Laredo, we’ve been dealing with this since 2014 and the numbers that we handle are much greater.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

El Paso Correspondent Latest Stories

More Julian Resendiz

South Texas Correspondent Latest Stories

More Sandra Sanchez

California Correspondent Latest Stories

More Salvador Rivera

Border Report Correspondents' Stories

Latest Stories

Washington D.C.

More Washington D.C.

Don't Miss


About Border Report

The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.