'I'm alone': These asylum seekers find themselves on the street as they await immigration hearings

SAN ANTONIO — With his Venezuelan ID card, recently donated shoes and clean clothes, Adri Fernández is trying to start his American dream, alone.

Unlike the families and unaccompanied children who have been the main groups migrating to the U.S. this past decade, Fernández is one of the single adults arriving without family to turn to or contacts willing to help him get on his feet after he was released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Fernández, who currently awaits scheduled hearings regarding his request for asylum, ended up in San Antonio because that's where immigration officials decided he should go. A stranger drove him the nearly 200 miles from Laredo, Texas.

“When I arrived, they started asking me at Immigration where I am going. With all sincerity, I said I had no relatives here and that I had nowhere to go,” Fernández, 26, said. “So they gave me an address and told me: Does San Antonio work for you? I told him yes.”

Migrants rest at a park during a hot day in July, in San Antonio. (Austin Anderson)
Migrants rest at a park during a hot day in July, in San Antonio. (Austin Anderson)

San Antonio, as well as other cities, including Washington, D.C., and New York, are grappling with how to help the growing number of asylum seekers like Fernández.

“I don’t have a dollar to live on,” he said, as one of 15 migrants in similar circumstances who spoke to Noticias Telemundo Investiga.

But Fernández said he trusts “the American dream, which is to work and lift your back.”

Fernández’s first appointment with ICE is on Aug. 25 and his first hearing with the immigration judge will be on March 5, 2024, both in San Antonio. Failing to show up could lead to a decision to deport him without him having his day in court.

Home is where ICE sends you

Catholic Charities, part of the San Antonio archdiocese, estimates that about half the migrants it serves are single adults with no connections in the U.S. The organization said it has seen more of these arrivals in the past few years.

According to the American Immigration Council, single adults were responsible for more than half of all border apprehensions last year. That increase followed a lull in single adults crossing the border from Mexico at the time of the Great Recession, a trend that continued for about a decade, followed by a rise in migration of unaccompanied minors and families with children.

Asylum seekers who are awaiting their scheduled hearings generally arrive in cities like San Antonio with documents from ICE that say "currently residing at" and an address.

The Christian Assistance Ministry helps migrants with basic necessities, such as bathroom access, breakfast and some clothes. CAM does not use public funds. (Austin Anderson)
The Christian Assistance Ministry helps migrants with basic necessities, such as bathroom access, breakfast and some clothes. CAM does not use public funds. (Austin Anderson)

A check of the addresses by Noticias Telemundo Investiga found they generally belonged to nonprofit organizations or U.S. contacts provided by the migrants; some contacts didn't want to take responsibility for them or didn't answer when a reporter called the corresponding phone numbers.

An ICE spokesperson in San Antonio said the cities to which it sends migrants, and the specific addresses, were decided on a case-by-case basis.

“Individuals released from ICE custody make transportation arrangements and have a temporary support plan before their release,” the ICE spokesperson said in an email.

The spokesperson said ICE coordinates with local nonprofit organizations to give migrants “temporary shelter, food, water, clothing and transportation after their release" but didn't specify as to the situation in San Antonio.

Adri Fernández, the Venezuelan asylum seeker, said the address he was given was an office building that housed a nonprofit group, which told him it could provide him with neither shelter nor help at the time.

“They tell me — they don’t have any help for Venezuelans right now,” he said.

He found his way to a plaza in central San Antonio where others who have migrated congregate, and where a church offers them a place to sleep at night.

Catholic Charities said it has found several of its San Antonio addresses appearing on migrants’ documents, although neither the government nor asylum seekers have asked permission beforehand to use these addresses.

“We have heard of people showing up at our agencies without notifying them beforehand, but that varies by place. The Department of Homeland Security makes that decision, but we don’t know exactly where that’s happening," said Patricia Cole, Catholic Charities national spokesperson.

Catholic Charities in San Antonio directs the migrants to shelters, hotels or churches in the city. It helps buy migrants tickets, but demand is high and paying for them poses a challenge, the group said.

“We don’t leave anyone on the street. We send them wherever we can," said Antonio Fernández, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in San Antonio. But he added that the group, which receives federal grants and private donations, can't provide long-term shelter.

The organization will be in charge of a new shelter, and it expects to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to run it, according to Fernández.

San Antonio receives about 600 migrants a day, and about 500 of them need accommodation for at least that first night, said Roland Martinez, public relations manager for the city of San Antonio. Since April 2021, some 185,000 migrants have passed through San Antonio. Most continue on to other parts of the country.

For weeks, migrants released by ICE at the border or in San Antonio have arrived at the airport or the Greyhound bus station downtown.

On July 7, San Antonio opened a temporary center to welcome those who have recently arrived for a few hours while they wait for their connections to other parts of the country.

The city characterizes it as “a safe and welcoming place for migrants traveling through San Antonio.”

After two weeks, according to Noticias Telemundo, the center had to close because it was at capacity, and city officials were requesting more help from the federal government.

At Christian Assistance Ministry in San Antonio, two brothers stood in a line of people who had recently migrated — along with city residents who were currently homeless — to get a breakfast to go, a shower and clean clothes.

Executive Director Dawn White-Fosdick said she believes the higher number of people arriving in the U.S. have outstripped charitable resources in border towns, so they are being sent to San Antonio.

Trying to start over

As an alternative to detention in private prisons, asylum seekers who have been released while they wait for their appointments with immigration authorities carry monitoring cell phones. But the mobile devices can't be used for making phone calls; they can only be used to take a photo once a week that immigration authorities require for monitoring purposes.

Many people who have crossed the border find themselves struggling after journeys that have stripped them of what they hoped would carry them through their new start in the U.S.

A 70-year-old Venezuelan migrant uses a cellphone as he waits online to use a shower at a homeless center in San Antonio. He says,
A 70-year-old Venezuelan migrant uses a cellphone as he waits online to use a shower at a homeless center in San Antonio. He says,

Several people recounted how their savings ran out, their money was stolen or their cellphones were taken when they crossed the border.

With little recourse, they go out into the streets at dawn to try to get a local resident to hire them by the hour to work on construction, make house repairs or for some other odd job.

“This morning I went out with the aim of looking for a job, said Nicole, 22, from Venezuela. She couldn’t find one when she went out that morning. “I see this part will be difficult.”

She trades tips on work and hourly wages she’s heard about with Julián, from Colombia, who also had no luck that day in looking for work among the businesses in the tourist area of San Antonio. “They told me that my papers were not good for work,” he said.

A destination, but trying to get there

Other recently arrived asylum seekers said they had been assigned to other localities, such as Washington, D.C., or Orlando, Florida, as they await their immigration hearings, but they had no way to get there from San Antonio .

While waiting for a shower at the Christian Assistance Ministry, Jordan and Mendoza Alvarado, two Venezuelan brothers 30 and 20 years old, were looking for a way to get to the address they had been assigned to. They needed to raise about $20 to travel to Houston, their first stop, where they will try to work to raise money for the next ticket. They also were looking for shoelaces to replace the ones that weren't returned to them after they left immigration detention.

Jordan Alvarado, 30, and his brother are looking for a way to pay for their bus tickets to Orlando, Fla. (Austin Anderson)
Jordan Alvarado, 30, and his brother are looking for a way to pay for their bus tickets to Orlando, Fla. (Austin Anderson)

When they found a phone to use, they tried to contact the number that appears on their documents. But the brothers couldn't get past the automated menus in English on the nonprofit organization's phone message. They didn't know yet if they'd have a place to sleep when they made it to Orlando, their destination.

Regardless of what would happen next, Mendoza Alvarado said they would keep making their way.

"I have no problem," he said. "We keep fighting."

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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