San Antonio nonprofit ‘misused’ federal funds to buy migrants airline tickets, lawmaker says

SAN ANTONIO (Border Report) — Two South Texas lawmakers say Catholic Charities of San Antonio is buying airfare for asylum-seekers with federal funds that are meant to reimburse nonprofits and municipalities for food, shelter and humanitarian expenses.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat and ranking member of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, says federal funds from the FEMA Shelter and Services Program were never intended to pay for transportation or flights to other U.S. cities for migrants who cross the border into the United States. The money is intended to reimburse non-governmental organizations and municipalities for food and shelter and toiletry expenses they incur housing asylum-seekers who cross the border.

But Cuellar says Catholic Charities of San Antonio’s downtown humanitarian facility is buying airline tickets, and that is drawing migrants to this city because they want free transportation to other cities where they will live while they wait for their immigration proceedings to play out.

“We talked to Holding Institute and they said that when they talk to migrants they want to go to San Antonio and part of the reason is because they pay for transportation. And they say, ‘Queremos ir al San Pedro,’ which is the street where they have this migrant center. And they call it the milk and honey place,” Cuellar recently told Border Report.

He says officials with Holding Institute, a nonprofit in his hometown of Laredo that provides humanitarian care and shelter for migrants whom DHS legally releases, have said most migrants want to go to San Antonio because they have heard about the free rides.

Cuellar says he helped to start this program and get federal funding for it beginning in Fiscal Year 2015.

He says the money was never intended to pay for long-distance transportation. He said the program rules do allow for a “set percentage” of funds to go toward transportation for emergency use or within the city of the nonprofit, not airline tickets.

“When I first started this program, I said it would only be used for food and shelter, maybe transportation inside a city, but not to be sending them up there. The family or somebody should pay for that, not the taxpayer dollars,” Cuellar said.

U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, a Republican whose district spans from the South Texas border north to east of San Antonio, says this is a misappropriation of federal taxpayer dollars.

“These tax dollars were not intended to be used to fly illegal immigrants all over their country to the destination of their choice,” De La Cruz told Border Report on Thursday. “They misused funds and sent these illegal immigrants where their preferred destination was with taxpayers hard-earned money. This is just simply unacceptable.”

Border Report recently visited the downtown Catholic Charities facility in San Antonio and requested to interview officials but was not given access or allowed to record video on their premises.

Border Report has repeatedly asked Catholic Charities of San Antonio to provide information on whether they buy airline tickets for migrants, how many, and if there’s a dollar cap and why. So far, we have not received an answer.

A spokeswoman with the nonprofit sent Border Report an email announcing the organization has become eligible to receive $10.8 million in additional funding through the FEMA Shelter and Services Program for its MRS Centro de Bienvenida temporary shelter. The shelter provides humanitarian aid and since September 2022 has assisted over 305,000 people.

The facility provides “safety, meals, hygiene kits, and blankets to those in need,” the organization said. “This funding will ensure that newcomers receive necessary services, including shelter, food, and clothing. In addition to meeting basic needs, Catholic Charities provides wrap-around services such as trauma-informed care, mental health counseling, legal assistance, and pastoral care to those who may have experienced trauma. Catholic Charities is committed to serving the most vulnerable among us with love, dignity, and respect.”

In a statement, Catholic Charities of San Antonio President and CEO J. Antonio Fernandez said, “By securing these additional funds, we will be able to continue serving our brothers and sisters and their families who require care through selfless service under the sign of love.”

Andrea Rudnik, of the nonprofit Team Brownsville, which helps migrants at the Welcome Center in Brownsville, Texas, says the tranches of funds mean the organizations are deemed eligible for up to a certain amount of money.

“It’s allocated to them. But it’s not given to them,” Rudnik said.

They then have to submit a budget and tell FEMA how they intend to use the funds, such as for housing, transportation, food, over-the-counter medication, and staff hired to help asylum-seekers.

Funding for the Shelter and Services Program was decreased by about 20% overall this Fiscal 2024 year, lawmakers say.

De La Cruz says she voted for it only after the cuts were made.

“We actually made a 20% cut to NGOs. And the reason we did that is because the American taxpayers are frustrated. They’re frustrated with the open border policy by the Biden administration. They’re frustrated that their tax dollars are being used for things like flights for these illegal immigrants to go anywhere in the country that they’d like. Look, I’m a single mom, I can’t even afford a vacation with my kids. And these illegal immigrants are flown anywhere they want. Too many Americans like myself are living paycheck to paycheck and it’s very frustrating to see these funds misused,” De La Cruz said.

DHS announced Friday that $300 million was awarded nationwide in Fiscal 2024 for the Shelter and Services Program.

Catholic Charities of San Antonio received one of the larger grant tranches, compared with many other organizations.

According to DHS, the New York City Office of Management and Budget received the most eligible funding this fiscal year: $38.8 million.

Thousands of asylum-seekers have been bused to New York City from Texas under Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star border security initiative.

Pima County, Arizona, received $21 million, and Catholic Charities of San Diego and San Diego County were each awarded $19.5 million.

Other awards include:

  • Mission Border Hope, in Eagle Pass, Texas: $12 million

  • Maricopa County, Arizona: $11.6 million

  • World Hunger Ecumenical Arizona Task Force, Inc, based in Maricopa, Arizona: $11.6 million

  • City of Atlanta: $10.8 million

  • City of Chicago: $9.6 million

  • Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley: $7.4 million

  • El Paso County: $4.5 million

  • City of McAllen: $3.9 million

  • San Antonio Food Bank: $2.4 million

  • Catholic Charities of Laredo: $1.6 million

  • Team Brownsville: $360,000

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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