When 12 migrants were found inside a trailer at 1600 Splashtown Dr. the afternoon of Dec. 23, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus released them into the care of Catholic Charities, a group affiliated with the Archdiocese of San Antonio, instead of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
McManus said the police department did not have jurisdiction to detain the migrants, so he decided to handle the case as a state offense instead of as federal offense — a decision he said was based on the situation.
“We had all of our officers queued up waiting to see how we were going to handle this. I made the call to handle it at the state level,” said McManus, adding that this was not necessarily the way future cases would be handled.
Police arrested the driver, 58-year-old Herbert Alan Nichols of Houston. He was charged with smuggling of persons, which is a third degree felony. According to the police report, officers found him after a woman called police and told them she saw people getting out of a trailer and two women crying. Nichols confirmed to the officers that the trailer was his and he had picked up the trailer and the migrants in Laredo.
The migrants were treated as witnesses at the scene. One man said he was from Guatemala. All 12 migrants refused medical assistance. At least one was a minor. They were transported to police headquarters. It’s unclear how many other migrants may have been in the trailer.
McManus declined to talk about protocol that lead to his decision about jurisdiction. But, he added, he met with the director of Homeland Security Investigations on Thursday morning to “lay out a framework of how we will handle these cases going forward to include SAPD and to include HSI.”
A spokeswoman for ICE and Homeland Security Investigations said one HSI agent had been on the scene to coordinate with SAPD and several other agents staged at the HSI office.
Antonio Fernandez, president of Catholic Charities, said McManus contacted him shortly after officers arrived and asked for assistance. Catholic Charities sent three vans: two for transport and one with food, water and blankets.
Five migrants declined assistance. “My assumption would be that they had other arrangements or maybe they had other friends or people in San Antonio, and they stayed with family members,” Fernandez said.
Seven migrants left with Catholic Charities. “We took them to a hotel," Fernandez said.
Five left on Dec. 24, Fernandez said, and two left on Dec. 25. At least two migrants, he said, traveled to Tennessee.
Fernandez said this was the first time his organization had been called to help in a situation like this. He said neither ICE nor HSI reached out to Catholic Charities for assistance.
"When someone comes to San Antonio — regardless if it's mothers and children at the bus station or if it’s an incident with a trailer that — we can be better prepared in a more immediate way to give them what Catholic Charities does, which is service, it’s love, it’s dignity, it’s respect, it’s food, it’s legal help, it’s clothing,” Fernandez said. “So if it happens again and we are being called — unless I’m being told legally that I cannot do it — I will be helping everybody regardless.”
On Friday, District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse issued a statement saying the San Antonio City Council was not notified about the incident for 10 days.
“That is totally unacceptable and a lapse in judgment by senior city leadership," he said. "It appears that the reporting of this story in the evening news was the only reason the city council was notified about this incident."
He added, "The facts are scattered, and I have asked for an in-depth briefing on the response by the police chief, to include full reporting of the officers on scene and body camera video.”
Brockhouse is asking why the immigrants were released without criminal background checks and if SAPD modified any operating procedures during the response.
The Dec. 23 incident comes exactly five months after nearly 40 immigrants were found in an unventilated trailer at a southeast side Walmart on July 23. Many suffered from heat related illnesses. Ten immigrants died. Many of the survivors were held as material witnesses in the case against the driver James Matthew Bradley Jr. Bradley, who pleaded guilty to Transporting Undocumented Aliens Resulting in Death. He’s expected to be sentenced on Jan. 16.
Joey Palacios can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.