SAN ANTONIO — For months, a migrant-services center blocks from the Alamo in downtown San Antonio has been packed with Central American families who have crossed the border in record-breaking numbers.
But in recent days, hundreds of migrants from another part of the world have caused city officials already busy with one immigrant surge to scramble on a new and unexpected one. Men, women and children from central Africa — mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola — are showing up at the United States’ southwest border after embarking on a dangerous, monthslong journey.
Their arrival at the border and at two cities more than 2,100 miles apart — San Antonio and Portland, Me. — has surprised and puzzled immigration authorities and overwhelmed local officials and nonprofit groups. The surge has prompted Portland to turn its basketball arena into an emergency shelter and depleted assistance funds meant for other groups. Officials in both cities have had to reassure the public that fears of an Ebola outbreak were unfounded while also pleading for volunteer interpreters who speak French and Portuguese.
In San Antonio, the city-run Migrant Resource Center has assisted about 300 African migrants who were apprehended at the border and released by the authorities since June 4. Those 300 are just a portion of the overall numbers. Since October 2018, more than 700 migrants from Africa have been apprehended at what has become their main point of entry, the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, a largely rural stretch of Texas border that is nearly 200 miles west of San Antonio.
Migrants from around the world have been known to cross the southwest border, but the vast majority are those from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. African migrants have shown up at the border in the past, but only in small numbers, making the sudden arrival of more than 700 all the more surprising to Border Patrol officials. From fiscal years 2007 to 2018, a total of 25 migrants from Congo and Angola were arrested and taken into custody in the Border Patrol’s nine sectors on the southern border, according to agency data.
Many come with horrific stories of government-sanctioned violence at home and treacherous conditions on their long journeys through South and Central America.
“It’s definitely an anomaly that we have not experienced before,” said Raul L. Ortiz, the Border Patrol’s chief patrol agent for the Del Rio sector. “We do know there are some more in the pipeline. We’re going to prepare as if we should expect more.”
In both San Antonio and Portland, elected officials, volunteers and nonprofit and religious leaders have rallied to assist the African migrants, donating money, serving free meals and operating overnight shelters. But their resources were already being stretched thin, and there was frustration among local officials about the federal government’s handling of the African migrant surge.
Many of the Central American asylum seekers apprehended at the border have solidified their travel plans by the time they are released by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The migrants arrange to travel by plane or bus to join relatives already living in the United States.
But many of the recent African migrants do not have relatives in the country, so they are being released with no travel arrangements, a problem that local officials and nonprofit groups are forced to sort out. Some of the Congolese migrants in San Antonio said Border Patrol agents had chosen their destination cities for them, or encouraged them to select one of two cities, New York and Portland.
A Border Patrol spokesman denied those claims, saying the agency is not directing migrants toward any particular destination.
In Portland — the largest city in Maine, with a population of 66,417 — about 200 African migrants were sleeping on cots on Friday night in a temporary emergency shelter set up in the Portland Expo Center. The city has a large Congolese community, and has built a reputation as a place friendly to asylum seekers. It created the government-financed Portland Community Support Fund to provide rental payments to landlords and other forms of assistance for asylum seekers, the only fund of its kind in the country, Portland officials said.
The mayor of Portland, Ethan K. Strimling, said they welcomed African migrants, and a donation campaign for them had raised more than $20,000 in its first 36 hours.
“I don’t consider it a crisis, in the sense that it is going to be detrimental to our city,” Mr. Strimling said. “We’re not building walls. We’re not trying to stop people. In Maine, and Portland in particular, we’ve been built on the backs of immigrants for 200 years, and this is just the current wave that’s arriving.”
San Antonio officials said they had sent about 150 of the roughly 300 African migrants in the city to Portland. The others traveled to Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York City, and cities in Florida and Iowa. Catholic Charities of San Antonio spent about $125,000 on airfare and bus tickets for African migrants in recent days, draining the funding it had planned on using to assist Central American migrants. Meanwhile, the $200,000 Portland government-assistance fund was already overextended by $90,000.
“No one has been prepared for anything like this,” said J. Antonio Fernandez, the president and chief executive of Catholic Charities of San Antonio. “We were thinking that we were going to spend $120,000 in three to four months. We spent everything in five days. We’re going to need help from people out there who want to help immigrants.”
On Friday, the migrant center — a former Quiznos sandwich shop in a city-owned building, across the street from the downtown bus station — was filled with about 100 migrants, roughly 30 of whom were from Congo and Angola, and the rest from Central America. Outside, African families stood talking in groups or sat on the sidewalk with their backs against the wall.
They did not hide their anguish or their tears. The Congolese spoke of fleeing violent clashes between militia fighters and government soldiers, widespread corruption and government-led killings. Some of them traveled to the neighboring country of Angola, then flew to Ecuador. From there, they said they had traveled by bus and on foot through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to the South Texas border.
One Congolese woman cried as she stood on the sidewalk. She said her 5-year-old daughter had gotten sick and died on a bus. “There weren’t any doctors, there wasn’t any medicine,” she said. “It’s too hard for me to talk about my story.”
A 41-year-old man from Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, said he and his 10-year-old son had spent four months traveling to the border with a group of about 10 families. The man, a Red Cross volunteer and mechanic who asked to be identified only by his first name, Alain, said he fled because he had been speaking out about government killings.
“I cannot go back now,” Alain said. “They will kill me. We prefer to live in freedom. In my country there’s no freedom, no democracy. We’re cornered. We’re prisoners in our own country.”
The most treacherous part of the journey for many of the Congolese was in the Darién Gap, a region of mountains, forest and swampland at the border between Panama and Colombia that is considered one of the world’s most dangerous jungles, where smugglers and armed criminals prey on migrants.
Alain said he was robbed at gunpoint there. A Congolese woman, sitting on the sidewalk outside the center, said in tears that she was raped in the Darién Gap jungle.
The woman, Gisele Nzenza Kitandi, 44, said migrants there had died because they were sick or dehydrated. Ms. Kitandi grew increasingly distraught, as she sat with her leg in a brace from being shot by Congolese government soldiers. She said she had no money for bus tickets for her and her children.
“I don’t even have one dollar,” Ms. Kitandi said.
Dr. Colleen Bridger, the interim assistant city manager of San Antonio, said the city would figure out a way to get the Africans the services and transportation they needed. The city and nonprofit groups have already spent more than $600,000 in direct expenditures in recent months on Central American and African migrant assistance.
“It’s not an option for us to say to people newly arrived in the United States that they’re not our problem and that they’re welcome to sleep on the park bench until they find enough money to buy food and bus tickets for their children,” Dr. Bridger said. “That’s just not who San Antonio is.”