Catholic Charities denies its purchase of airfare for migrants was misuse of federal funds

san antonio Groups of migrants wait outside the Migrant Resource Center to receive food from San Antonio Catholic Charities on Sept. 19, 2022, in San Antonio, Texas. | Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Antonio is denying recent accusations that it misused federal taxpayer funds by paying for migrants’ airfare.

This comes after two South Texas members of Congress, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, and Rep. Monica de la Cruz, a Republican, accused the San Antonio Catholic relief group of an inappropriate use of funds made available to it by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Jose Antonio Fernandez, CEO of Catholic Charities San Antonio, confirmed to CNA that the group did indeed help migrants with air travel from San Antonio to other locations in the United States, but he claimed that this was a licit use of funds under FEMA’s rules.

Cuellar said in an interview with Border Report that the nonprofit group’s practice of buying airfare for migrants has made San Antonio a destination for many migrants looking to travel to other parts of the U.S. He said that funding he helped secure for Catholic Charities of San Antonio was intended for humanitarian relief, not to purchase airfare for migrants.

“From the very beginning I said it would only be used for food and shelter, maybe transportation inside a city but not to be sending them [across the country],” Cuellar said. “The family or somebody should pay for that, not the taxpayer.”  

De la Cruz, meanwhile, told Border Report that the San Antonio Catholic Charities’ use of funds is “just simply unacceptable.”

“They misused funds and sent these illegal immigrants where their preferred destination was with taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” she said.

Fernandez responded to these allegations by telling CNA that “we have never misused the funding because the funding was given to us to provide transportation.”

According to Fernandez, the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP) FEMA grant given to Catholic Charities of San Antonio “clearly stated that you could provide transportation.” 

“The funds were given to us to provide food, clothing, all these activities, including transportation,” he said.

“It’s not my interpretation, it is a fact; many companies in the U.S. provide transportation because it is allowed,” he said. “If you contact FEMA, they will tell you that, yes, you are actually allowed to provide transportation.”

CNA reached out to FEMA about its regulations but did not immediately receive a response. 

Fernandez clarified that Catholic Charities of San Antonio is not currently paying for migrants’ air travel and has not been doing so since the end of 2023. 

He said that the group stopped purchasing air travel for two reasons: 1) Limited funding necessitated budget cuts, and 2) instead of receiving EFSP FEMA funding the group is now receiving funding under the Shelter and Services Program, which limits transportation spending to 5% of the grant.

He said that under these limitations San Antonio Catholic Charities would not have been able to offer travel services to all who were seeking it.

“It was a huge amount of money spent, I don’t know exactly the amount, but we just couldn’t afford [it],” Fernandez said, adding: “Hopefully people can find a way and we can try to help them.”

This, Fernandez said, has presented its own challenge with more migrants amassing in San Antonio. In 2023 alone, Fernandez said that San Antonio Catholic Charities helped well over 250,000 migrants with food, shelter, and other services.

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“Now we’re seeing a lot more people staying in San Antonio because they don’t have the funds to go someplace else,” he said. “We feed them, we clothe them, we provide them with counseling services, with financial assistance to the people staying in San Antonio, legal services, shelter services. We try to provide them with all these wraparound services to help mind, body, and spirit.”

Tony Wen, a representative for Cuellar, declined to comment further on the matter but did clarify that the congressman “never said they were misusing funds” and that particular verbiage was only used by de la Cruz. 

Despite this, Wen said that Cuellar still stands by his comments about the intended use of federal funds.

A proponent of funding for humanitarian relief at the border, Cuellar recently helped advance an appropriations bill that granted San Antonio Catholic Charities and other border relief groups hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds.

Catholic Charities of San Antonio alone received $10,877,226 from the appropriations bill. Ten other Catholic relief groups at or near the southern border also received federal funding from the same appropriations bill, totaling tens of millions of dollars.

Cuellar and several other lawmakers issued a statement after securing the funding in which they praised Catholic Charities of San Antonio and other similar groups as a “lifeline” in the face of the “historic number of people being displaced from Latin America.”

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