EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Despite concerns about slow federal government reimbursements and a chance El Paso might be left holding the bag for a portion of the costs, the City Council on Tuesday extended an emergency ordinance allowing the use of local resources to manage the ongoing migrant crisis.
The 9-0 vote green lights through November continued use of hotel rooms for overnight stays, meals and free bus rides to New York City, Chicago and other hubs for hundreds of unsponsored migrants released daily from federal custody in the city.
City Rep. Claudia Rodriguez expressed concerns about the city fronting the costs on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and reports of a 30 percent cap on transportation reimbursements. City staff is asking the federal government on clarification on the cap and is poised to ask for an exemption if needed.
“We are taking a huge risk at the cost of the taxpayers, our local taxpayers in El Paso. And to me, for my constituents, that’s not a risk they’re willing to take. What we’re doing is very admirable, but somebody else should be paying for this; it should not be the taxpayers here in El Paso [….] We haven’t even gotten the $2 million and now we’re seeking clarification (on the 30 percent). To me that’s a huge liability, that’s a huge red flag. We’re playing with people’s money at this point,” Rodriguez said at Tuesday’s council meeting.
The $2 million refers to a FEMA advance that was promised to the city.
Rodriguez proposed that Mayor Oscar Leeser instead declare a state of emergency to allow the city to petition for state resources to deal with the migrants. She acquiesced to extending the ordinance after city staff gave council a dire perspective on what would happen without it.
Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said federal officials are dropping off some 500 migrants at the Office of Emergency Management’s Welcoming Center every day, in addition to between 200 and 300 sent there by area nonprofit shelters. If the city were to stop busing the unsponsored migrants out of the city, hundreds will end up on the street, he said.
Further, he said federal officials have told the city they are anticipating 60,000 migrants encounters in the El Paso Sector in October, which would break September’s 40,000-plus record number of apprehensions. For the sake of comparison, that would be just under third of the 203,598 migrants encounters reported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection along the entire Southwestern border in September.
“That is record numbers of people passing through our community,” D’Agostino said. “Right now, we aren’t seeing any relief. Last night they had 2,100” apprehensions, which shattered hopes that the surge now in its second month might be slowing.
If the city were to stop busing migrants out of town even temporarily, for a few days, a backlog would build that will take several days to manage. “That would be creating a public health and public safety crisis,” D’Agostino said.
Federal officials are releasing a large number of migrants who crossed the border without authorization because they come from countries that won’t take them back, primarily Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Of those released in El Paso, 70 percent are Venezuelans and half of them have no sponsors or means for travel to the interior of the country. Few, if any, are choosing to stay permanently in El Paso.
D’Agostino said the city is spending about $250,000 a day on migrants. That includes 207 charter bus runs carrying 10,000 migrants so far, hotel rooms for 3,400 migrants and 15,000 meals including sack lunches for the road.
The city expects to get reimbursed by the federal government. Nonetheless, city staff members acknowledged the situation will be unsustainable in the long term unless things change.
“Even though we’re strong, we also have a stretch point. this process is taxing and its taxing our team. But we are committed to not only our community but also to provide a humane and dignified response,” City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said.
The city manager said he gets questions “from both sides of the situation” as to why the city continues to be involved in managing the migrant crisis, when most agree it’s a federal government responsibility.
“A lot of people saying why are we doing this? When people cross and get processed by CBP to a large degree they become legal in that they have a right to be here. And if they have a right to be here, we cannot detain them or tell them where to go,” Gonzalez said. “So when we have been visiting with them at the welcome center we are very conscientious about ‘where do you want to go?’ ‘What do you need?’ And things of that nature. We are very much committed to the humanitarian part of this crisis.”