EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – City Council on Tuesday approved spending an additional $4 million for migrant busing, as the number of individuals released from federal immigration custody in El Paso surpasses 800 per day.
The council two weeks ago approved a $2 million on-call bus services contract, which is proving insufficient as the city already shelled out $1.8 million for 81 charter bus departures as of September 21.
The bus money, just like the $17,790 the city is spending every night in hotel rooms and the 22,245 meals served to migrants so far, is coming from the city’s general fund. In addition, the city has committed 125 municipal employees to address the crisis, including 50 who are “embedded” at immigrant advocacy nonprofits that cannot find enough volunteers.
The city’s total expenses on migrants stand at $250,000 a day now.
Mayor Oscar Leeser and the city manager’s office emphasized they expect the Biden administration to fully reimburse the city.
“I tell Washington they’re not helping us; we’re helping them. This is not an issue of the City of El Paso, it’s a federal issue and we need their help. We need funding and we need to get reimbursed,” Leeser said at Tuesday’s council session.
The motion passed on a 6-2 vote, with City Reps. Claudia Rodriguez and Isabel Salcido saying El Paso needs to issue a disaster declaration so it can receive state funding.
“Hearing these numbers today, this is not sustainable for the taxpayer. It isn’t,” Salcido said. “You’re talking about $250,000 a day; if this goes on for another year, that’s like $89 million. I know we’re getting refunded but we’re playing catch-up.”
City staff said El Paso has received reimbursements of $482,000 for migrant expenses incurred last year and $237,000 for the first two quarters of 2022. Mayor Leeser also said it’s a matter of time before the city has in hand a $2 million advance that the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved.
But with migrant expenses expected to top $4 million in September, the city has asked for larger advance ($10 million) and for the federal government to reimburse it on a monthly, instead of a quarterly basis.
Even some who voted for the additional money expressed concerns about the Biden administration fully refunding the city’s migrant costs.
“The notion that it’s not being supported by (local) taxpayers is false, because we are, and also we don’t have anything in writing to pay back. We are at the whim of hopes and promises,” City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez said. “So, while I recognize that we have to do this, I also don’t want to mislead the public. We are using our funding we are utilizing our public finance system to fund this operations and there is a potential we may not be reimbursed for these costs if some dramatic things happen at the federal government. […] We have seen that before time and time again that policies change.”
El Paso went into crisis mode late last month, after the U.S. Border Patrol began releasing paroled migrants onto Downtown streets because shelters were full. That was followed by the increasing arrival of Venezuelan nationals without sponsors nor the means to purchase bus or plane tickets.
The Border Patrol says it’s averaging 1,560 migrant apprehensions per day in the El Paso Sector, with 650 of those being Venezuelans.
Leeser said border agents have not released any migrants onto the street in more than a week, and he credited that to “decompression” efforts at immigration processing centers as well as the city providing meals, hotel rooms and charter buses for the migrants.
The city is paying for an average of 150 hotel rooms that shelter more than 300 migrants each night. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is flying six plane-loads of migrants for processing in other cities daily, and sending others away on buses, Leeser said.
“The way to keep a crisis from our community is not to have any street releases, and we haven’t had them in eight days,” he said.
The mayor added his staff has been told by top federal officials that, if the city follows federal guidelines, it will be reimbursed. Also, he said there’s no need for a disaster declaration now because migrants are no longer on the streets and CBP is successfully decompressing its processing facilities.
City staff said the demand for buses out of El Paso is such that migrants often cannot purchase same-day tickets, so they are sent to hotels if shelters are full. The cost of a hotel averages $118 per migrant, which is cheaper than having them at an emergency sheltering facility where the costs add up to $167 per day when services staff, security and other expenses are taken into account.
Leeser said city staff is committed to treating the migrants with dignity and respect, and compared their work to travel agents.
“We don’t want them to go to D.C., we don’t want them to go to Martha’s Vineyard,” he said, referring to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant rides approach. “We don’t send people to the White House or (Vice President) Kamala’s (Harris) house. We send them where they want to go.”
Most charter buses out of El Paso have gone to New York City and Chicago, with some going to Dallas and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Leeser said many Venezuelans who crossed the border from Juarez, Mexico, don’t even know they are in a city called El Paso. They’re just here until they can get to their destinations. He said when staff asked a young migrant girl where she wanted to go, she said, “Disneyland.”