El Paso County appears to be in contract negotiations with an emergency shelter provider to help with the migrant influx without having put the work out for bid — a similar predicament with the same nonprofit company that led to a federal investigation of ICE’s procurement process earlier this year.

That nonprofit company, Endeavors, last year was awarded a controversial no-bid $87 million contract by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to run several hotels, including two in El Paso, that were to house migrants during the pandemic. Through Endeavors, ICE spent $17 million on hotel rooms that went largely unused, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.

El Paso County officials have been muddled about their talks with the San Antonio-based company since El Paso Matters began inquiring about their plans to help mitigate the increasing numbers of migrants coming through the region two weeks ago.

County officials say they’re playing by the book and following procedures.

But in a memo dated May 23, the assistant county attorney’s office states that Commissioners Court “is currently in negotiations with Endeavors for an El Paso County Migrant Processing Center. The information to be discussed includes issues involving business and financial information related to those active contract negotiations.”

Provided as a legal determination for commissioners to discuss the issue in an executive session that same day, the memo made no specific mention of negotiations with other companies.

To bid or not to bid

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego told El Paso Matters that the county is not actively negotiating with Endeavors and that the memo may have been written in anticipation of Title 42 being rescinded.

A public health rule, Title 42 allows immigration officials to turn away asylum seekers to control the possible transmission of communicable diseases — COVID-19 in this case. The rule was to be rescinded on May 23, but a federal judge on May 20 ruled to keep it in place, lessening the urgency of providing assistance for the thousands of migrants who were expected to cross into El Paso from Juárez.

County Judge Ricardo Samaniego Credit: Cindy Ramirez

“I would never support that (Endeavors) were our only choice unless there was no one else,” Samaniego said in a May 31 telephone interview. “That I know of, I didn’t agree or support contract negotiations at this point.”

Samaniego said the county’s administration and purchasing offices are contacting other companies that offer similar services, including La Posada Providencia, which runs a touted migrant shelter in Brownsville.

The county judge also mentioned possibly asking Southwest Keys, one of the nation’s largest operators of shelters for migrant children, to submit a proposal. Southwest Keys in 2018 was investigated by the Justice Department for potential misuse of federal funds following a New York Times investigation. Several highly paid officials, including its CEO, left the company amid the Justice Department’s investigation.

Samaniego said any company hired to provide migrant support services would be properly vetted, though he couldn’t provide details of what kind of checks and balances would be conducted and referred El Paso Matters to the county administrator and purchasing agent.

Karen Davidson, the county’s purchasing agent, said she had “no comment” on whether her office has received any direction on issuing a request for proposals for emergency shelter-related services or whether such services would be put out to open bid.

She said only that “the county is exploring options and any requirements.” When pressed on the matter and asked about the county’s procurement process, Davidson responded by saying “we follow all laws, codes and statutes.” Any requests for proposals that have been issued are posted on the county’s website, she added.

As of Thursday morning, there were no related bid opportunities listed on the county’s purchasing page online.

Samaniego said the county might have considered a direct hire of Endeavors — with whom the county has previously worked — when it was days away from Title 42 possibly being lifted. The county at the time considered issuing a disaster declaration given the expected migrant influx.

But the federal judge’s ruling led to Samaniego not issuing a disaster declaration – and commissioners did not approve an emergency ordinance such as the El Paso City Council issued allowing some emergency procurements to skip the bidding process.

Samaniego said the Title 42 ruling bought the county time to seek out emergency shelter providers.

He said he wasn’t sure if the purchasing department would put out a formal request for bids. During the May 31 telephone interview, he said he had just received a response from La Posada Providencia — but didn’t know who had reached out to the company for a proposal.

County Administrator Betsy Keller’s office first referred questions to commissioners, and later in a statement said several options are still on the table.

“Staff is working to gather additional information on each of those options, and is in consultation with our Purchasing Department,” a county administration spokesperson said via email on May 27. “The court will consider hearing more information about its options as soon as June 6, 2022, at their regular scheduled meeting.”

The county’s agenda for that meeting will not be posted until 9:30 a.m. Friday.

Other options presented by Keller during the May 19 and 23 meetings included contracting a temporary employment agency to help staff existing shelters such as Annunciation House; taking over operations at Casa del Refugiado (run by Annunciation House); or working with the El Paso Office of Emergency Management and the city of El Paso to set up a processing shelter.

The federal government will reimburse local governments and nongovernmental agencies for expenses related to housing migrants. The federal government won’t provide additional facilities to house migrants such as it did at Fort Bliss for Afghan refugees or unaccompanied migrant children in the past, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, has said.

Endeavors’ unsolicited proposals 

Benjamin Miranda, Endeavors’ director of business operations who’s based in El Paso, made a virtual presentation to commissioners on May 19 — the day before the federal judge ruled to keep Title 42 in place. Endeavors was the only company to present.

Touting that Endeavors could set up an operation with full staff within 42 to 78 hours, Miranda said he would provide Commissioners Court with a cost analysis and proposal before its next meeting.

In its presentation to commissioners, Endeavors said it served nearly 44,000 individuals and more than 15,000 families under the ICE hotel contract from March to December 2021, but didn’t make any mention of the critical federal report or the amount of the contract.

An Endeavors spokesperson in San Antonio said the company doesn’t comment on that report because it is an ICE matter.

In the report issued in April, the DHS Office of Inspector General said ICE was not justified in awarding the contract to Endeavors, which provided an unsolicited proposal for housing migrant families in hotels.

The report found that ICE paid Endeavors some $17 million for hotel space and services at six Texas and Arizona hotels that went largely unused between April and June 2021. That included $9 million at two El Paso hotels: Best Western and a Comfort Suites.

ICE records showed that Endeavors had “no experience providing the services covered by the sole source contract, including hotel beds or all-inclusive emergency family residential services,” the report states.

Endeavors only had experience providing staffing for other migrant services, and aside from statements made in its proposal, had no documentation to show it had the capability to do so, the inspector general said in the report.

The report further noted that ICE had used a different contractor in 2021 for similar services, but that neither that contractor nor any others were given the opportunity to submit proposals. It stated that the agency could not provide evidence it procured a qualified contractor at the most cost-effective price.

The inspector general also noted deficiencies in required basic health care and COVID-19 protocols by both ICE and Endeavors, specifically citing that Endeavors did not properly document health care issues, didn’t provide timely COVID testing and did not provide the intended level of care to migrant families.

In an email statement, Endeavors said they followed protocols, but didn’t directly address the inspector general’s concerns over the no-bid process.

“In 2021, the federal government sought help to address the influx of migrants at our southern border,” the statement reads. “Endeavors answered the call and provided critical services to migrants. As concluded by ICE, Endeavors followed appropriate protocols and met the standard of care for migrant families.”

Samaniego said that the county is leaning toward setting up a processing center and not necessarily a shelter at this point. He cited work Endeavors had previously done with the city, county, El Paso’s Office of Emergency Management and several organizations that serve the homeless to provide emergency centers at the height of the pandemic.

Endeavors was contracted to help manage an overflow emergency shelter to house the homeless in 2020 and 2021 after stay-at-home and distancing orders quickly filled shelters such as the Opportunity Center for the Homeless. The shelters had to reduce their capacities to abide by the orders and avoid the spread of COVID-19.

Endeavors provided staff to work the city’s Delta Haven and Welcome Center for the homeless — shelters set up at existing city recreation and senior centers on Delta Drive in South Central El Paso.

Numbers are attached to the beds at a temporary homeless shelter at Hilos de Plata Senior Center in February 2021 so people can know where their sleeping arrangements are. (Maria Ramos Pacheco/El Paso Matters)

The company later ran the Inspira Hotel Emergency Shelter on Mesa Street, which provided 80 rooms. Part of the money was also used for transportation services provided by Endeavors.

Funding came from the federal economic stimulus bill known as the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act).

When asked this week about its contracts with El Paso governments, a spokesperson for Endeavors directed El Paso Matters to its annual report and Guide Star, which tracks nonprofits and their financial records. Its 2020 annual report doesn’t provide any financial breakdowns.

The nonprofit last reported its tax-exempt IRS form to Guide Star in 2019, listing its total revenues at $65.9 million; expenses at $64.9 million, and net assets or fund balances at nearly $15 million.

Among other work touted in Endeavors’ presentation to commissioners was the Lackland influx shelter for unaccompanied children at the Air Force base in San Antonio in 2014-15, when the company deployed staff to surge camps to manage the first major influx of Central Americans. The company also deployed staff to Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

In 2016-17, the company provided shelter management services and direct care to more than 9,000 youth at the Doña Ana influx shelter for unaccompanied minors, the company reported. Endeavors also assisted with the unaccompanied minors shelter in Tornillo in 2018-19, deploying 1,600 staff, the presentation states. The Tornillo “tent city,” as it was called, was run by BCFS, another San Antonio-based nonprofit.

Most recently, the presentation noted, Endeavors is running a 2,000-bed shelter for unaccompanied minors in Pecos, Texas — another site that has recently raised questions about the company.

A report by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting this week said Endeavors’ contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is worth up to $789 million. Reveal reports that for a few months in 2021, Endeavors’ Pecos shelter was run by retired Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost.

No longer running the shelter but serving as a contractor for Endeavors, Provost led the Border Patrol during the time when four children — unaccompanied minor migrants under the care of the agency — died in a six-month span, Reveal reported.

Crisis at the border

Mayor Oscar Leeser said he didn’t call for a disaster declaration because he and area leaders were concerned doing so would prompt Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to send the National Guard to the region.

City Council instead approved an emergency ordinance assigning personnel and resources to assist agencies such as Annunciation House that temporarily house migrants.

That ordinance also allows for some emergency procurements, though it directs the Office of Emergency Management to request reimbursement for expenditures used in addressing the arrival and release of migrants through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.

Samaniego expressed some relief with the federal judge’s rule, saying last week that it bought the community more time to prepare for a larger influx of migrants. He also didn’t sign a disaster declaration, nor has the county approved any emergency ordinances.

Both local governments said they’re continuing to monitor the migrant situation and working with the Office of Emergency Management and nongovernmental agencies to aid with what they can.

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...