The county is expanding its talks with emergency shelter and staffing providers to help it set up a migrant processing center, but officials won’t say whether its previous talks with Endeavors are on or off the table.

El Paso Matters last week reported that the county appeared to be in no-bid contract negotiations with Endeavors — a company recently cited in a federal investigation for the controversial way it landed and handled a multi-million dollar contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year.

On Monday, the El Paso County Commissioners Court voted to authorize staff to meet with contractors who are certified by the General Services Administration and ask them to submit proposals for the processing center.

Companies listed with the independent government agency have been pre-screened and certified by the agency, giving the federal government access to their products and services at pre-negotiated costs. GSA contracting was made available to state and local governments at the start of the pandemic in early 2020 as part of the public health emergency response.

In an email statement, county purchasing agent Karla Davidson said the county “may or may not” get a proposal from Endeavors depending on whether the San Antonio-based nonprofit is an approved GSA contractor. The company is listed as a GSA provider on the agency’s website.

However, 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.”

The letter was issued as a legal determination justifying why commissioners on May 23 could go into executive session “to deliberate business and financial issues relating to a contract under negotiations.”

Commissioners didn’t take any action in the open session following the discussion.

The urgency to set up the processing center comes as the southwest border is seeing a rapidly increasing number of migrants trying to enter the United States and in anticipation of Title 42 being rescinded.

A public health rule enacted at the start of the pandemic, Title 42 allows immigration officials to turn away asylum seekers to control the possible transmission of communicable diseases such as COVID-19. The rule was to be rescinded on May 23, but a federal judge on May 20 ruled to keep it in place.

“At the time initial discussions began, the lifting of Title 42 was imminent, forcing the County to look at various ‘quick fix’ options to prevent overcrowding, street releases, and disorderly processing of migrants — a concern expressed by an area NGO and the Border Patrol,” county officials said in an email statement Tuesday.

“Because the concern is no longer imminent, the direction received by the Court on June 6, 2022, has staff working to consider proposals from any and all qualified GSA contractors,” the statement reads.

County officials in their response didn’t address the memo or whether the court continued negotiations with Endeavors after the federal judge ruled Title 42 would remain in place.

A May 19 presentation to El Paso County Commissioners by the San Antonio-based nonprofit Endeavors included a slide referencing its work setting up migrant shelters in hotels.

Unsolicited proposals

Endeavors last year was awarded a controversial no-bid $87 million contract by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to run several hotels to house migrants during the pandemic.

Through Endeavors, ICE spent $17 million on hotel rooms that went largely unused, including $9 million in two El Paso hotels, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.

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

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.

Migrants released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement wait at the Tornado bus station in downtown El Paso on the morning of May 15. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Seeking solutions

Irene Valenzuela, executive director of the county’s Community Services Department, on Monday said staff has been internally discussing options and gathering information on what it could do to help with the influx of migrants coming through El Paso.

The county is focusing on a processing center that would help move migrants who’ve been authorized to remain in the United States out of the region and into other parts of the country with their host families, she said.

Among the options she presented to commissioners were that the county could work with GSA contractors, put out a formal request for proposals, or approve an order forgoing the bidding process under a section of the Texas Government Code that allows exemptions for competitive bidding.

County officials didn’t cite which exemption they might claim if commissioners take that option, and said putting out a request for proposals could take up to three months.

Davidson said the county by Monday had already reached out to eight potential contractors but are only asking those who are GSA certified to submit proposals. She added that contractors are being asked to submit proposals by the end of the week.

When pressed about the county’s talks with Endeavors specifically, county officials on Tuesday morning reiterated that they’re “considering proposals from any and all qualified GSA contractors, which may include Endeavors.”

One of two other contractors who had responded as of Monday is Vighter, a San Antonio-based company that provided services in El Paso at the height of the pandemic when the Texas Division of Emergency Management set up an alternative care site at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center in Downtown.

The second is La Posada Providencia, a company based in Virginia that currently provides services in a migrant shelter in Brownsville.

Staff will next present the proposals to commissioners, who’ll vote whether to contract with a GSA approved vendor or pursue other options, Valenzuela said.

The Biden administration has allocated $110 million in federal emergency funds to reimburse local governments and nongovernmental organizations for expenses related to the migrant influx.

“We want to be reasonable and accountable and fiscally responsible,” County Administrator Betsy Keller told commissioners Monday. She said that although the federal government will reimburse the county, the county would likely have to front the funds.

“And it’s still taxpayer dollars,” Keller added.

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...