Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from city officials.
After nearly 500 migrants were released to the streets of El Paso this week – with more expected in the coming days – the city and county governments on Monday will consider proposals to set up a migrant processing center and to contract a charter bus company.
Officials with the El Paso sector of the U.S. Border Patrol confirmed they released 133 Venezuelan male migrants to the streets on Wednesday, and another 350 of unspecified nationalities on Thursday. Some of those dropped off at the Greyhound Bus Station in Downtown spent the night on the sidewalks and benches around the station, where complete strangers dropped off bottled water, burritos, pizza, hamburgers, fruit and some clothing.
“We are forever grateful to the community of El Paso for being so hospitable,” Luis Alfonso, 48, said as he sat on the sidewalk sharing survival stories with a group of other men who traveled from Venezuela to El Paso over the past month. “If they were to make a movie about our journey – all we endured and all we lived through – it would win an Oscar.”
The release of migrants to the streets comes as Border Patrol agents in the El Paso region are encountering more than 1,000 migrants a day. Shelters that would typically take in the migrants after they’re processed and released are at capacity and in desperate need of volunteers.
Charter buses, processing center
On Monday the El Paso City Council will consider ratifying a contract with Gogo Charters LLC to transport migrants out of the region.
The company was contracted on Aug. 26 under an emergency ordinance the city approved in May that allows officials to skip the bidding process. The $2 million contract would be for services through December 2023, according to city documents.
The city government and the city-county Office of Emergency Management have chartered five buses to New York City and one to Dallas this summer, including one on Wednesday.
City officials in an email response late Friday said they are providing food, drink and medical services to migrants at shelters and hotels, as well as transportation to outside cities, but didn’t provide details or specifically address how they’ve responded to those released to the streets this week.
The email also said the city has asked for support from the federal government in the form of “transportation and funding options,” but didn’t provide any details or respond to follow up questions.
Also on Monday, the El Paso County Commissioners Court will consider how to pay for a Migrant Support Services Operations Center. The county in June began looking for emergency shelter providers to set up a processing center to help migrants find transportation to other cities.
And while the federal government will reimburse local governments and nongovernmental agencies for expenses related to housing migrants, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said it’s been a challenge to find space for lease to run the operation.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves if we don’t have a building,” Samaniego said, adding that the county also has to consider how it would pay for the associated costs upfront and confirm that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse its expenses.
County documents show that staff has identified potential sites and reviewed lease terms and proposals from various commercial properties, which will be presented in executive session during Monday’s meeting.
The documents also show the estimated cost under a third-party contractor, including a lease for a building, would be about $465,000 a month – just under $5.6 million a year. The county would then hire a contractor to run the center from among those who’ve turned in proposals.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, in a statement said she spoke with Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Friday to ensure that nonprofits and local governments are reimbursed by the federal government “for stepping up to help arriving migrants.”
Escobar said the larger problem has been the lack of immigration reform the past 30 years, adding that climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic “have only exacerbated the number of migrants leaving their home countries.”
“I cannot emphasize enough that the increased levels of migration are not a uniquely American problem; this is being felt across the entire Western hemisphere,” she said in the statement.
No state takeover wanted
Samaniego said he had hoped the military might step in to help with either transportation or temporary shelter staffing, but said state involvement would have to be as a collaboration and not a takeover of migrant services.
Under Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security program Operation Lone Star, the state has bused nearly 8,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., more than 2,200 to New York City, and most recently, 300 to Chicago.
“The busing mission is providing much-needed relief to our overwhelmed border communities,” Abbott said in a press release Friday.
Members of the Texas State Guard were in El Paso for a few days to assist with migrants arriving at the Welcome Center in South El Paso, a homeless shelter being operated by the Opportunity Center for the Homeless.
When organizers there asked the city for assistance, the Office of Emergency Management reached out to the state for help with a charter bus under the condition that OEM retain control of the effort – keeping it separate from Abbott’s operation.
John Martin, deputy director of the Opportunity Center, expressed his concern about having soldiers in uniform at the Welcome Center to the OEM on Aug. 30, and the State Guard didn’t return.
The city’s agenda for Monday’s work session calls for a discussion and action on its cooperation with the state during Operation Lone Star, but doesn’t include any other details. The item was placed on the agenda by Rep. Alexsandra Annello, who couldn’t be reached for comment.
Step up, politics aside
Ruben Garcia, founder and executive director of the Annunciation House shelter, has been warning about the need for the city and county governments to “step up” since May, also calling on churches and the region’s religious communities to help.
Due to lack of funding and volunteers, Garcia last month closed one of the region’s largest migrant shelters, Casa del Refugiado, in an aging warehouse on the city’s East Side. The shelter hosted some 25,000 migrants released by border agencies this year before it closed, the El Paso Times reported.
Garcia on Thursday reiterated the need for others to step up, saying charter buses and a processing center are greatly needed but should not be politicized.
“If you’re going to politicize what is a great social need, that is sinful,” said Garcia, referring to Abbott’s busing program that has dropped migrants in other cities without notifying those communities. He added that the governor instead could have asked the governors from across the country for help.
“Everybody needs to step up,” he said.
Some El Pasoans did their small part on Thursday and Friday, dropping off food and clothes to the migrants stranded at the Greyhound station Downtown. A young woman who didn’t want to be interviewed drove up and dropped off boxes of pizza to the grateful crowd, while a couple offered them burritos and water.
“We’re also immigrants, and we made it over here ourselves,” said Samuel Gomez, who delivered the burritos with his wife, Josefina. “They need some help.”
Luis Alfonso, who called his 54-day journey worthy of a movie, said he was bit by a poisonous snake and treated at a hospital in Guatemala. He doesn’t have family in the United States, but said he’s looking to take a bus to San Antonio.
“We want work, opportunities,” he said. “We came here to work, to earn a respectful living and live in a country that respects our voice, our rights as humans.”
El Paso Matters only identifies migrants by first name because many are fleeing violence and fear for their safety.
Luis Alfonso and others said they were grateful to have made it here, telling stories of those who did not. They saw migrants drown, have heart attacks and fall and break ankles or arms, they recounted.
One man said he saw a migrant’s body being eaten by desert animals, another said he saw groups of migrants beating each other over water and other supplies.
Ana, a 23-year-old Venezuelan, said she experienced things one could never imagine during her journey to the United States.
“I have no words to describe it,” she said while waiting for a bus to San Antonio at the Greyhound Bus Station, where she’s been for two days. Acquaintances in San Antonio will help her when she arrives, she said, as she has no family in the United States.
She said she hoped to help financially support her parents and 4-year-old daughter in Venezuela.
Another Venezuelan woman, 25, who asked that her name not be used, said she had been staying at a shelter with her brother-in-law, who was asked to leave after a few days. She decided to leave with him and the two have been sleeping outdoors. Without any money, they’re hoping the community will help them get to Chicago or New York.
She said having reached the United States, she has nothing to complain about here.
“If I come to a country where I know no one and have nothing, I need to come prepared to deal with the consequences,” she said. “No one has any obligation to do anything for us. I am just grateful to be here in this country. I’ll be happy wherever I end up.”
El Paso Matters senior reporter Elida S. Perez, photographer Corrie Bourdreaux and CEO Robert Moore contributed to this story.