6:5o p.m. Sept. 30: This story has been updated with additional statements by city officials on possible interpretations of the federal guidelines.

The federal government may only reimburse the city of El Paso for 30% of its busing costs to transport migrants out of the region – a cap that if not increased could put the city out millions of dollars.

City officials for weeks have sought to reassure the public that local payments for migrant care would be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but never mentioned that the reimbursement for transportation – by far the biggest cost of the city’s response – was capped at 30% of the “migrant population served.”

The city has allocated $6 million for charter bus services, possibly leaving taxpayers to foot $4.2 million, depending on interpretation of federal rules. As of Tuesday, the city had spent about $2.8 million in charter buses since late August. Depending on pending rulings from federal officials, only about $840,000 of that amount may currently be eligible for reimbursement from FEMA.

“They seem willing to provide the flexibility that we need to make sure that we get reimbursed,” said Robert Cortinas, the city’s chief financial officer, referring to members of the federal program that’s funding some of the migrant costs.

As a “very last resort,” he said, the city could use money from the American Rescue Plan Act intended for COVID-19 relief or possibly from its general fund reserve, which now stands at $150 million and is designed to help the city respond to unexpected issues or emergencies.

“We continuously talk about how these funds should be used for emergencies,” Cortinas said about why the reserve fund isn’t tapped into for everyday city expenses. “This would be one.”

The city has spent about $3.4 million on migrant services from Sept. 1-27, according to data provided to El Paso Matters. In the first eight months of the year, the city spent about $139,000 on such services.

FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which helps people at risk of homelessness or hunger, in March was allocated $150 million in humanitarian relief funding for migrants encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol or other Department of Homeland Security agencies at the Southwest border. While priority is given to cities and organizations in border states with the greatest emergency needs, those in states receiving the migrants could also apply for reimbursements.

However, flight, bus or train expenses to move migrants to other cities or states are prioritized for only up to 30% of the migrant population served, according to the program’s guidelines for reimbursing cities and nonprofits.

This charter bus took a group of migrants from El Paso to New York City, leaving Tuesday, Aug. 23 and arriving Thursday, Aug. 25. (Courtesy of Opportunity Center for the Homeless)

Exceptions could be made if approved by the program’s governing body – the national board comprising seven national organization representatives, including FEMA, the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities USA.

After this story was published, city officials said they are seeking clarification from the national board on the implications of the 30% cap. 

City officials said they believe the rules may mean that bus costs may be fully reimbursed as long as the number of people transported by bus stays below 30% of the total number of migrants released.

Laura Cruz-Acosta, the city spokesperson, said just over 38,000 people had been released since July 1 by immigration officials in the El Paso Border Patrol Sector, which includes Far West Texas and all of New Mexico. About 6,300 have been placed on buses chartered by the city in that time – 16% of the total released across the Border Patrol sector. She said the city has asked the national board for clarification on the 30% standard but hasn’t received a response.

Change of tone

City leaders have repeatedly said the federal government would reimburse its costs – without mention of the cap or other guidelines that are required to be met for expenditures to be fully covered.

That changed during Tuesday’s City Council meeting when staff gave an update on the migrant response.

“There are some concerns and there are some risks,” City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said in response to city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, who questioned whether the federal government could change its rules or not allocate more funding for migrant services. “We do have some concerns with things that may not get reimbursed.”

Gonzalez said the city had to move quickly when the influx of migrants – the recent majority from Venezuela who don’t have funds, family or sponsors to help get them to other cities – started growing in late August.

“The migrants’ needs need to be our priority, period,” Gonzalez said. “Everything else will fall into place after that.”

Mayor Oscar Leeser, who has on numerous occasions said the city will get 100% reimbursed, on Tuesday also suggested that might not be the case. Without being specific, he said some guidelines – presumably by the Emergency Food and Shelter Program – might not allow the city to have all its expenses covered.

“But they’ve agreed to go back and work with us to make sure that doesn’t happen to us,” Leeser said.

Gonzalez, Leeser and other city leaders expressed confidence that working with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, they could get fully reimbursed. Escobar has been working with the city and county governments, as well as area nonprofits, who are coordinating to manage the influx of migrants into the region. 

Her office didn’t respond to requests for comment, but did confirm the congresswoman is seeking to raise the reimbursement cap.

Cortinas said that as of Wednesday afternoon, the Emergency Food and Shelter Program had not notified the city whether it would increase its reimbursement for charter bus costs.

Expenditures above the 30% will not be prioritized over other humanitarian services and will only be reimbursed if funding exists, the board’s guidelines state.

Venezuelan migrants run across the Rio Grande to El Paso on Monday, Sept. 12. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

As of Sept. 27, the city had chartered 123 buses, transporting more than 5,800 migrants primarily to New York City and Chicago, city officials said. The number of buses sent from El Paso since late August has doubled in the last week.

The council on Tuesday approved increasing its allocation for on-call charter bus services to $6 million, contracting a second company, American Coach and Limousine, to help transport migrants out of the region. The council had originally approved $2 million for charter bus services, contracting with Gogo Charters earlier this month.

On the receiving end

Earlier this month, the Emergency Food and Shelter Program issued additional guidelines requiring that charter buses be coordinated with the receiving cities in order to be reimbursed. The updated guidelines are to help conserve funds and ensure safe humanitarian services, the program states in its memo.

“Recent use of chartered transportation of migrants has resulted in unacceptable conditions, with many migrants being transported to other states with no information or support, severe medical challenges, or given intentional misinformation about available resources at their destination,” the guidance addendum from the National Board states.

It further states that approach undermines the program’s intention and impacts vulnerable migrants, “many of whom are travelling with young children, fleeing their home countries as victims of violence, sexual abuse, extortion and human trafficking.”

City officials have said the first buses sent out of El Paso were in coordination with the New York City Emergency Management Watch Desk, and later with the New York City Mayor’s Office and the nonprofit Grannies Respond. In Chicago, the city is coordinating with its mayor, the emergency management office and a group of nonprofits, including Grannies Respond.

According to the program’s guidelines, interstate chartering will only be eligible for reimbursements if:

  • There is documented coordination and acknowledged communication with the receiving jurisdiction for every chartered trip.
  • There is at least 48-hour notice before arrival and an arrival time and location is identified.
  • There is a manifest of passengers that includes their demographic and family composition.
  • The migrants’ medical issues have been addressed before travel.
  • Procurement of the transportation contract complies with the program’s humanitarian guidance, including policies related to contract procurement, the use of transport and long distance travel sponsorship.

While individual flight costs may be reimbursed, chartered aircrafts are not eligible under the guidelines. The city has been paying for some migrants’ individual air travel, but has not chartered flights.

City leaders continue to distinguish its busing program from that of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which has been criticized for being politically motivated and not working with the cities receiving the migrants he transports out of the state.

“It’s important to be clear that the migrant response has been local at all times,” Gonzalez said at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Under Abbott’s program, more than 8,100 migrants have been bused to Washington, D.C., as well as 2,700 to New York City and 770 to Chicago, the governor’s office said Friday.

“The busing mission is providing much-needed relief to our overwhelmed border communities,” the governor said in a press release.

Addressing the influx

Expenses for feeding and housing migrants will be reimbursed at 100%, including hotels within certain guidelines. Reimbursements for hotels will be limited to five days per individual or family or 30 days if they don’t have a sponsor.

Federal humanitarian relief funding will also reimburse cities and nonprofits for costs associated with basic health, first aid, COVID-19 testing, staff time, as well as sanitation, maintenance, shelter management and casework. 

Under the updated guidelines, the program will no longer reimburse contracted staff for on-call or standby hours – restricting funds to actual hours worked.

The city on Sept. 3 opened the Migrant Welcome Center in Northeast El Paso, which has been seeing an average 500 to 600 migrants daily. The city provides them food and water and helps transport them to other destinations – most by charter bus, though the city will also help pay for airline tickets if they’re headed to cities where the buses are not traveling.

Gonzalez said the city had requested advanced funding of up to $10 million from the federal government – and was awarded $2 million. The funding had not been received by the city as of Tuesday.

Joel and Yoselyn wait with their daughter, Amber, at the city’s Migrant Welcome Center for information about the departure of a chartered bus to New York, on Friday, Sept. 16. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The county next month will open a Migrant Support Services Center, which will be run and staffed by The Providencia Group under a $6.9 million a year contract. The county won’t charter transportation for migrants, focusing instead on helping migrants who have the funds to pay for their own travel.

The migrant center will be paid for through advanced funding the county was awarded by the federal program, which would cover the majority of its costs for the first year of operation.

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...