The federal government has increased the cap on reimbursements for charter buses paid for by the city of El Paso to transport migrants to New York and Chicago, a change that officials believe will result in full reimbursement of those costs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency in March allocated $150 million in humanitarian relief funding for cities and organizations that provide aid – including food, shelter and transportation – to migrants released after encounters at the Southwest border by the U.S. Border Patrol.

In its initial guidelines, FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program stated that expenses to move migrants to other cities or states were prioritized for only up to 30% of the migrant population served.

City officials on Tuesday said the emergency program’s board on Oct. 20 approved an increase in the travel cap to 75% of the migrant population the city receives – a description city leaders say applies to the number of migrants the city transported from the overall number of migrants the community received. 

“If we receive 10 people and we transport seven, we’ll get 100% of reimbursement. That’s what that 75% rule means,” City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said Tuesday. 

City leaders said they are basing the population on migrants released in the El Paso community, including those who receive help from local nonprofits and non-governmental agencies.

The city’s dashboard shows that about 14,000 of the nearly 39,000 migrants released in the El Paso sector by federal officials since late August were placed on charter buses paid for by the city. That’s about 36% of what the city defines as the population it served, well below the 75% cap eligible for reimbursement of travel costs, meaning all of the transportation expenses would be eligible for federal reimbursement.

“We have no reason to believe we won’t be reimbursed, but until we get it, we don’t have it,” Gonzalez said.

In a presentation to the City Council Tuesday, city leaders said they’ve spent $6.1 million in migrant transportation costs – by far the largest chunk of the $8.86 million the city has spent on migrants overall through Oct. 20. The city has been reimbursed $2.24 million so far.

The City Council had recently approved $6 million for charter bus service contracts under an emergency ordinance passed earlier this year. With an overage of $95,000 in busing expenses to date, the council on Tuesday approved an additional $2 million for busing – funds city leaders said they needed to have available but might not use.

The extra funds were approved in a 5-2 vote, with city Reps. Alexsandra Annello, Cassandra Hernandez, Henry Rivera, Joe Molinar and Cissy Lizarraga voting in favor of the increase. City Reps. Claudia Rodriguez and Isabel Salcido voted against it. City Rep. Peter Svarzbein was not present for the vote.

“If we do for some reason need the funds for any transportation moving forward it’ll be already approved,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said.

The latest round of humanitarian funding opened on Oct. 15 for expenses incurred from July 1 to Sept. 30 for any nonprofit, faith-based or government agency that can document expenditures made to migrants encountered by DHS at the southern border. City officials said they had not yet submitted a reimbursement request for spending about $4.6 million in that period.

Robert Cortinas, the city’s chief financial officer, last month told El Paso Matters that if the city weren’t reimbursed for all of its migrant expenses, it could use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for COVID-19 relief programs or from its $150 million general fund reserve as a last resort.

The city on Oct. 18 shut down its Migrant Welcome Center, the hub of its busing operation that in 44 days chartered 294 buses transporting nearly 14,000 migrants to New York, Chicago and other cities, according to a presentation during Tuesday’s council meeting.

The closure came after the Biden administration on Oct. 12 began expelling Venezuelan migrants back to Mexico under an expansion of Title 42 – the controversial public health policy enacted during the Trump administration that allowed migrants to be expelled without legal process during the pandemic. 

Prior to Biden’s order, border law enforcement officials saw a record number of migrant encounters at the Southwest border, reporting 2.7 million encounters in the 2022 fiscal year that ended in September. That’s up from 1.9 million the previous fiscal year.

In September alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported nearly 227,550 encounters with migrants along the southwest border – 42% of them from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. 

In the El Paso area, which includes Far West Texas and all of New Mexico, CBP reported 50,640 encounters in September, with almost half coming from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

That put Border Patrol holding facilities and local nonprofit shelters at capacity – leading to more than a thousand migrants to be released to the streets

The migrants, who had been processed and legally allowed to remain in the United States to await their immigration hearing, spent days sleeping on the streets, setting up tents around the Greyhound bus station in Downtown before the city opened the Migrant Welcome Center in Northeast on Sept. 7.

Gonzalez said even though the city is not operating the welcome center or transporting migrants, city employees remain embedded with nongovernmental agencies and nonprofits providing migrant services in the region.

“We have to embed people into the nongovernment organizations and nonprofits because if they fail, this whole system will come apart,” Gonzalez said. “They are a large reason why we’ve been successful because they’ve been doing their job and then some throughout this entire process.”

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...

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...