Without either issuing a disaster declaration, Mayor Oscar Leeser and County Judge Ricardo Samaniego are both instead asking the Texas Division of Emergency Management for support to help manage the massive influx of migrants expected to arrive at El Paso’s doorstep when Title 42 ends next week.
The city and county governments are working with Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, to request the state resources from the agency, which coordinates state and local responses to natural disasters and other emergencies in the state.
“This is our request to the governor, the things that we feel are needed at this time,” Samaniego said at a special El Paso County Commissioners Court meeting on Thursday. Details of the request were discussed in executive session and not made public during open session.
“This is our effort to request specifically what we feel we need in our coordination and collaboration in trying to deal with these challenges,” Samaniego said.
A federal policy that allows border agents to quickly expel migrants on public health grounds, Title 42 is expected to be lifted on Dec. 21 – opening the door for thousands more migrants to seek asylum at the border. That would further overwhelm El Paso’s local governments and nongovernmental organizations working to feed, shelter and transport the incoming migrants – as well as the border security agencies that encounter and process them.
“We’re not declaring a state of emergency, but we are requesting state resources,” Leeser said during a press conference at City Hall on Thursday.
Neither city nor county officials provided details on when they might receive a response from the state agency.
‘We’re days away’
Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said state law enforcement agents could be used to assist in patrolling the areas near the international bridges where migrants are processed and released into the city.
“We know we’re short staffed, and we have to protect the entire city,” he said. “So we’re asking for that additional support to keep the community and the migrants safe.”
Other state personnel could be used to help process migrants who come to the region’s shelters run by nongovernmental agencies or assist in distributing meals, he added.
While the city is not looking to resume its long-distance busing operations to New York City or Chicago, it is looking for the state to help bus migrants from El Paso to nearby cities with larger airports and bus stations where they can arrange travel to their next destinations.
D’Agostino said El Paso could see up to 5,000 migrant apprehensions a day when Title 42 is lifted – more than double the numbers now. That would translate to two or more times the 300 to 500 daily street releases happening now.
“No one understands exactly what’s going to happen,” D’Agostino said. “But we know we’re days away.”
The city this week received $6 million in advanced funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which city leaders said they will use to continue providing hotel lodging and food for some migrants, as well as to pay for other expenses related to their care. The money is in addition to $2 million in advanced funding it had already received.
FEMA has also reimbursed the city all but about $1 million for its expenses for the first three quarters of the year, and that is making its way through the approval process, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said in a statement on Thursday.
Escobar said she’s working on finding additional funding to augment the work happening at the local level – but asked that local stakeholders “enhance their collaboration.”
“FEMA has asked for a consolidated effort. I shared this request with stakeholders over the weekend and encourage this approach going forward,” she said in the statement, without detailing any particular issues. “We need to ensure that we are efficient with these funds and are maximizing their use through closer collaboration.”
The city began busing migrants out of the city in August as the number of Venezuelans entering the border swelled, and sought FEMA reimbursement for its expenses. It shut down the operation on Oct. 20 after the Biden administration began expelling most Venezuelan migrants to Mexico.
While the city worked that operation, the county received more than $6 million in advanced funding for its migrant processing center, which primarily helps migrants make travel arrangements to their next destination. Since opening on Oct. 10, the county’s center has processed nearly 18,800 migrants.
The county is looking to double its migrant center space and has requested $34 million a year to continue operating through the next 12 months. FEMA would likely consider the request on a quarterly basis. The county recently partnered with the Catholic Charities Organization in Houston, which is picking up migrants in El Paso and busing them to Houston to book travel there. County leaders are looking for similar partnerships with other organizations and cities.
The county also recently secured $1.38 million in advanced FEMA funding for the first quarter of 2023, Escobar said.
Commissioners on Thursday approved a slew of items in preparation of Title 42 being lifted, including authorizing discretionary exemptions for purchases needed to address the “public calamity” related to the migrant crisis. That allows the county to bypass some of its purchasing processes to pay for necessary goods and services faster.
Other approved items included extending a contract with the Rescue Mission to be paid through FEMA funds under the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.
Commissioners in executive session discussed negotiations with the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of El Paso for possible shelter operations, but took no action on the issue.
Both Leeser and Samaniego said they were hopeful El Paso would receive the needed help to keep migrants off the streets and the community safe.
While a disaster declaration didn’t come up in the county meeting, it was center stage at the city’s press conference.
Leeser was surrounded by other city leaders – D’Agostino, City Manager Tommy Gonzalez and city Reps. Joe Molinar, Claudia Rodriguez and Isabel Salcido – who for months have been pushing the mayor to issue the declaration.
A local state of disaster may be declared by the “presiding officer of the governing body of a political subdivision,” according to Government Code, in this case referring to the mayor or county judge. The code also dictates that if there’s a conflict between the county judge and mayor, “the decision of the county judge prevails.”
That declaration would need to be ratified unanimously by the City Council or the County Commissioners Court within seven days to remain in place – neither of which currently have votes needed to support a declaration.
Lesser stressed that what’s most needed is comprehensive immigration reform.
“This funding and sheltering is not the answer. It’s a Band-Aid to a really bigger problem,” he said. “It’s really important for us to continue to work with our federal governments to see how they can come up with a permanent solution … because you’re not going to fund yourself out of this.”