El Paso scrambles to respond after 500 migrants are released to the streets

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After nearly 500 migrants were released onto the streets of El Paso this week – with more expected in the coming days – city and county governments will consider proposals on Monday to create a migrant processing center. migrants and to contract a charter bus company.

Officials from the El Paso sector of the US Border Patrol confirmed that they released 133 male Venezuelan migrants on Wednesday and another 350 of unspecified nationality on Thursday. Some of those dropped off at the downtown Greyhound bus station spent the night on the sidewalks and benches around the station, where complete strangers dropped off bottled water, burritos, pizza , burgers, fruits and clothes.

“We are forever grateful to the community of El Paso for being so hospitable,” said Luis Alfonso, 48, as he sat on the sidewalk, sharing survival stories with a group of other men who have traveled from Venezuela to El Paso in the past month. “If they were to make a movie about our journey – everything we’ve been through and everything we’ve been through – it would win an Oscar.”

The release of migrants to the streets comes as El Paso-area Border Patrol agents encounter more than 1,000 migrants a day. Shelters that usually take in migrants after they have been processed and released are at capacity and in desperate need of volunteers.

Charter buses, treatment center

City officials did not respond to requests for comment, but on Monday the El Paso City Council will consider ratifying a contract with Gogo Charters LLC to ferry migrants out of the area.

The company was hired Aug. 26 under an emergency ordinance approved by the city in May that allows officials to skip the bidding process. The $2 million contract would cover services through December 2023, according to city documents.

The city government and the City and County Office of Emergency Management chartered five buses to New York and one to Dallas this summer, including one on Wednesday.

A group of migrants from Venezuela sit on Overland Street downtown on Friday, September 9. All have been released onto the streets in the past few days and now some are waiting for family members who are still in detention while others have no money to move on. from El Paso. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Also on Monday, the El Paso County Commissioners Court will consider how to pay for a migrant support services operations center. In June, the county 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 migrant housing expenses, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said it was difficult to find space to rent to run the operation.

“We can’t get ahead if we don’t have a building,” Samaniego said, adding that the county also needs to consider how it would pay the associated costs up front and confirm that the Agency Federal Emergency Management would reimburse his expenses.

County documents show staff identified potential sites and reviewed lease terms and proposals for various commercial properties, which will be presented in executive session at Monday’s meeting.

The documents also show that the estimated cost under a third-party contractor, including a building lease, would be around $465,000 per month, or just under $5.6 million per year. The county would then hire a contractor to run the center from among those who submitted proposals.

U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said in a statement that she spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Friday to ensure that nonprofits and local governments be reimbursed by the federal government “for stepping up their assistance to arriving migrants”.

Escobar said the biggest problem was the lack of immigration reform over the past 30 years, adding that climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic “have only exacerbated the number of migrants leaving their country of origin”.

“I cannot stress enough that increased levels of migration are not just an American problem; this is being felt throughout the Western Hemisphere,” she said in the statement.

No state takeover desired

Samaniego said he had hoped the military might step in to help transport or staff the temporary shelters, but said state involvement should be collaborative, not support. migrant services.

Under Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s controversial border security program, Operation Lone Star, the state has transported nearly 8,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., more than 2,200 to New York and, most recently, 300 in Chicago.

“The Bus Mission is bringing much-needed relief to our overstretched border communities,” Abbott said in a news release Friday.

A woman walks into Greyhound bus station with two children on Friday, September 9. They were part of a group of migrants who were released onto the streets of the city center this week. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

Members of the Texas State Guard were in El Paso for a few days assisting migrants arriving at the South El Paso Welcome Center, a homeless shelter operated by the Opportunity Center for the Homeless.

When organizers asked the city for help, the Office of Emergency Management contacted the state for help with a charter bus on the condition that the OEM retain control of the effort – separating it from Abbott’s operations.

John Martin, deputy director of the Opportunity Center, expressed concern about the presence of uniformed soldiers at the OEM visitor center on August 30, and the state guard did not return.

The city’s agenda for Monday’s business session calls for discussion and action on its cooperation with the state on Operation Lone Star, but does not include any other details. The item was put on the agenda by Representative Alexsandra Annello, who could not be reached for comment.

Step up, politics aside

Ruben Garcia, founder and executive director of the Annunciation House shelter, has warned of the need for city and county governments to “step up” since May, also calling on area churches and faith communities to help.

Due to lack of funding and volunteers, Garcia closed one of the region’s largest migrant shelters, Casa del Refugiado, in an aging warehouse on the east side of town last month. The shelter hosted some 25,000 migrants released by border agencies this year before it closed on El Paso times reported.

Josefina Gomez, center, offered a burrito to a Venezuelan migrant stranded outside the Downtown Greyhound station on Friday. She and her husband Samuel, on the far left, also brought bottles of water to the migrants. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Garcia reiterated Thursday the need for others to step in, saying charter buses and a treatment center are badly needed but should not be politicized.

“If you’re going to politicize what’s a great social need, it’s a sin,” Garcia said, referring to Abbott’s bus program that dropped off migrants in other cities without informing those communities. He added that the governor could have instead asked for help from governors across the country.

“Everyone must mobilize,” he said.

Ana and Luis, center, wait for a bus to San Antonio after being released on the streets of downtown El Paso on Wednesday, September 9. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

Some El Pasoans did their small part Thursday and Friday, dropping off food and clothing for migrants stranded at the Greyhound Downtown station. A young woman who did not want to be interviewed drove up and dropped off boxes of pizza for the grateful crowd, while a couple offered them burritos and water.

“We’re immigrants too, and we got here ourselves,” said Samuel Gomez, who delivered the burritos with his wife, Josefina. “They need help.”

Luis Alfonso, who called his 54-day journey worthy of a movie, said he was bitten by a poisonous snake and treated at a hospital in Guatemala. He has no family in the United States, but he said he was looking to take a bus to San Antonio.

“We want work, opportunities,” he said. “We came here to work, to earn a living with respect and to live in a country that respects our voice, our rights as human beings.”

El Paso Matters only identifies migrants by first name as many are fleeing violence and fearing for their safety.

Luis Alfonso and others said they were grateful to have made it here, telling stories of those who didn’t. They have seen migrants drown, have heart attacks and fall and break their ankles or arms, they said.

One man said he saw the body of a migrant being eaten by desert animals, another said he saw groups of migrants fighting over water and other supplies.

Ana, a 23-year-old Venezuelan, said she experienced things one could never imagine on her trip to the United States.

“I have no words to describe it,” she said as she waited for a bus to San Antonio at the Greyhound bus station, where she has been for two days. Acquaintances in San Antonio will help her when she arrives, she said, because she has no family in the United States.

She said she hoped to financially help her parents and her 4-year-old daughter in Venezuela.

Another 25-year-old Venezuelan, who asked that her name not be used, said she was 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 slept outside. Without money, they hope the community will help them get to Chicago or New York.

She says she has reached the United States, she has nothing to complain about here.

“If I come to a country where I don’t know anyone and have nothing, I have to be prepared to face the consequences,” she said. “No one has an obligation to do anything for us. I’m just grateful to be here in this country. I’ll be happy wherever I go.

El Paso Matters senior reporter Elida S. Perez, photographer Corrie Bourdreaux and CEO Robert Moore contributed to this story.

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