El Paso mayor declines to declare immigration emergency

Every day more than 1,000 migrants enter the U.S through the El Paso area, but declaring an emergency wouldn’t affect federal funding for migrant assistance.

By Rhonda Fanning and Michael MarksOctober 19, 2022 12:04 pm,

White House officials asked El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser not to declare an emergency at the border community over immigration, despite the fact that more than 1,000 migrants arrive in El Paso every day.

Leeser has not declared an emergency, but not because the White House asked him not to, he said. Making the declaration would not affect the amount of federal money coming into El Paso for migrant assistance.

Angela Kocherga, news director at KTEP in El Paso, spoke to the Texas Standard about the ripple effects of the mayor’s decision. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First, we need to deal with the source of this. The New York Post is reporting it, and in New York, the Post is often considered to be the conservative wing of the press, with The New York Times on the other side. Can you confirm whether or not the Biden administration actually tried to dissuade El Paso’s mayor from declaring an emergency? 

Angela Kocherga: Well, a couple of things: First of all, the mayor himself during a City Council meeting said that the administration had asked the city not to declare it a disaster because they were getting all the funding they needed. That it really did not trigger any additional funding – that reimbursement for the migrant influx, the sheltering, the busing, the other needs were being covered. And the county judge who originally said they would do that, said they also were told this wording means nothing in terms of getting funding.

The mayor yesterday went on local television or did an interview here and said he was not pressured, that he was always doing what was in the best interest of the community and that, again, the need for declaring a disaster was not going to lead to any additional money. Now, we do have three City Council members who have been pushing for that.

Can you explain why the Biden administration didn’t want the mayor of El Paso to declare a state of emergency if it was so inconsequential?

I don’t know. I mean, the bottom line is it wouldn’t have mattered in terms of funding. Now, we can’t get into the mindset of who actually talked to the mayor. But the bottom line is, you know, I don’t think we need a tabloid in New York – Texans, El Pasoans here, realize we’re weeks before the midterm election. And, you know, the politics do come into play. And we’ve got this situation where maybe some are downplaying what’s happening on the border and others are, you know, the terms we’ve heard here are “fear mongering.” So, yes, politics could be part of all of this.

Well, El Paso Matters certainly is not a New York tabloid. And they were talking about the finances here, saying that El Paso has spent $8 million to $10 million so far trying to deal with the large numbers of migrants who’ve come into that part of Texas recently. They’ve only been reimbursed for about $2 million. And the city was spending something along the lines of $300,000 a day trying to deal with this. How much of an issue is this in El Paso right now?

I’m not arguing or trying to say that, because they were talking about the political pressure, that the issue is not real. We have seen huge numbers of migrants crossing the border since September. I did a ride-along with the Border Patrol and the numbers were creeping up then – about 1,000 a day, then grew to about over 2,000. So that is a very real issue. You know, we had migrants sleeping on the street. There are costs involved. And this is affecting the city and the county. Both are being reassured that they will be reimbursed – by FEMA, the federal government – when it comes to covering the cost of dealing with the migrants who are coming in to the the city and county.

How much are everyday El Pasoans focused on this issue of an emergency declaration and potential pressure from the White House? 

To be honest, like most voters, the concerns are inflation, the economy, covering everyday costs. You know, people are concerned about the expense involved with migration. As long as they’re reassured that the reimbursement is coming in, I think people are used to seeing that. And again, the other thing we want to point out: There is state funding available, and that was the concern by the City Council members.

Why not declare a disaster? Because that does trigger, under Operation Lone Star, some additional funding that other counties have tapped into on the border and beyond to help deal with both the law enforcement part, but other issues. And so El Paso has been very reluctant because many counties, in issuing a declaration that there’s an emergency, have used the word “invasion.” And here that’s very sensitive. As we know, the accused gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso used that very word.

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