EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Federal officials began Friday to reimburse organizations that fed, sheltered and transported migrants released this year in American towns near the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Democratic lawmakers and some organizations receiving the funds.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized $7.8 million in an initial wave of funding, part of $30 million in aid set aside for border communities in a $4.6 billion emergency aid package Congress approved in June that mostly went to federal agencies.
Members of the U.S. House on Friday announced the start of reimbursements to municipal governments, religious charities and other social service organizations that helped tens of thousands of migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, applied for asylum, and were released by immigration authorities.
Some $25 million is reserved for organizations in states that share a border with Mexico — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. But a FEMA document obtained by The Associated Press said some organizations as far away as New Jersey and Maine were awarded a part of the $5 million available to states far from the Southwest.
Many were rural or otherwise isolated towns. Deming, New Mexico, a town of 14,000 people, was receiving more than 200 migrants per day at the height of the crisis. Officials in Luna County, which includes Deming, scrambled to make room for them at a local fairgrounds and a World-War-II-Era airplane hangar. They coordinated bus rides to the nearest commercial airport, 100 miles away in El Paso, Texas, and overflow shelters in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
A Luna County official confirmed Friday that it had received an award, but that it was hashing out some minor details with FEMA.
In El Paso, a social services organization focused on counseling and transportation started running extra busses to ferry migrants from migrant shelters to Greyhound bus station and the airport as the number of migrants released into the city by Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement reached as much as 1,000 per day.
"They all just seemed very eager to get to their next destination," said Sonia Morales, of Project Amistad, who watched one day as a driver for her organization picked up migrants from Central America, Colombia, and Venezuela. "They all had their one bag in their hand. They didn't have a lot of personal possessions. It was a little touching that we were able to help out during this humanitarian effort."
Morales said her organization is receiving $15,000 — enough to cover extra gas, and the overtime Project Amistad paid to hire drivers on Sundays.
"What we received in funding it pretty much covered it," she said. "We didn't even know that there was going to be that option of getting reimbursed."
El Paso U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar was one of 95 Democrats and 7 Republicans who voted against the funding saying it didn't include accountability measures for immigration officials in the midst of monthly revelations of squalid conditions in detention centers revealed after media and government investigations .
Still, she partially welcomed the reimbursements, which she said "cover part of the costs incurred due to an Administration (sic) unwilling to treat migrants with the humanity they deserve."
A FEMA spokeswoman declined to comment on the funding Friday, pointing to an August statement announcing the $30 million grant.
"These funds are for local social service organizations providing assistance on or after Jan. 1, 2019 to migrants from the southern border released from DHS custody," the FEMA statement said. "Reimbursements addressing humanitarian needs such life sustaining food and shelter expenses will be given priority."
Leaders of other organizations listed on the FEMA award list don't know how much will be covered and raised concerns about the grant award process.
Connie Phillips, CEO and president of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest in Maricopa, Arizona, said her organization helped coordinate a network of churches who provided shelter and other serviced to migrants around the Phoenix area.
She said it sought around $27,000 in costs but has counted more on local donations than a belief that the federal government would help.
"If there had been a natural disaster we would have had FEMA. But because this was not a natural disaster, but was a humanitarian disaster, we didn't have access to those resources. So it fell on just kindhearted people to give the resources that were necessary to keep people from just being abandoned in the street," Phillips said.
Phillips worried that smaller organizations not used to keeping receipts missed out on reimbursement because the government required them.
"It was a disaster. It was a time of crisis. People didn't keep track of receipts," she said.
That crisis has dissipated in U.S. border towns, in part because of a series of Trump administration immigration policies that put Latin American and African migrants in limbo Mexican border towns, either by preventing them from applying for asylum or sending them to Mexico to wait for a court date. Tens of thousands of migrants now live in Mexico in shelters, tent camps and tenement buildings.
Apprehensions of migrants, seen as an indicator of all illegal crossings, were down for the fourth straight month in September, according to statistics released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection this week. Border officials encountered about 52,000 migrants at the border in September — down around 65% from the height in May of about 144,000.
"This administration's strategies have brought about results, dramatic results," said Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan at a White House briefing this week.
Galvan reported from Phoenix.