EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The El Paso City Council on Monday voted to purchase a vacant El Paso school for two purposes: To establish an animal services center and to temporarily house migrants released from federal custody.
Council voted 5-0 to pay the El Paso Independent School District $3.8 million for the 19-acre property formerly known as Morehead Middle School at 5625 Confetti Drive. The property consists of five buildings and is appraised at $10.9 million. The city plans to occupy the property before closing on the deal by leasing it from EPISD for $23,334 a month.
The school district last week voted to sell the property to the city.
Mayor Oscar Leeser said the city can operate a permanent animal services facility on one side and temporarily house migrants on the other side.
“There is already a natural divide in the facility where we’re going to put for emergency sheltering on one side, and on the other side we’re going to do a West Side animal services to get animals off the street, spayed neutered – basically full-blown animal services needed to get the animal population off the streets,” Leeser said.
The city last week went into emergency mode after thousands of asylum seekers suddenly poured across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico. The surge – the latest in a series dating back to last September, December and May – filled U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facilities and local nonprofit shelters, forcing the city to take action to avoid the release of migrants onto the streets.
Leeser last Saturday said 7,000 migrants were in those facilities, with 2,000 more camped on the other side of the border wall waiting to come in. The city started sending migrants to hotels and placed around 400 under a roof at Nations Tobin Park.
But Leeser said using the old school as a shelter is a better alternative, giving the city the ability to “turn on, turn off the lights,” depending on whether a lot of released migrants need temporary shelter before moving on to their destinations in the interior of the U.S., or if the numbers drop.
City Rep. Brian Kennedy supported the purchase, saying it will solve two problems at once, referring to the need to provide shelter to migrants and to get loose animals off the streets.
“The misconception was we were going to have one facility and they were going to share the facility,” Leeser said. “The animal services and the emergency shelter will never be in the same area. They will be totally separate facilities.”
Leeser said it might be advantageous for migrants to have dogs and a dog park nearby.
“One thing we learned is (the need for) mental services for asylum-seekers coming into the United States. So, we felt if someone wants to go watch a dog play, they can go sit there and watch a dog play. If they want to walk a dog, they can do that and they will be available, they can do that. If someone wants to do none of the above, they can do none of the above,” the mayor said.
City Rep. Chris Canales said he favors providing a safe space for both the migrants and the community, rather than having migrants milling the streets after being released from custody. “People’s basic needs not being met leads to crimes of necessity that we’ve seen. People stealing food, people splicing into power outlets. This is just a response to people not having things that they need,” Canales said. “I’ve heard some stories of aggressive panhandling. That is stopped as soon as we’re able to meet everyone’s needs.”
Leeser said he’s gone to community meetings where he has addressed residents’ misconceptions about what will happen around the old Morehead Middle School. He said migrants coming onto the campus will not be able to go in and out, but will be able to check out when they are ready to travel out of El Paso. Only 1 percent of the migrants who’re coming across the border want to stay in El Paso.