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El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser on the ongoing migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The recent uptick in migrants gathering at the U.S.-Mexico border is challenging El Paso city leaders as they wait to hear the outcome of the pandemic restriction known as Title 42. The measure had been scheduled to expire today, finally allowing people to apply for asylum instead of facing immediate expulsion. But on Monday, the Supreme Court issued a stay that keeps the order in place for now.

Thousands have still been able to cross into El Paso, but thousands more are waiting just across the border to cross the moment that Title 42 lifts, like Dorbis in Juarez, Mexico. He's 46 and asked us not to use his last name due to his immigration status. He made a three-month-long journey from Venezuela, and he plans to wait a few more days or even weeks to see if Title 42 will be lifted.

DORBIS: (Through interpreter) I'll wait it out so I can ask God for everything to be OK and that they'll let us cross.

SUMMERS: And as others continue to enter El Paso, the city is trying to care for them. Let's hear the latest on the response from El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser.

Thank you for joining us.

OSCAR LEESER: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: I'd like to start off just by asking you, what went through your head when you first learned that Title 42 was extended and whether that has changed anything about the city's emergency declaration plans?

LEESER: Well, what we're doing is we're going forward as if Title 42 had been lifted. You know, we need to make sure that we prepare for the unexpected, and then that's what we're doing. We've actually - two schools that have been closed for a couple of years, we have started - we're starting to use them for sheltering, and we're converting our convention center into a shelter because, you know, one of the things that was really important to us - the temperature started dropping, and we didn't want to see the asylum-seekers sleeping - outside sleeping - and somebody, you know, losing their life. That was not acceptable to us. So when I decided to declare a state of emergency, it was to make sure that we protected our visitors and also our community. And it's really important to us that we always continue to do the right thing.

SUMMERS: You've just alluded to that dangerously cold weather that's already coming in in many places across the country. You've talked about those temporary shelters at schools and the convention center there. To your knowledge, will those shelters be ready to house these people?

LEESER: Yes. As a matter of fact, the convention center will be open today. And that's - and then the school - one of the schools should be open by Friday and the next one within 10 days. So we are preparing, and then we're also working - one of the things - it's not just the city. We're working with the county and the diocese to continue to do sheltering. Some of the churches are allowing to use as sheltering. And also, we have NGOs that work within the city. So the city, the county, the congresswoman and our state senator, we all work together to make sure that we are one strong team.

SUMMERS: Texas Governor Greg Abbott said earlier today that the state's National Guard is setting up a blockade to stop people from entering El Paso, and you had wanted the National Guard to help with humanitarian needs and in shelters. So does what Abbott and the state are doing - does that run counter to your priorities?

LEESER: Well, our priority is just to make sure we treat people with respect and dignity, and that's been very important. And, you know, one of the things we did ask the city - when we declared our state of emergency, we asked for transportation. We asked for law enforcement for protection of both asylum-seekers in the community (ph) and the congested areas - excuse me - and then staffing to help us with sheltering and distribution of meals. And that's what we asked for. Now, what you're talking about is basically the Lone Star program, which was deployed by the governor. But the things we asked for is to make sure that we treat people properly.

SUMMERS: As I'm listening to you talk about the things that you hope to do - the ways that you hope, as you say, to treat people properly, to treat them with dignity - it raises a question for me about the financial implications of all of this. Is El Paso right now getting enough money or resources to pay for what the city needs to help migrants and residents?

LEESER: Well, it's not. The good thing is it's not on the back of El Paso taxpayers. We have been getting funding from the federal government, and they have become good partners. We've been reimbursed 3.7 million that we used for transportation. We have been funded $8 million from the federal government, and so has the county. The county has received reimbursement.

But one thing that I can tell you today - that it's strictly a Band-Aid on a broken immigration system, and we cannot continue to go in this direction. We got to figure out how - it's not an El Paso problem. It's really a problem of the United States. And now, it's even getting bigger than the United States. So it's - we have to get the U.N. involved and all the countries from around if we're going to be able to fix a broken immigration problem that's been fixed for 20, 30 years.

SUMMERS: In about the 30 seconds we have left, I'd like to ask you, what is your biggest concern in the coming days and weeks? What is it that you're watching?

LEESER: Well, I mean, our biggest concern is the unknown. And that's what we're preparing for, is the unknown, which is to make sure that we are prepared. And so when we were talking about the shelters, we're talking about food and making sure that people are not on the street.

SUMMERS: OK.

LEESER: And helping people is also the most important thing - to make sure that we're prepared for the unknown.

SUMMERS: All right. That's El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser. Thank you so much.

LEESER: Thank you. Happy holidays to you.

SUMMERS: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Amy Isackson
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.