ALBUQUERQUE — As the wave of migrants from Central America fans out to detention centers and other holding centers across the country, local officials find themselves caught between angry, fearful community members and the opaque decision-making of the federal government.
The New Mexico town of Artesia, home to 11,000 farmers, dairymen, oil and gas workers and their families, is located on a flat, desolate, windswept plain about 200 miles northeast of El Paso, Texas. It’s also home to a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, where migrant women and children are being held in dormitories on a secluded campus.
Artesia’s mayor, Phillip Burch, said that when he first heard the facility would be used to house immigrants he was concerned about security and safety. Then he began to worry about the cost to his town.
Those worries have been echoed loudly by many in Congress, including Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico, who told GovExec State & Local last week: “Local and state governments should not get stuck with paying the bills for this federal crisis.”
But what are those bills and how much could they add up to?
So far, the financial cost to Artesia has been small compared to the worry and stress local officials have endured over the past month.
Although Artesia hasn’t seen any of the high-profile protests staged in other parts of the country this summer, 400 residents attended an early July town hall meeting where most told local and federal authorities they were angry and worried about having Central American immigrants in their town.
“The concerns of the community were the same as my own,” Burch, a retired executive of the Peñasco Valley Telephone Cooperative, told GovExec State & Local. “When they say they’re bringing a bunch of immigrants out of Central America, immediately your thoughts go to security and [wondering] are these gang members, hoodlums and all that.”
But Burch said his worries started to subside once he learned the facility would house only women and children. The migrants are brought to the facility by bus and housed in a small part of the campus out of sight of the rest of the facility or the town.
WATCH: Artesia Mayor Phillip Burch discuss the impacts of the border crisis on his town
Although more than half of Artesians self-identify as Hispanic, very few are recent immigrants—more than 96 percent of Artesians were born in the United States.
The community is close-knit and conservative. The mayor does not like surprises. His nerves, he said, are frayed when his questions go unanswered—and the answers change without warning.
“We were told at the very first meeting that one of the diseases that might be encountered was [tuberculosis] . . . and that all of the TB testing would be done before they got there, but almost immediately we realized that was just not true,” Burch said.
Of the 700 people who have been through the Artesia detention facility, 89 of them reacted positively to skin tests for TB, which required follow-up testing with chest X-rays at Artesia General Hospital, said the mayor, who sits on the hospital’s governing board.
That was a surprise.
“Our hospital staff really wasn’t prepared for it,” he said. “They had to get accustomed to having the immigrants brought to the hospital, keeping them isolated and getting this done.” Hospital workers adapted quickly and all has gone smoothly, he said.
It was only after weeks of inquiries that local officials got word via a conference call that Artesia General would be reimbursed Medicare rates for the X-rays and any other specialty care the migrant women and children would need. But when hospital administrators asked who would cover the co-pay they’d normally charge, they were told no other payment would be coming.
Hospital spokeswoman Julie Gibson said neither she nor CEO Kenneth Randall would comment on how much the federal government has spent or how much of their services have been reimbursed.
Chest X-rays are not particularly expensive—insurance companies typically reimburse healthcare providers $59 for one, according to Consumer Reports’ Healthcare Blue Book—but Burch said he was concerned that the number of X-rays and other procedures could add up over the year that federal officials have said they expect the Artesia facility to be open.
“Is it gonna break the hospital? No, absolutely not,” Burch said. “But when you’re told the federal government will pay the bill and then they don’t . . . is it right? As far as I’m concerned, no.”
Although Rep. Pearce issued a news release Tuesday saying that deportations from the Artesia facility have been temporarily halted due to an outbreak of chicken pox and that federal officials would no longer use Artesia General Hospital in favor of a hospital farther away in Roswell, Burch on Wednesday clarified that one child has been diagnosed with the virus and that ICE medical officials are considering using the Roswell hospital in addition to Artesia General, if necessary.
Although the first few weeks were rough, the mayor said his community understands his position. United in their frustration with Congress and President Obama, they have thrown up their collective hands.
Meanwhile, the local Chamber of Commerce has been busy collecting clothes, shoes and books for the women and children at the center.
“On this one there’s an appreciation that you’re dealing with something you never thought you’d have to deal with when you ran for office,” Burch said. “Never before on an issue have people said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m pleased at what you’re doing. Keep doing it and I appreciate you.’”
Still, Burch said he’s looking forward to the end of this crisis and the return of Artesia’s other pressing problems: whether or not the Little League fields are watered and how the Bulldogs will do come football season.
Gwyneth Doland covers politics and policy for KNME-TV/New Mexico PBS, teaches in the journalism department at the University of New Mexico and is based in Albuquerque.
WATCH: Legal groups tour Artesia detention facility