Migrants Awaiting Processing Fill Two Border Town Hotels, While California Foots the Bill

Migrants continue to seek refuge at the southern border, and Imperial County, California, positioned across from the Mexican border city of Mexicali, has felt the effects.

Two of the area's hotels, the Ramada by Wyndham Hotel in Holtville and Travelodge by Wyndham El Centro, currently house migrants awaiting processing, with each hotel at full capacity.

While El Centro's Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker told the Calexico Chronicle she does not care who stays in local hotels, she and other Imperial Valley officials do care what happens with funds gathered from the transient occupancy tax, known as the "bed tax," an 8 to 10% increment added to the total cost of renting a room for less than 30 days.

El Centro Travelodge
The Travelodge in El Centro, California, in Imperial County, is one of two local hotels filled near capacity with migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. and awaiting processing. El Centro is just 20 miles from the border town of Mexicali, Mexico., and is one of the headquarters of the U.S. Border Patrol. The California Department of General Services is paying for the rooms and room taxes. Camilo Garcia Jr./Calexico Chronicle/Holtville Tribune

This week they got their answer.

The Calexico Chronicle's Julio Morales reported that a representative from the California Department of General Services informed Imperial County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas that the state plans to pay the bed tax for all contracted rooms. Right now, the Ramada charges $90 per night with a requirement that the California Department of General Services rent a minimum of 100 rooms. At the Travelodge, the fee totals $71.66 per room for 90 rooms.

As a county with over a dozen hotels, the bed tax victory may seem insignificant to many parts of the country. But for an area rocked with unemployment and economic hardship, the extra revenue plays a significant role.

"In any other normal large city, you can argue this doesn't seem like a lot of money," Richard Epps, a political science professor at Imperial Valley College, told Newsweek. "But in an area like this with social services, a large homeless population, and many citizens in need of welfare, it is absolutely important."

Over the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the bed tax generated nearly $2,600,000 in revenue for Imperial County, according to a state report. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the county's ability to generate revenue through the hospitality industry has taken a hit. Epps said the area's economy relies on commerce from individuals crossing through the Mexicali-Calexico port of entry. With restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border and a general decline in in-person shopping, the local economy has suffered.

Imperial Valley's Desert Review reported that several shops at the Imperial Valley Mall, a financial anchor of the area, closed their doors for good. The county, which is 85% Hispanic, has an unemployment rate of 20.7%, 17 points above the U.S. national average.

While vaccination rates offer many counties optimism for a lucrative summer tourist season, Epps says the Valley's desert climate generally brings a decrease in tourism during the hotter months.

"Nobody's really breaking their necks to get here for the summertime," he said. "So, for the hotels, it's probably more ideal to have the migrants placed there than for the hotels to have availability."

Morales, who reported on the bed tax situation, has lived in the area for 10 years. In his time reporting on the area, he said this was the first time the state or federal government had rented out hotels for the purpose of housing migrants. If more hotels were to be filled, he expects the county would deal with a mix of reactions.

Some individuals living near the Ramada hotel expressed concern and unease over the migrant presence at the hotel, especially given its proximity to the Barbara Worth Country Club. However, others in the area came out to support those staying at the hotel. Morales said the director of a nonprofit supporting the effort received donations of diapers, baby food, backpacks, and toys.

"You'd probably see an equal amount of both (support and opposition)," he told Newsweek. "During the previous spike of Central Americans, the same (reactions) happened."