El Paso braces for federal government lifting of Title 42
El Paso prepares for end of pandemic health order and arrival of thousands of migrants.
EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - Border Patrol agents unlocked a gate in the steel border barrier and a line of bedraggled people walked through. Weary parents held the hands of bewildered children. Some looked relieved. Others were in tears like Isabel Ramirez.
She said she was carrying the ashes of her 13-year-old daughter who was murdered in Mexico.
“It was her dream to be here but not like this,” Ramirez said.
The migrants boarded a white bus headed for a processing center. Border Patrol is seeing about 1150 people a day turn themselves in according to agent Fidel Baca.
“As we transport people out there’s more people coming in,” he said.
El Paso is preparing for migrants to converge on the city as the pandemic health order Title 42 expires Thursday. Since March of 2020 a majority of migrants from various countries including those seeking asylum have been immediately sent to Mexico.
“It might be a crisis, but I think it’s more manageable than people suspect,” El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said at a County Commissioners Court meeting.
The county opened a center to facilitate travel for people after they have been processed by Border Patrol. Most heading to other cities where they have sponsors or relatives to await immigration court proceedings. El Paso County will seek reimbursement from the federal government to cover the cost.
The City Council on Monday extended Mayor Oscar Leeser’s emergency declaration for another month which facilitates tapping into federal funding for temporary shelters, food and hygiene needs for thousands of people seeking asylum and other migrants.
The city government is also getting federal funding and has $26 million to pay for Sun Metro buses to transport migrants and to use two schools that have been closed as emergency shelters.
El Paso has been through this before. In December, the previous date Title 42 was set to expire, the city turned the Civic Center into a massive shelter with 1000 beds for migrants amid freezing temperatures.
“It’s really important that everyone understands that all the money in the world is not going to take care of the immigration problem,” Leeser said. “The immigration system is broken. There’s a lot of finger pointing and until that stops, there’s no endgame.”
Sheltering thousands of people
Pent up demand for asylum is evident in El Paso’s sister city Juarez where Chihuahua state officials estimate as many as 15,000 people are in shelters waiting to cross the border. Many others have opted not to stay at shelters and are in low cost hotels or abandoned buildings in Juarez. The city dismantled a large camp on the banks of the Rio Grande last December. Over the last two months, immigration authorities have rounded up migrants on the streets. Forty of those picked up died locked in a detention center on March 27.
“We came looking for help from the United States because of the fear we had of Mexican immigration (authorities),” Jose, a migrant from Venezuela who asked to only be identified by his first name, said.
He’s among thousands of migrants from Venezuela, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru who have crossed the border into El Paso during the past two weeks.
On average between 500 to 600 migrants are released from federal custody to local shelters every day according to Jorge Rodriguez, emergency management coordinator for the city and county of El Paso. It’s the highest number so far this year but about half of what El Paso saw in December. That month the Border Patrol released a total of 30,600 migrants from custody.
Migrants seek refuge at Sacred Heart Church
Many of those arriving in El Paso have flocked to Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The church started sheltering families with small children back in December during freezing temperatures. Men and other adults slept on the sidewalks outside. Migrants started arriving again as the date for lifting Title 42 approached. They used blankets for shade from the blazing sun and heat.
“We’ve had up to 1,200 people in this area around here,” Father Rafael Garcia said. “So, you can imagine. We feel frustrated we can’t help everybody but that’s just the reality.”
The number fell sharply Monday after Border Patrol agents passed out flyers to migrants sleeping on the streets warning them to turn themselves in for processing or risk being taken into custody and removed from the country.
“Thank God the process went well,” said Gustavo a man from Venezuela who only wanted his first name used.“It went quickly but I was always afraid of what they would say.”
He was among about 500 migrants who lined up outside the Border Patrol processing center downtown.
At the Opportunity Center, which serves homeless people in downtown El Paso, the number of migrants has also started to decline. John Martin, executive director of the Opportunity Center, said there were around 200 people both inside and camped outside the building down from 500 last week.
“The fact of the matter, they’re people,” Martin said. In all honesty, what’s helping us to survive right now is that we’ve got a core group of volunteers from Venezuela that are pitching in with regard to cleaning, meal prep, and other related issues.”
Along the border, National Guard troops deployed by Governor Greg Abbott as part of Operation Lone Star have strung up miles of barbed wire near the steel border barrier towering over the shallow Rio Grande.
People, many seeking asylum, merely find other areas where they surrender to Border Patrol and ask for asylum. And several hundred are camped out near the fence waiting to turn themselves in for processing. Some have grown frustrated waiting in Mexico and instead evaded agents and crossed the border running across the Cesar Chavez border highway where a large flashing sign warns drivers to watch for pedestrians on the road.
Mayor Oscar Leeser has asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to assist El Paso Police in patrols near the area. Local, state and federal law enforcement sometimes work together to detain migrants fleeing Border Patrol and running into nearby neighborhoods.
Over the weekend, Border Patrol agents walked about 100 people 10 miles along the border highway to a station for processing.
The men, women and children were accompanied by a convoy of Border Patrol vehicles and unmarked trucks. About 30 migrants broke away and ran through a neighborhood.
Border Patrol, DPS, El Paso Police and school police officers searched for the people who ran toward a park, the county coliseum, and Salvation Army Center.
“U.S. Border Patrol El Paso leveraged our Texas Department of Public Safety partners to assist with a large group of migrants that had just crossed the border illegally,” a statement from the Border Patrol stated. “Many of these migrants were intercepted and transported to our processing centers to be processed accordingly.”
El Pasoans call for more humane immigration policy
The Department of Defense has also mobilized 1500 federal troops to assist Border Patrol for a month as Title 42 winds down. The troops will serve in a support role but won’t be involved in immigration enforcement or detaining migrants.
Executive director of Border Network for Human Rights Fernando Garcia said the U.S. needs a more humane and welcoming process.
“It’s important to recognize that what is happening at the border is a war. In this region, it’s a war and that war is against migrants and refugees. And, specifically against our border community” he said.
Garcia and the Border Network for Human Rights held its 10th annual “Hugs not Walls” event last weekend giving families separated by their immigration status a rare moment to reunite with loved ones from both side of the border. The binational event happened in a new location this year after Texas National Guard troops set up barbed wire in the spot where it's usually held.
Hundreds of families, mostly with relatives in Mexico, participated in the event. They reunited in the dry bank of the Rio Grande, while miles away, migrants from Central and South American countries, many seeking asylum, waited to surrender to Border Patrol agents at the border fence.
Elected officials at the event, called on the federal and state government to change policies at the border and pass immigration reform.
“How many people have died crossing this same river? It’s completely unjust.” El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said. “How many have fallen from a wall like that dying or maiming themselves looking for a better life? It’s a tragedy. We can’t continue to allow this to occur.”
El Paso and Ciudad Juarez have been a major corridor for migrants seeking asylum during the last three years when the pandemic health order became a de facto border enforcement tool. Now, this border community is bracing for what comes next.
“I think this is going to be a watershed moment where it’ll be a time in U.S. history where seeking asylum as we have known it for so long will radically change,” Marisa Limon-Garza, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Rights Advocacy Center said.