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Migrant humanitarian crisis looming at our doorstep, officials say

Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters

Editor's note: This story comes from El Paso Matters as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a group of newsrooms -- including ABC-7, which explores issues with a bi-national perspective. Story by Cindy Ramirez.

With a calm desperation in his voice, Ruben Garcia says a humanitarian crisis is once again at our doorstep.

“You already had one example of a street release. What’s going to happen when Title 42 is lifted?” asks Garcia, founder of Annunciation House, a nonprofit faith-based El Paso organization that provides food, transportation and temporary shelter for migrants. “There’s no way that what’s presently available is going to be enough.”

Garcia is referring to what he calls hospitality sites, or temporary housing facilities for migrants, which were at capacity on Sunday morning when border enforcement agencies released more than 100 migrants from their custody and dropped them off at the Tornado bus station in Downtown El Paso.

Those “street releases” typically occur when U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding and detention facilities are at capacity and organizations such as Annunciation House and its partner sites are also full.

Title 42, the provision of public health law that was implemented under President Donald Trump in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began, essentially expels migrants to Mexico or other countries under the premise of controlling the virus in the United States. The Biden administration announced plans to end the provision on May 23, but that action is tied up in court challenges.

But Garcia maintains Title 42 is a “sidebar story” to the bigger picture. From the beginning, people of certain nationalities could not be expelled. Mexico generally will not accept Title 42 expulsions other than Mexicans and people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Other nationalities can be expelled to their home countries, but that's much more difficult.

Now people from countries to which they cannot be expelled, including some Haitians, are arriving in ever-increasing numbers, Garcia said.

Many of them end up in El Paso after being released from federal custody before they head to their sponsor families in other places across the country.

Ruben Garcia is executive director of El Paso's Annunciation House. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

“They’re here, at our doorstep,” said Garcia, who anticipates more street releases in the coming days and weeks as shelters struggle to keep up with demand.

Now, Garcia says, he’s just trying to “reach equilibrium” and put together hospitality sites with numbers on par with releases prior to Title 42 lifting.

“If Title 42 gets lifted, here's what I say: The city of El Paso and the county of El Paso need to open up hospitality sites themselves. They need to find buildings that can be used and the need to find people to staff them.”

Garcia said avoiding a crisis requires a three-prong approach: nonprofits and churches, the city and county, and the federal government.

“We cannot keep relying on community groups alone,” Garcia said. “What you need is the federal government to open the hospitality capacity. But that alone does not relieve the city and county from their responsibility to do the same.”

Prong 1: Federal government

Following the announcement of the planned termination of Title 42, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice in March issued a rule to improve and expedite the processing of asylum claims by more efficiently granting relief to those who have valid claims for asylum.

It also called for the prompt removal of those whose claims are denied.

In a 20-page memo on border security and preparedness issued in April, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas outlined challenges and plans to address the “unprecedented number of noncitizens seeking to enter the United States.”

CBP has 23,000 agents and officers working along the Southwest border, including a recent increase of 600 personnel and support of law enforcement officers and agents from other government agencies, the memo states.

Mayorkas estimates CBP will have some 18,000 migrants in custody at any given time by May 23 -- up from 13,000 at the beginning of 2021.

To mitigate the situation, the memo states, CBP has doubled its ability to transport migrants daily and will provide medical support and COVID-19 mitigation protocols in 24 CBP sites by May 23.

Mayorkas also said CBP is bolstering the capacity of non-governmental organizations

to receive migrants after they have been processed by the agency, saying that they’re working to improve communication and coordination with relevant partners. The agency is also requesting assistance from the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program.

In a press conference from McAllen on Tuesday, Mayorkas summarized points in the memo. He was asked to expand on what ways non-governmental organizations like Annunciation House would receive additional assistance, but he replied only to the second part of the question: What message do you hope the press conference sends out to migrants?

“Do not place your lives in the hands of individuals who only seek to exploit your lives for the sake of profit,” he said. “We are building safe, orderly and humane pathways to access the benefits that the law provides, and that Congress has passed. But traveling from one country to another in and of smugglers, only to be met by the enforcement authorities of the United States government, is not the way to achieve relief. The border, the laws of the border, will be enforced.”

Prong 2: Local government

City officials said they’re coordinating with local nonprofits, community groups and federal immigration enforcement agencies in response to possible federal policy changes.

But in a recent news release, city officials stopped short of saying they could or would erect any type of temporary shelter. Instead, the city said it’s been working to “convince the federal government to open military installations … but the federal government has not yet agreed to provide this support,” Deputy City Manager Mario D'Agostino said in the release.

D'Agostino said the city has increased its staffing with logistics experience to help support the humanitarian efforts. That includes providing transportation to migrants to bus terminals, airports or nonprofit organizations.

The city didn’t immediately provide specifics on what kind of staffing it’s increasing, at what cost and how that might be funded.

Assistant Fire Chief Jorge A. Rodriguez, the emergency management coordinator for the El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management, in a statement to El Paso Matters said the city continues “to press our federal partners to provide additional shelter support for the current increase in numbers but also those expected once Title 42 is eliminated.”

“The city does not want to see another humanitarian crisis unfold in our region. Based on the current numbers which surpass those of 2019, federal intervention will be required to prevent another crisis,” Rodriguez said in the statement.

Frankel, 45, a migrant from Haiti, waits after being dropped off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a downtown El Paso bus station on May 15. He hopes to reunite with relatives in Florida. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego on Monday said the county has no immediate plan to erect a temporary shelter as there’s “no need today.”

“The challenge is also trying to figure out what’s best so that we make the most use of (federal) funds without overspending in one area and then running short in another,” Samaniego said, saying the number of migrants in shelters fluctuates daily.

An item on Thursday’s Commissioners Court meeting calls for discussion and action regarding assistance to migrants entering the community.

That could include discussion on temporary migrant facilities, looking at sites such as the El Paso County Coliseum or areas around it, Samaniego said. He mentioned eyeing Burleson Elementary School near the coliseum, which the El Paso Independent School District closed in 2019, as a possible site. But he said he hasn’t been in talks with district officials since a new superintendent took over in January.

Prong 3: Community, nonprofits, volunteers needed

Even if shelters were available, another challenge is staffing them: Volunteers have been in short supply since the pandemic.

Samaniego said the county -- and the city -- have agreed to each provide up to 25 paid staff members who would volunteer to help with logistics if and when needed. And both will continue offering transportation services to help take migrants to shelters, bus stations and the airport and keep them off the streets.

That was some good news for Garcia, who said 50 volunteers would be welcome to help -- but would be of most use in venues that the city and county should open.

Garcia said Annunciation House is always looking for volunteers, but reminds those wanting to help that they must have received the COVID-19 vaccine and booster and commit to volunteer for a certain amount of time. That’s because the organization invests time training volunteers and needs to count on them to show up more than once.

The El Paso Catholic Diocese is also putting out a call to volunteers.

“In 2019, our shelter was fully staffed and operating 24/7,” spokesman Fernie Ceniceros said, adding that volunteers dwindled during the pandemic as people were nervous about contacting COVID-19.

“We want to amp up our volunteer pool and improve our response time,” he said. 

The shelter is only operating Mondays to Wednesdays, taking in about 75 to 100 migrants weekly.

“Really what we do here is help connect people with their foster families and get them there,” Ceniceros said, referring to the migrants who have relatives in other parts of the country ready to take them in.

The diocese will need volunteers to again operate at higher levels, he said. Volunteers undergo training before working the shelter, and all migrants receive rapid COVID-19 tests, he added.

Greatest need yet to come

The anticipated crisis will be exacerbated with the arrival of women, children and larger family units, which makes it more complicated to house and transport them, Garcia said.

Already he’s seen an increase in family units from Haiti, Turkey and Ukraine coming into Annunciation House facilities.

He added that future street releases won’t be managed as smoothly as the weekend one.

It was before sunrise Sunday when the 100-plus migrants were dropped off at a bus station off Paisano Drive in Downtown. Within hours, most found their bus or plane rides to their sponsor families because the majority were men who had traveled alone.

Among them was 27-year-old Jorge, a Haitian native who had lived in Chile since 2016 and last year made his way to Juárez with his girlfriend. El Paso Matters only identifies migrants by first name because many are fleeing violence and fear for their safety.

“In Haiti, at that time especially, there’s a lot of poverty,” Jorge said in Spanish. “People were recovering from the earthquake and storms and there was a lot of violence on the streets. We were not safe.”

In Juárez he faced racism and was threatened “because of the color of my skin,” Jorge said, pointing to his arm. He said people there preyed on vulnerable migrants and that he often felt unsafe.

It was unclear when he claimed asylum or how long he had been in custody of border enforcement agencies.

Immediately after being dropped at the bus stop, Jorge took a taxi to the El Paso International Airport where he waited for his flight to Miami alongside his pregnant girlfriend. He planned to join his brother and other relatives and aspires to go to school and become a teacher.

Asked how he felt now that he was on U.S. soil, he said, “hopeful, safe.”

How to Help

If you’re interested in volunteering with or donating to organizations that assist migrants, here’s where you can start:

Annunciation House
915-545-4509
Call before dropping off items as volunteers aren’t always available and some items are not always needed at all times
Online donations may be made via PayPal by searching “Annunciation House El Paso”
Or by check to: Annunciation House
Mail to: 815 Myrtle Ave., El Paso, Texas 79901

Border Refugee Assistance Fund
A joint initiative of the Diocese of El Paso and Hope Border Institute
915-872-8400
gofundme.com/f/the-border-refugee-assistance-fund
Or by check to: Diocese of El Paso (Border Refugee Assistance Fund in memo line)
Mail to: Diocese of El Paso, 499 St. Matthews St., El Paso, TX 79902

Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center
Provides legal representation to asylum seekers915-544-5126; information@lasamericas.org

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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