Hundreds of migrants crowded outside the Greyhound bus station in Downtown El Paso on Dec. 23, 2018, after they were released there by Border Patrol agents. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

This story has been updated.

Mexico’s reported decision to no longer allow the United States to return some Central American families back across the border could quickly strain El Paso’s capacity to shelter migrants, the founder of Annunciation House said.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Mexico is refusing to take back some families from Central America who crossed the U.S. border, saying they no longer have the shelter capacity to house such families in some parts of the country. But immigrant advocates working in the El Paso-Juárez area said they’d seen no reduction in migrant expulsions.

“We’re still seeing expulsions of family units from Central America as recently as today. And for the first time, we’re seeing mass expulsions of Haitian families,” said Taylor Levy, an El Paso immigration attorney.

A statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Thursday indicated changes in treatment of migrants, but didn’t directly address reports that Mexico was pulling back from accepting expelled Central American families.

“CBP has seen a steady increase in border encounters since April 2020, which, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, has caused some facilities to reach maximum safe holding capacity. Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a notice to appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing,” the statement said. “As the administration reviews the current immigration process, balancing it against the ongoing pandemic, we will continue to use all current authorities to avoid keeping individuals in a congregate setting for any length of time.”

Almost 2,500 members of “family units” were apprehended by El Paso sector Border Patrol agents in December, according to Customs and Border Protection data, the highest number since September 2019. Almost all families from Central America were immediately expelled to Mexico under an emergency pandemic order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in place since March.

If Mexico no longer allowed Central American families to be expelled across the border, most of the asylum seeking families would be released in the United States while their immigration cases are heard. The first stop for many would be El Paso.

In 2018 and 2019, tens of thousands of families who crossed the border into El Paso were temporarily housed at shelters set up by Annunciation House until they could join family elsewhere in the United States. Many had been detained in crowded Border Patrol stations before being released, drawing widespread denunciation.

Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

That sort of community response, which was heavily reliant on volunteers, will be much more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, Annunciation House founder Ruben Garcia said. An increase in migrants being released into El Paso would present “a massive problem,” he said.

“Right now, we probably could reasonably handle upwards of 300 people,” Garcia said. Shelters would have to practice social distancing, making sleeping and feeding arrangements more challenging than ever. 

It isn’t clear whether Border Patrol agents could test migrants for COVID-19 before releasing them. said Wednesday that the state had sent 10,000 tests to McAllen to prepare for migrants being released, but it’s not clear if a similar effort is underway in El Paso.

“It’s going to be very, very challenging,” Garcia said of receiving and processing migrant families. He said Customs and Border Protection officials haven’t notified him of any changes by Mexico regarding Central American families.

He has been meeting with government officials and churches in recent weeks to prepare for a potential increase in migrants.

“One of the things that I keep saying to them … is that you know we are heavily, heavily dependent on volunteers. I need those volunteers vaccinated,” Garcia said. With vaccines in short supply, none have been set aside for volunteers needed to care for migrants.

Migrants waited to be checked into rooms at a Central El Paso hotel rented by Annunciation House in October 2018. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

By law, the Border Patrol can’t hold children more than 72 hours. The agency also faces COVID-19 restrictions on holding people in detention facilities. Garcia is concerned that the agency might resume a practice it has previously used, releasing migrant families on the streets of El Paso.

“I think that what they would do is go back to releasing them on the street there by the Greyhound bus station,” Garcia said.

Cover photo: Hundreds of migrants crowded outside the Greyhound bus station in Downtown El Paso on Dec. 23, 2018, after they were released there by Border Patrol agents. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.