Border enforcement agents dropped off more than 100 migrants at a Downtown El Paso bus station on Sunday, the first time in more than three years that people were released from custody in El Paso without going to a nongovernmental organization for food and shelter.

The release, which left migrants to fend for themselves in finding food or to get plane or bus tickets out of El Paso, is a warning to local governments that El Paso is not prepared for a potential humanitarian crisis in the coming weeks, said Ruben Garcia, the founder of Annunciation House, which has been providing care for migrants and refugees for more than 40 years.

On Sunday, the migrants were released at about 5 a.m. at the Tornado bus station on West Paisano Drive in Downtown El Paso, said a person at the bus station, who asked not to be identified. By 9 a.m., only about a dozen people remained at the bus station, waiting for buses coming later in the day. Most of the people who had been dropped off took taxis to the airport to get a plane ticket.

Three migrants caught a cab to El Paso International Airport Sunday morning, after they were dropped off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a Downtown El Paso bus station. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Among those remaining at the bus station was Cristian, who arrived at a U.S. port of entry in El Paso on May 11. He is from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the sixth largest city in that country. Belo Horizonte is about 350 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.  El Paso Matters only identifies migrants by first name because many are fleeing violence and fear for their safety.

Cristian left his home in Brazil on May 8 to seek asylum in the United States.

“I have my bus ticket, I’m going to Florida where I have family,” he said in Portuguese. “I had enough money to buy my bus ticket, but now I don’t have any money for the rest of the day, not even to eat.”

His one-way bus ticket cost $290.

Cristian’s bus was set to depart El Paso for Houston at 10 p.m. Sunday. He will wait all day inside the bus station. He is scheduled to arrive in Plant City, Florida, late Monday.

“The good thing is that I am traveling by myself,” he said.

Migrants released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in the El Paso area are usually taken to a shelter run by the Annunciation House, which works with churches and others to provide food and temporary housing until migrants can travel to join family elsewhere in the United States.

But when Annunciation House shelters are at capacity, the federal agencies in the past have released migrants on the street, often near bus stations. Sunday was the first large release of migrants to the streets of El Paso since Christmas week 2018 when hundreds of people were dropped off at the Greyhound bus station Downtown.

The 2018 scene was chaotic. That release included many families with children and the shelters in El Paso were not prepared to help the hundreds of people released.

On Sunday, the release was comparatively smooth. Most of the migrants were from Turkey, Haiti, Brazil and Peru, among other countries, according to a person who was helping them at the bus station. 

Most of the migrants had cell phones that they were using to contact family or buy a plane or bus ticket to their final destination.

Among those who went from the bus station to the airport was Frankel, 45. He crossed into El Paso from Juárez on Friday evening. He lived in Chile but is originally from Haiti. He is trying to get to Florida. 

He said he was released on an “order of release on recognizance.” ICE releases immigrants on recognizance provided that the person says where they are going, agrees to report to a hearing when required and has a place to go.

“I don’t know why I was released, or when I have to go back to court,” he said.

Spokespeople for ICE and Border Patrol didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. It wasn’t clear which agency released the migrants at the bus station.

El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said Sunday that the county was advised late last week that releases would start occurring as CBP holding and detention facilities were at capacity. He did not recall being told that the releases would be to the streets, and at 5 a.m. in Downtown El Paso.

The County Commissioners Court is set to discuss the CBP releases at a special meeting on Thursday.

“We are looking to see how the county can fill the need to coordinate travel arrangements – either to the airport or bus stop,” Stout said. “We want to make sure the county can act in an emergency situation.”

In recent weeks, an increasing number of migrants have been released to a network of hospitality centers run by Annunciation House, a faith-based group that provides food and shelter and helps migrants arrange their travel out of El Paso. The organization works primarily with churches in El Paso, Las Cruces Deming and Albuquerque to provide temporary shelter, Garcia said.

Border enforcement officials check with Garcia daily to see home many migrants can be released to Annunciation House. But Garcia said capacity at the hospitality centers is constrained by a number of factors, particularly a shortage of volunteers and the inability of churches to take in migrants on weekends because their facilities are needed for religious services.

Migrants released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement wait at the Tornado bus station in downtown El Paso early Sunday morning. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

He said Sunday that he told ICE that Annunciation House could receive 450 to 500 people on Monday. “As the week gets to the weekend, when churches need their space for their church activities, then that capacity goes down. So, like for today, Sunday, we were able to receive 254,” Garcia said.

“They felt that they needed to release more refugees than what we had the capacity to receive,” Garcia said of ICE and Border Patrol. “And so there’s where you got your street release.” 

ICE can decide to detain migrants who crossed the border without authorization or release them with a notice to appear in immigration court. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, most such migrants have been immediately expelled to Mexico or other countries under a provision of public health law known as Title 42. 

Title 42 has been criticized by some members of Congress and human rights advocates as cruel and ineffective. The Biden administration has announced plans to end Title 42 on May 23, but that action is being challenged in court.

Many Republican elected officials, and some Democrats, have urged Biden to continue Title 42 out of fear that ending expulsions could cause hundreds of thousands of migrants to seek to enter the United States in the coming months.

Garcia said Sunday’s release at the bus station went relatively smoothly because it only involved single adults. Families are much more difficult to process and move because of the complexity of housing, feeding and finding transportation for several people in a group.

He said the city and county governments have not done enough to prepare for the possible release of large numbers of families on the streets of El Paso in the coming weeks. 

“Up to now, I’ve not seen any indication that the city or the county has made the decision that we are going to have to look at opening up hospitality sites to complement the (Annunciation House) hospitality network. And those sites, they are going to not only have to find a venue, but then they’re going to have to staff that venue,” he said.

Garcia said the challenge is urgent.

“How do we get greater capacity for right now, if in the next four or five days a day comes when (immigration agencies) announces that they’re releasing 200 individuals and they’re all family units. What you’re going to encounter Downtown is going to be very different than what you encountered this morning,” he said.

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

Ramon Bracamontes

Ramon Bracamontes is editor of El Paso Matters.

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at UTEP and a freelance photojournalist in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. She specializes in photography as a tool to explore insecurity,...