Luis and Brunette celebrated their son’s fifth birthday at Casa del Refugiado, surrounded by a few hundred strangers who, like them, are seeking asylum in the United States.

Celebramos dándole mucho amor y dándole gracias a Dios que tenemos vida,” Luis said in Spanish on Wednesday at the East Side shelter run by Annunciation House. “We’re celebrating by giving him lots of love and thanking God that we are alive.”

Originally from Haiti, the family over the past few years made its way to Chile, Brazil then Mexico before crossing into El Paso from Juárez on Sunday. They turned themselves in to border law enforcement officials, who released them from custody to the shelter on Monday.

They’re waiting for Brunette’s brother, who traveled with them, to be released from custody before heading to Florida. El Paso Matters only identifies migrants by first name because many are fleeing violence and fear for their safety.

Luis and Brunette are among the 1,730 people who had been transferred from a federal facility to Annunciation House shelters over three days this week, the organization’s founder and executive director Ruben Garcia said during a press conference Wednesday.

That compares to about 2,700 the entirety of the previous week. 

“And it’s only going to continue to increase,” he said.

El Paso city and county governments are trying to figure their role in what is likely to be a major humanitarian effort to temporarily care for migrants crossing the border. Garcia has been warning with increasing urgency that time for planning is running out.

A Haitian boy, who celebrated his birthday on Wednesday, plays with a scooter inside the Casa del Refugiado shelter. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Feds providing reimbursement, no shelters

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Biden administration will reimburse local governments and non-government organizations for expenses related to housing migrants.

The federal government won’t directly provide additional facilities to house migrants at this time, she added. Fort Bliss will also not have a shelter as it did for the Afghan migrants or unaccompanied migrant children in the past, Escobar said during a Zoom press conference on Wednesday.

“That was run by the military and they are just not available and neither is the site,” Escobar said.

What is expected is “outside sheltering” at the ports of entry to help mitigate the overflow at Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facilities, she said.

In a 20-page memo in April, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas outlined the use of tents, or “soft-sided facilities,” among the department’s efforts to increase Customs and Border Protection’s holding capacity across the entire Southwest border while it processes migrants.

Capacity woes

Garcia said that in El Paso the 15 shelters –or hospitality sites, as he calls them — affiliated with Annunciation House are having difficulty keeping up with the demand. Those 15 sites include churches in Deming, Las Cruces and Albuquerque, as well as Casa del Refugiado.

And those capacity issues are growing now, days before Title 42 is expected to be lifted. A public health provision that essentially expels migrants to Mexico or other countries under the premise of avoiding the spread of COVID-19, Title 42 is set to end on Monday, May 23, unless a federal judge in Louisiana rules in favor of states challenging Biden’s plans to rescind the order.

When Title 42 ends, border agencies will again process migrants under Title 8, the section of U.S. code that governs immigration and allows some migrants to legally seek asylum. Title 8 also allows others to be criminally prosecuted for entering the country illegally.

That means Border Patrol and ICE holding and detention facilities likely will overflow and officials will release migrants to shelters — or the streets.

That was the case Sunday when more than 100 migrants were dropped off at a Downtown bus station, Garcia noted.

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, answers questions about preparations for the end of Title 42 during a press conference at Casa del Refugiado on Wednesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Neither the city nor county governments have yet committed to providing facilities to serve as shelters — something Garcia has pleaded both to do.

Ideally, he said, he’d like the local governments to take over some of the management of Casa del Refugio so trained volunteers there could in turn help increase capacity at other shelters, particularly churches. The 125,000-square-foot shelter is a former warehouse with room to expand its services, Garcia said.

“The question to ask them is, ‘Why are you not bringing beds to the table?’” Garcia said during the press conference.

The city, county and the Office of Emergency Management have been looking to identify possible sites that can be used by nongovernmental organizations or state and federal agencies, the city said in a release issued hours after Garcia’s press conference.

The city and the OEM staff can then augment those organizations and agencies, the release said. The city on Sunday said it was looking to the federal government to open military installations for temporary housing needs, something Escobar said won’t happen.

City Council next week will consider approving an emergency declaration to begin the process to obtain state and federal funds and resources.

Mayor Oscar Leeser said the city will continue to take a “proactive approach” to the situation but didn’t give any examples or specifics. The challenge, he said, is not knowing the number of migrants that might need shelter.

Pressed on whether the city has a contingency plan in place for Monday — including identifying a specific facility that might serve as a shelter if needed — Leeser said only that the city and the emergency management office are working “to be proactive and to be prepared.”

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said everything’s on the table for discussion during a County Commissioners Court meeting Thursday that will address migration issues.

“We could consider establishing a processing center, or we could consider declaring an emergency declaration as well,” he said, adding that he believes it’s premature to lift Title 42 given the rise of COVID-19 cases in places like New York.

Staffing shortages major roadblock

Even if migrant facilities are set up, a big part of the challenge is the vast shortage of volunteers, many of whom stopped assisting during the pandemic.

Adding to that, Garcia said, is the increased vilification of migrants, especially those coming into the United States from the Southwest border. That has turned people away from lending a hand either because of their beliefs or a fear of being targeted for their involvement, he said.

Garcia said he’s most grateful for the cooperation the city and county continue to provide, including transportation services and COVID-19 testing, as well as possible staffing help.

Both local governments have also said they could commit some paid staff members to work in the shelters or other relief areas as needed. Leeser said specific numbers would depend on the need, while Samaniego has said the city and county are expected to each commit 25 employees to help.

Additionally, Garcia said he met with FEMA officials on Sunday and was told the agency would assign some staff members to assist the Annunciation House. On Tuesday, 29 FEMA personnel showed up to Casa del Refugio.

Carlos and Maria, migrants from Colombia, settle a dispute over a scooter between two of their children as they pass the time at Casa del Refugiado on Wednesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

That same day, nearly 370 migrants were sent to the shelter.

On Wednesday, shuttles took some migrants to the airport and bus stations while volunteers worked to help others call their host families. A few others cleaned the facility, did laundry or prepared sandwiches.

Migrants sat on cots and on the floor with their children, hugging them, combing their hair or coloring and drawing pictures with them.

Children who had never met each other played together on the small plastic playground. Boxes filled with chanclas and Crocs for the migrants were scattered throughout.

“We’re very happy with the food and the hospitality here,” said Maria Paola, who left Colombia with her husband and three young children earlier this month after allegedly being threatened by a gang of former paramilitary fighters who she says killed her brother. The family arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border Monday.

“We’re most happy that we have our freedom now. We didn’t have that before,” she said as one of her boys rode a donated scooter around the facility. The other two sat by her side and introduced themselves politely.

“We were persecuted and didn’t have liberty,” said Maria, who’s headed to Florida with her family. “We didn’t have a future there.”

She’s grateful her family arrived in El Paso when they did, saying she feels safe that her children aren’t in an overcrowded facility.

That’s exactly the situation for which Garcia is bracing. The numbers already tell what’s coming, he said.

A woman from Mexico sits on her cot at Casa del Refugiado on Wednesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Migrant encounters rising

The U.S. Border Patrol El Paso sector this week reported a 56% increase in the number of encounters with migrants so far this fiscal year compared to this time last year.

From October 2021 to April 2022, El Paso sector agents had more than 143,000 encounters with migrants, according to the agency’s monthly operational update.

That number includes some 55,000 people who fall under Title 8, the immigration code under which some migrants can legally seek asylum or be criminally prosecuted for entering the country illegally. About 88,000 fell under the Title 42 public health provision that expels migrants to other countries. Many of the Title 42 expulsions involve people who have repeatedly entered the United States, officials have said, which inflates the numbers of what the Border Patrol refers to as encounters.

At this time in fiscal year 2021, that total number of encounters was at about 91,600.

In April alone, the El Paso sector reported about 29,000 encounters with migrants — about a 50% increase over the same time last year, the report states.

Along the entire Southwest border, Border Patrol has encountered 1.2 million migrants on land so far this fiscal year — a nearly 68% increase compared to the previous year.

Escobar said that 30 years without comprehensive immigration reform is in part to blame for the situation — as are climate change and geopolitical unrest across the globe that’s led to increased migration worldwide.

“Locally, I”m very proud of my city for the way it responds in times of stress, in times of need,” she said.

Migrants Casa del Refugio Birthday
Brunette, who came to Casa del Refugiado on Monday, May 17, kisses her son, who celebrated his fifth birthday at the shelter. The family is originally from Haiti and traveled to Chile and Brazil before arriving in Mexico. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

House of Hope

At Casa del Refugiado, or House of Hope, a shelter that Annunciation House opened in 2019 to help manage the influx of Central American migrants, Luis and Brunette shower their son with kisses.

In the United States, Luis said, they’re seeking refuge from the rapes, murders, violence and other atrocities that were commonplace in Haiti. But mostly, he said, they came here for their son.

“He’s too young to comprehend,” Brunette said in Creole as Luis translated to Spanish. “We didn’t want him growing up around that life, to kill or be killed. We want to raise him Christian, to serve others, to be happy.”

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...