2:30 p.m. Aug. 26: This story has been updated with additional information from officials with the city of El Paso.

The city government of El Paso this week chartered a bus to send 35 Venezuelan migrants to New York City, a step meant to address a growing number of people from the South American country crossing from Mexico.

“It’s a journey that we never expected to experience,” Roxeli, a Venezuelan migrant, said aboard an El Paso United Charters bus heading to New York City on Tuesday. “It was a rough environment. We had to cross oceans, rivers, jungles – countries where perhaps we weren’t welcome.”

Around her, fellow smiling migrants settled into their seats, ate pizza and sandwiches provided by volunteers, and prayed for their safety during the next leg of their journeys.

“For a better future for our children, we’re capable of getting anywhere,” said Roxeli, whom El Paso Matters is only identifying by first name as she is fleeing violence and fears for her safety. Her comments were captured by the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, which has been caring for an increasing number of unhoused migrants in El Paso.

The charter from El Paso to New York was arranged by the El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management – one of several the city says it has chartered to transport migrants out of the region.

“OEM has sponsored and provided transportation services for migrants out of El Paso, which is reimbursable through (the Federal Emergency Management Agency),” Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said in the email response. “OEM has sponsored charter buses to include a recent transport to New York City, this was the preferred destination for those without any means to travel.”

The federal government has said it will reimburse local governments and non-governmental organizations coping with the migrant influx.

A migrant couple smiled as they prepared to leave El Paso for New York City on a chartered bus on Aug. 23. Their faces are digitally altered to protect their identity. (Courtesy of the Opportunity Center for the Homeless)

Ruben Garcia, the founder of Annunciation House in El Paso, which has been serving migrants for 40 years, said previous bus charters from El Paso were used to move migrants to churches who agreed to accept them in Dallas and Denver, which are major transportation hubs. From there, it was easier for migrants to arrange transportation to join family and friends in the United States.

On June 21, the Office of Emergency Management chartered a bus to send 50 migrants to Faith Forward, an alliance of Dallas religious leaders, Garcia said. D’Agostino also said that was the last charter sent by city officials.

He said faith-based groups are crucial to assisting the growing number of migrants crossing into the United States from Mexico.

“If faith communities in the interior of the U.S. would all be willing to receive one charter bus every week or two, there would be no hospitality issue all along the U.S. border with Mexico. We wouldn’t have to blindly send chartered buses to D.C., New York, and Miami. In other words we would not play politics with human lives and instead have a living, breathing Statue of Liberty,” Garcia said.

Tuesday’s bus charter is similar to controversial programs by Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona to send migrants from border communities to Washington, D.C., and New York City. Abbott and Ducey have loudly publicized their efforts, while the city of El Paso had not made its transportation efforts public until questioned by El Paso Matters.

What’s happening in New York

Five buses carrying 223 migrants arrived in New York City Thursday, said Shaina Coronel, director of communications with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. The majority of the migrants were from Venezuela, with some from Colombia and other countries, she added.

Four of the five buses are presumed to have been part of Abbott’s controversial initiative to transport migrants to Washington, D.C., and New York using private donations.

Busing migrants out of Texas is a way to provide “much-needed relief to our overwhelmed border communities,” Abbott said in an Aug. 19 news release.

New York City officials on Thursday said they were unaware a fifth bus was arriving from El Paso – raising questions about whether officials with the city of El Paso or the OEM are coordinating with the receiving cities for the migrants’ care.

“Migrants are provided care packages and OEM coordinates with officials to receive them,” D’Agostino said in the statement. He said later that El Paso officials had communicated with emergency management officials in New York and are now in contact with the non-governmental organization caring for the migrants.

Coronel said that her office hasn’t had any communication with anybody from El Paso – including city leaders, the Office of Emergency Management or any nonprofit involved in the transport of migrants to New York.

A migrant family that had been staying at The Welcome Center in South El Paso left on a chartered bus for New York City on Aug. 23. Faces are digitally altered to protect the family’s privacy. (Courtesy of the Opportunity Center for the Homeless)

“Texas Gov. Abbott’s office remains unwilling to coordinate and communicate with us on when these buses are arriving and how many people they’re carrying, but we’ve been working with nonprofits on the ground (in Texas) to prepare as best we could,” she said, adding that was not the case with El Paso.

Using charter buses, Abbott had transported more than 7,400 migrants to the capital and more than 1,500 to New York as of this week, his office said Friday. None of the buses chartered by Abbott is known to have come from El Paso.

Venezuelans face special challenges

Migrants who are released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – often because they have shown a credible fear of persecution in their home country – are given a hearing date in an immigration court near their preferred destination. 

In El Paso, migrants released by ICE typically go to shelters in the Annunciation House network, where they stay two to three days while they arrange travel to reunite with family across the country.

Some migrants who can’t arrange transportation wind up unhoused in El Paso and other border cities, because migrant shelters can’t provide shelter for more than a few days.

Unlike migrants from other countries, those from Venezuela often lack sponsor families in the United States ready to provide them with housing or assist with travel, Garcia of Annunciation House said.

That was the case with the group from El Paso this week.

“From our standpoint, we just want to make sure we’re doing right by the families who come here and by the government that sets the laws,” said John Martin, director of El Paso’s Opportunity Center for the Homeless.

Martin said that last week, a small group of migrants arrived at the Welcome Center in South El Paso, a project of the new El Paso Ayuda initiative comprising several nonprofits that serve the homeless. Within three days, that group of migrants grew to nearly 40, primarily from Venezuela, he said.

“The Welcome Center is here to support our local homeless population, but by definition, the Venezuelans who come here and have nowhere to go are therefore homeless in our community,” Martin said.

There, they could stay up to two weeks – or longer if needed.

“We’re not going to kick anyone out on the streets, but we do have a goal to have a place for them to go within two weeks,” Martin said.

In the statement, D’Angostino called the increased number of migrants arriving at the border a “humanitarian concern.” The statement said the busing and transportation services for migrants are to keep them safe from the elements and a way to keep area homeless shelters from overflowing.

The number of Venezuelans encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol at the Southwest border has skyrocketed to nearly 128,600 as of July this fiscal year. That’s two-and-a-half times more than in all of the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September, according to the latest agency statistics.

Nearly 1,200 of those encounters were in the El Paso Sector, three times more than in all of the 2021 fiscal year.

Venezuelans have been largely exempt from Title 42, a health code provision used by the Trump and Biden administrations to expel tens of thousands of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since 2020. 

The vast majority of the Venezuelans crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have been encountered in the Del Rio sector in southwestern Texas and Yuma, Arizona, Border Patrol statistics show.

Displacement crisis

In July, the Department of Homeland Security extended the Temporary Protected Status designation for migrants from Venezuela for 18 months, effective in September.

The status, which allows migrants from designated countries to reside legally in the United States temporarily, applies only to those living in the United States as of March 2021. DHS estimates some 343,000 Venezuelans are eligible for the protective status originally approved March 2021 by the Biden administration.

At that time and again with the recent extension, the administration cited the South American country’s political and economic turmoil under President Nicolas Maduro’s regime.

The Migration Policy Institute in a 2020 report also pointed to Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez for the instability in the country – much of it due to fluctuations in the petroleum market.

“Venezuelans have experienced a sharp decline in economic fortunes, sky-high inflation, rising corruption, and political persecution,” the report states.

More than 6 million Venezuelans have fled the country over violence, insecurity and lack of food and basic services, according to data collected by the United Nations’ refugee agency, which has called this the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world, behind Syria.

That was the case for a family of 10 Venezuelans – parents, children, grandchildren and in-laws – who about 10 days ago crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso and requested asylum.

“We decided to leave Venezuela because of the country’s situation,” a woman in the group aboard the charter bus said. “I wanted my children to have opportunities and for my family to get ahead.”

Before they headed out to New York from the Welcome Center on Tuesday, the busload of migrants recited the Lord’s Prayer with Father Rafael Garcia of nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

“May God bless you all and your families left behind,” Garcia said.

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...