Members of the Texas State Guard arrived in El Paso on Monday to assist with migrants arriving at a homeless shelter, a mission connected to Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial Operation Lone Star.

Five Guard soldiers in uniform helped nonprofit workers and volunteers process migrants at the Welcome Center homeless shelter in South El Paso as a handful of members from the Texas Division of Emergency Management looked on.

The Welcome Center, which is being operated by the Opportunity Center for the Homeless and a group of other nonprofits, has become the central point of the city of El Paso’s and the El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management’s efforts to manage the growing number of migrants from Central and South America arriving at the border.

In a statement, city officials said they’re working with the state to “help augment the City/OEM’s efforts to provide transportation of the migrants that do not have sponsors.” 

It remains unclear whether the city or Office of Emergency Management requested the assistance or if Abbott sent the manpower.

“Our biggest concern is that our (nongovernmental organizations) continue to have the capacity to help the migrants coming into our community,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said in a brief phone interview with El Paso Matters.

Leeser said he was not aware of the city requesting any transportation assistance from the state, but that it was using its emergency declaration for FEMA reimbursement to cover transportation costs of  migrants.

When asked if the state had then sent the assistance without the city or OEM asking for it, Leeser said he would need to check with staff to ensure correct information was provided.

Spokespeople for Abbott and the Texas Division of Emergency Management didn’t respond to questions from El Paso Matters on Monday.

A chartered bus initially was planned to take migrants from El Paso to Chicago on Monday afternoon after about 60 of the asylum seekers were dropped off at the center – the vast majority women traveling alone from Venezuela and an array of other countries including Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia.

But with not enough migrants interested in traveling to Chicago, the busing option was canceled. Instead state and local officials at the shelter worked to find them alternate travel arrangements or a place to stay the night since the Welcome Center was at capacity, said John Martin, director of El Paso’s Opportunity Center for the Homeless.

Personnel from the Texas Division of Emergency Management are at the Welcome Center in South El Paso on Monday, Aug. 29, to help process and plan transportation for migrants released from detention. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Since last week, the city and OEM have chartered four buses to New York City and in June sponsored one bus to Dallas.

City officials would not say how long the State Guard or the Texas Division of Emergency Management might be in El Paso, saying only via an emailed statement that the city and OEM will continue to coordinate support to prevent migrants from being released to the streets.

“This issue remains a humanitarian concern … due to the increasing number of migrants passing through the region, limited federal and local shelter capacities, and increasing number of migrants that are not sponsored or have means to travel,” Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said in the statement.

The Texas Military Department on Monday confirmed to El Paso Matters that it was working with its interagency partners in assisting with escort functions as part of Operation Lone Star – Abbott’s border security initiative launched in March 2021. In April of this year, Abbott began busing migrants to Washington, D.C., and in August, to New York City.

A spokesperson for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in an email said that the state’s Department of Human Services and Emergency Management Agency learned on Aug. 26 that a bus from Texas carrying migrants primarily from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba was headed to Illinois. It’s not clear if that’s the same bus that was being organized Monday in El Paso.

The regional Federal Emergency Management Agency office was notified by nonprofits and not any official government source, Illinois officials said.

“Illinois welcomes refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants and we are working with federal and city officials to ensure that these individuals are treated with respect and safety as they look to connect with their family and friends,” the Pritzker administration said in a statement.

Once there, migrants will be offered COVID-19 vaccines, emergency housing and legal resettlement assistance, officials said.

Asylum outside of Texas

While some critics say Abbott’s program to send migrants out of Texas is a political ploy meant to stir the Republican base, they also point out that it may help migrants regardless of its intention. That’s because migrants are being bused to cities where immigration courts are more likely to approve their asylum applications.

Since 2019, for example, Chicago immigration courts have granted asylum or other relief in 55% of cases compared to 25% in El Paso, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. In New York City, immigration judges have granted asylum or other means of relief from deportation in 73% of cases since 2019, according to the data-gathering organization.

A member of the Texas State Guard places a bracelet on the wrist of Rudynorbis, 25, a migrant from Venezuela who arrived at the Welcome Center in South El Paso on Monday, Aug. 29. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Whether they end up in Chicago or New York City, Rudysnorbis and Nelvin said they hope their six-week trek from Venezuela to the United States is fruitful for them and their 6-year-old daughter, Anthonella.

“There were a lot of obstacles, but thank God everything turned out ok,” said Rudysnorbis, 25, recounting their journey soon after arriving at the Welcome Center on Monday. “Whatever happens will weigh heavy on us because there were a lot of people who didn’t make it. They became ill, they died in the jungle, they got left behind.”

Her husband, Nelvin, 26, carried Anthonella on his shoulders for most of the journey.

They met many other migrants on the same journey, they said, but were lucky they had some money to pay for a boat and other accommodations that others did not.

“We saw people dying along the way,” he said.

Struggling to find space

For now, the family will look to stay at the Welcome Center, which has long housed a farmworker’s center and is being retrofitted as a homeless shelter.

The network of more than a dozen migrant shelters in the region have been at capacity housing about 3,000 people, said Ruben Garcia, founder of Annunciation House in El Paso. Many of the smaller shelters, such as those run by local churches, accept only a limited number of migrants once or twice a week, he said.

Garcia last month closed down one of the largest migrant shelters on the border – Casa del Refugiado, a converted warehouse on the East Side which hosted tens of thousands of migrants over four years.

He had urged the city and county governments to take over the shelter for months leading up to the expected lifting of Title 42, the public health provision that expelled migrants to Mexico. The building was aging and he didn’t have enough volunteers to keep it open, especially with the expected influx of migrants.

But as Title 42 was kept in place, neither the city nor the county took him up on the offer.

Casa del Refugiado, which sheltered migrants for two to three days while they made travel arrangements outside of El Paso, could take in up to 200 migrants daily.

It hosted about 25,000 migrants who were released by U.S. border agencies in the eight months previous to closing its doors in July, Garcia said.

“For me the No. 1 issue is, when you have refugees arrive at the door of the United States, what is going to be our response as a country?” Garcia said. “Nobody is talking about that big picture.”

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...