The surge of mostly Venezuelan migrants into the Southwest border continues to spill into the streets of Downtown El Paso, pushing some to set up encampments complete with makeshift tents and mattresses near the Greyhound bus station.
Nearly 1,000 migrants have been released to the streets since last week, officials with the El Paso sector of the U.S. Border Patrol confirmed Monday. Among them was a group of 300 released Saturday, with many more expected over the coming days.
All the while, 25 charter buses carrying 1,135 migrants have been sent to New York City since Aug. 23 by the El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management, officials said, adding that they’ll keep busing migrants as long as needed.
The Border Patrol works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find space at nonprofit shelters when its El Paso Central Processing Center is at capacity. The agencies release migrants to the streets when those shelters are full, as most migrants cannot be detained for more than 72 hours.
Miguel Angel, 24, who left his wife and two children ages 3 and 5 behind in Venezuela, said while cold and uncomfortable, spending a few nights in El Paso streets doesn’t compare to his month-long journey.
“The whole time we’ve been under the blanket of God,” he said as he sat on a folding beach chair outside the bus station. “When you’ve waded through jungles and mountains, walked in mud up to your waist and crossed rivers that nearly drowned you, this is nothing.”
Many migrants have families and funds to get to other cities across the country, but an influx of Venezuelan migrants like Miguel Angel who don’t have either has overwhelmed services citywide.
Shelters including Annunciation House, Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army have been at capacity, pushing the city to open a processing center at an unspecified city-owned building on Sept. 6.
The center can take in about 300 migrants a day, and either transports migrants out of the city or puts them up in hotels until transportation for them can be secured, El Paso Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said.
The past week alone, the OEM has secured nearly 170 rooms in two different hotels for migrants who stay a day or two while transportation arrangements are made, he said.
To help move migrants out of the region faster, the City Council on Monday approved ratifying a $2 million contract with Gogo Charters LLC, which has already been used for migrant busing under the city’s emergency ordinance approved in May.
The ordinance allows the city to procure contracts related to the migrant humanitarian crisis without having to go out for bids. The contract will run through December 2023.
Saying the new stream of migrants “really threw things into a different stratosphere,” City Manager Tommy Gonzalez told the council that OEM is petitioning the federal government for faster reimbursements for expenses related to the shelter, processing and transportation of migrants.
Requests for reimbursements can now only be submitted quarterly and could take months to process, Gonzalez said. The OEM is requesting monthly submissions and reimbursements.
More than $400,000 had been spent on busing to Gogo Charters as of last week from the general fund, city officials said. Total expenses for busing and other services were not immediately available.
Mayor Oscar Leeser during the council meeting noted that the migrants are not coming to El Paso, but the United States through the city.
“This is not an El Paso thing,” he said. “It’s a federal issue. We are assisting the federal government in this program.”
“We don’t know what’s going to happen from today to tomorrow,” Leeser continued. “We have to adapt to the situation day-in and day-out … and we’ll continue to work to make sure people are treated with dignity and respect.”
Leeser’s comments were partly in response to city Rep. Alexsandra Anello asking about the city’s cooperation with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security initiative, Operation Lone Star.
Members of the Texas State Guard were in El Paso for a few days in late August to assist with migrants arriving at the Welcome Center on the South Side, a homeless shelter being operated by the El Paso Opportunity Center for the Homeless.
The nonprofit requested assistance from the city, who looked to the state for help under the condition that it retain control of the local busing operation.
When state guard members showed up in uniform to help, the head of the Opportunity Center expressed concern about their presence, saying they made the migrants nervous and didn’t want the process to appear politicized. The guard didn’t return.
Annello said she placed the item on the agenda to clarify to the community that the city busing program is separate from that of the state and so that the public understands where the city and OEM is coming from.
“What we’re doing is not to be compared to what’s going on in the state of Texas,” Leeser said. “We need to take politics out of what’s going on.”
As of last week, Operation Lone Star had bused 15,000 migrants to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, according to the governor’s office.
OEM and Opportunity Center staff have been reaching out to the migrants on the streets, prioritizing taking women and children to hotels or shelters on Sun Metro buses if space becomes available. Other times, migrants are notified if there’s space on a charter bus.
Jocelyn, 38, sat on the sidewalk and leaned against an old phone booth outside the Greyhound station on Monday. She and her husband had been released to the streets at two different locations by border agents.
“He was dropped off somewhere else and came here to find me,” she said, adding she had been approached by a nonprofit volunteer and asked if she wanted to take a bus to New York City. “But we’re waiting on our daughter so we can go to San Antonio together.
Her daughter, 19, was still believed to be in Border Patrol custody Monday.
The family moved from Venezuela to Ecuador for four years, but conditions there started worsening so they made the 25-day trek to the U.S.-Mexico border, Jocelyn said.
“We knew the journey wouldn’t be easy,” she said. “We’ve heard and seen the horror stories of people being robbed, raped, assaulted. But us risking our lives to come here should tell you how bad things were in our countries.”