The overpass of Loop 375 shaded migrants from the midday sun as El Paso Border Patrol agents lined them up for processing. On the other side of the Río Grande, officers from the Mexican National Guard stood watch on the embankment while a couple from Juárez scanned the group of migrants for a family member they thought had crossed over.
An occasional person could be seen in the distance, dashing hurriedly across the shallow part of the river in an effort to get to the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.
On Wednesday, the line of migrants, mostly men, began just west of the Paso del Norte Bridge that connects El Paso to its sister Ciudad Juárez. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have set up a makeshift processing center under the bridge to help move migrants who are presenting themselves at the border.
Under U.S. law, people have a right to request asylum after crossing the border, and to be in the country while immigration courts decide their status. But an increase in the number of migrants in recent weeks is overwhelming both nonprofit-run shelters in town and the El Paso Processing Center, which is run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The scene on the banks of the Rio Grande offers a glimpse of why the migrants are crossing. Many of them are in tears as they catch sight of the border they had sought for weeks. Some celebrate as if they just scored a soccer goal or a touchdown.
On Saturday, some of the migrants ran, desperate to cross from Juárez into El Paso before an approaching vehicle marked with the insignia of the Mexican National Guard reached them. One woman dropped a backpack, causing a t-shirt, deodorant and a hairbrush to spill out on the ground. She struggled to pack her belongings back into the bag, not knowing that almost everything she carried would be thrown away by the Border Patrol agents she was about to meet.
A man, old enough to have graying hair, mumbled as he jogged toward the crossing point: “La selva, la selva, tantas cosas horribles.” The jungle, the jungle, so many horrible things. He heaved deep breaths as tears spilled from his eyes.
Another man, also in tears, repeated the familiar story as he jogged along the river with a small boy on his shoulders.
“My God, we have been through so much,” he cried. “The jungle, the things we have seen, the bodies.”
The emotional journey is one thing that most of the migrants, overwhelmingly Venezuelan, talk about after they cross the Rio Grande. They talk about crossing the Darién Gap, a swampy jungle between Colombia and Panama through which no roads run. Travelers with money might hire a boat, but most hike through the water and the jungle, where threats of danger and death might come from animals, sickness, drowning or criminal violence.
The voyage from Venezuela to El Paso is more than 2,000 miles.
Since Sept. 6, Border Patrol has released more than a 1,000 migrants, most of them Venezuelan nationals, into the streets of El Paso because the non-profit shelters are full. Annunciation House, a volunteer organization in El Paso, shut down one of the largest migrant shelters on the U.S.-Mexico border in early August.
In response, El Paso County is in the process of setting up a new processing center and the city just approved a $2 million contract with a charter bus company to transport migrants to their final destination.
The county is holding an emergency meeting on Thursday to authorize resources for the “significant number of individuals living on the street, enduring extreme weather conditions, and lacking basic necessities such as food and shelter,” according to the agenda.
Setting up a migrant processing center
This isn’t the first time El Paso has had to respond to Border Patrol releasing migrants into the streets. Peaks in migration are cyclical and in the past, volunteers in the El Paso community have come together to do an “incredible job to help these migrants,” said El Paso County Commissioner Iliana Holguin, who also is an immigration attorney.
“But it was difficult. It was hard. It was very stressful,” Holguin said. “It’s much more difficult now, post-pandemic or post the height of the pandemic, to get those numbers of volunteers again.”
Holguin believes the county is in the best position to help migrants get to their final destinations.
El Paso County Commissioners Court on Monday voted to establish a one-stop processing center that would help migrants get shelter, medical care and transportation to other cities.
The county will apply for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. If granted, the federal agency would fund not only the migrant processing center, but reimburse associated costs, such as hotel rooms for migrants to spend the night and services from nonprofit groups, Holguin said.
The county hopes to get the center up by mid- to late-October of this year, Holguin said. County Commissioner David Stout said finding a space to rent has been a challenge.
“We want to space it centrally, right? So we don’t have to be transporting large groups of people miles and miles from where we want to be, close to transportation hubs,” Stout said. “Especially the airport, I think, is where we’re looking because most folks are flying out as opposed to busing out.”
Earlier this year the county solicited proposals from third-party contractors to run the migrant processing center. In June, the county appeared to be negotiating a contract with Endeavors, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter. Endeavors was at the center of controversy last year when ICE awarded the company a no-bid $87 million contract to run several hotels, including two in El Paso, to house migrants during the pandemic. But the hotel rooms went largely unused, El Paso Matters reported in June.
Stout said Endeavors is still on the table, while Holguin said the county is reviewing five total proposals.
County documents show the estimated cost for the processing center under a third-party contractor, including a lease for building, comes to about $465,000 a month – just under $5.6 million a year. Most of the budget will cover salaries for the center’s staff, Stout said.
The processing center will not be used to house migrants, he added.
El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management is securing hotel rooms for migrants to stay a day or two while awaiting transportation. OEM has sent more than a 1,000 migrants on charter buses to New York City since Aug. 23. On Monday, El Paso City Council approved ratifying a $2 million contract with Gogo Charters LLC to help move migrants out of the region faster.
Some migrants are also spending the night at El Paso International Airport, open 24 hours a day, while they wait for their flight. The travel costs for migrants are covered through FEMA’s emergency food and shelter grant on a reimbursement basis, according to a press release from the city.
Downtown El Paso becomes hub for migrants
Since last week migrants have continued to gather in the area around the Greyhound bus station in Downtown El Paso, where volunteers have dropped off water bottles, food and folding chairs.
Lone travelers and families cluster under the trees for shade or spend a rainy night on the sidewalk. Some are asking for clean clothes. Some want to know how to get to the airport. Many are unaware that local organizations are putting migrants in hotel rooms.
Most of the recent migrants arriving in El Paso come from Venezuela, which is undergoing a socioeconomic crisis. Decades of government mismanagement of the oil industry – which the country depends on – and hyperinflation under president Nicolás Maduro has driven many Venezuelans into extreme poverty. U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, imposed in 2017, also contributed to “further deterioration of the quality of life,” according to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America .
Over the last five days, an average of 660 Venezuelan migrants are processed each day in El Paso, said a Border Patrol spokesperson.
José, 30, was one of the migrants who crossed the Río Grande earlier this week in search of work to support his family. In Venezuela his two part-time jobs – as a truck driver and a mechanic – netted him as little as $12 a month total.
On the way here, he saw children in the Darién Gap who had gotten separated from their parents traveling alone. He saw people die from exhaustion and dehydration. This was the hardest part of his journey, he described.
“Those who couldn’t go on had to be left behind in the jungle,” he said, remembering the bodies, the children who carried on when their mothers couldn’t.
José crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at 5 a.m., leaving before dawn to avoid the Mexican police. Near the bridge of entry, Border Patrol agents processed him, confiscated his backpack, and put him on a bus that dropped him off at the Greyhound station.
By 7 p.m. he was on another bus departing for Fort Worth where his brother lives.
Now, José said, he hopes to find a job.