Johan sat at a picnic table outside a city-run migrant services center in El Paso, scanning the single-file line of men who were just dropped off. The young Venezuelan, dressed in a T-shirt and the same gray sweatpants many of the newly arrived are given to wear by border enforcement agents, was searching for companions he made at a federal holding facility where migrants who’ve crossed the El Paso-Juárez border are processed.
Johan was one of thousands of Venezuelan nationals who crossed the Rio Grande this past week seeking asylum and a shot at a new life in the United States. Back home in Venezuela, the vast majority of the population is struggling, living in extreme poverty with food and medicine shortages.
But now El Paso is struggling to handle the recent increase in migrants – more than 4,000 Venezuelans arrived in the first couple weeks of September, Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said at a press conference last week.
The U.S. Border Patrol’s El Paso Central Processing Center and community-run shelters are stretched to capacity, forcing border enforcement agencies to release hundreds of migrants into the streets, primarily near the Greyhound bus station in Downtown.
In a move to keep migrants off the streets, the city government opened a migrant support center on Sept. 3, which helps ease the pressure on the nonprofit shelters by transporting migrants to their next destination. Referred to as the Migrant Welcome Center, it operates with 126 staff members and has an average daily intake of 500 to 600 migrants. Although the center does not provide overnight shelter for migrants, it does transport those who need temporary lodging to nonprofit shelters or hotel rooms paid for by the city.
The city’s support center has been well-received by Ruben Garcia, founder and executive director of the Annunciation House nonprofit migrant shelter.
“It’s definitely helpful. And that help will increase credibly when the county opens its site.” said Garcia, who’s been warning about the migrant influx for months, pleading with the local governments to help. That plea was especially poignant after Garcia closed down Casa del Refugiado, one of the region’s largest migrant shelters, in August due to lack of funding and volunteers.
City officials gave the media a tour of its operations last week, days after border agents had released more than 1,000 migrants to the streets. Border Patrol officials said they haven’t had any street releases since Thursday, Sept. 15.
County to set up another migrant center
El Paso County is setting up another migrant support center, which is expected to open in October. Providencia Group, a company that offers humanitarian aid services, will operate the center under a $6.9 million contract with the county through the end of the year. The Migrant Support Services Center is expected to take in 250 migrants daily during the first month of operation and scale up to 600 migrants a day, county documents show. The 8,000-square-foot center on the East Side will not serve as a shelter, but as a resource provider to help transport migrants out of the region.
The Venezuelans who’ve crossed the Rio Grande differ from Central American migrants in that they are less likely to have family or friends in the United States to receive them.
Migrants with sponsors – family members or groups in the U.S. who help pay for their transportation and lodging – usually leave the El Paso area more quickly than those without, D’Agostino said. Staff at the Migrant Welcome Center work like travel agents to connect these migrants to their sponsors, and put them on city buses to the airport, train or bus station.
However, many of the migrants don’t have sponsors and instead board city-funded charter buses destined for other cities, said Jorge Rodriguez, emergency management coordinator for El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management. El Paso has sent 59 buses to New York City and four to Chicago since early September, transporting nearly 3,000 migrants, city officials told El Paso Matters on Monday. More have been sent out this week.
Rodriguez said the city is coordinating its efforts with the county. The county’s support services center will prioritize sponsored migrants so that the city can focus on unsponsored migrants, he said.
Both the city and county governments are asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding, but reimbursements so far have been slow, city officials said.
In response to the latest border crossings, Border Patrol also set up a makeshift processing site on the banks of the Rio Grande to vet migrants.
Reaching the next destination
“Gordo!” Johan called out suddenly, leaping to his feet to greet a familiar face who’s just been dropped off.
He returned later in good spirits. That’s one of his buddies, he explained. The journey from Venezuela to El Paso took Johan more than a month, including a weeklong trek through “la selva” – a swampy and mountainous jungle region that stretches between Colombia and Panama. Known as the Darién Gap, no road passes through the jungle and many perish on the hike, their bodies claimed by mud and wilderness. People went mad and people got robbed, Johan said.
To be here on a Friday, cracking jokes with “Gordo,” came with great relief to Johan. It means they survived. Johan doesn’t have a cell phone, but he has a piece of paper with his cousin’s name, phone number and address in Orlando.
Since opening its 25,000-square-foot center in a city-owned vacant warehouse in Northeast El Paso, the city has been helping people like Johan get to their next destination.
Once migrants are dropped off at the center the goal is to put people on same-day transportation so that shelters can free up beds, D’Agostino said. For people who are unable to leave the same day, the city is coordinating with non-government organizations and paying for hotel rooms for temporary lodging.
Inside the center a couple of maps of the United States are posted on the walls, as well as posters with directions to the Greyhound station, Amtrak train station and airport. Children scampered across the tile floor, playing with colorful pieces of a foam puzzle mat.
“Nueva York!” a city employee called out, alerting people to the next bus ready for departure. Families hurried to get in line, carrying as much as duffel bags and backpacks, or as little as their immigration documents rolled up in their hand.
The sun beat down on migrants who were lined up in the parking lot outside their charter bus – a scene in contrast to the graphic wrapped around the bus, depicting snow-capped mountains, a deer, a grizzly bear and an arctic wolf. Some of the families, like Daniel’s, asked to get their photo taken with the bus, a keepsake to memorialize this moment in time.
“We don’t have anybody, it’s just the three of us,” said 32-year-old Daniel, who is with his wife and five-year-old daughter. They have no family in New York.
Exodus of Venezuelans entering the U.S.
More than 6 million people have left Venezuela, or more than one-fifth of the population, the United Nations Refugee Agency reports. Venezuela’s oil prices collapsed in 2014, plunging the oil-dependent country into an economic crisis that U.S. sanctions later worsened, analysts say. Facing hunger and joblessness, Venezuelans began moving to neighboring Colombia and other Latin American countries.
Daniel said his family fled Venezuela because armed paramilitary groups known as colectivos threatened to kill his wife and daughter. The colectivos took away his wife’s house. They shot his stepson in the leg for opposing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, he said.
They were hungry and had no jobs, so they relied on the charity of relatives, Daniel said. Once, his wife got so sick she almost died because there was no doctor or medicine available. After that they decided to emigrate to Colombia, where they applied for the Permission for Temporary Protection, a 10-year permit that allows Venezuelan migrants to work there legally, access health care and enroll in school.
But Daniel’s family, like many other Venezuelans, did not receive a permit. Unable to pay rent, they headed north to El Paso, where the city bussed them to New York. They’re now living in a hotel in Queens, where they’re looking for work and planning to register their daughter in school.
El Paso Matters does not identify migrants by their full names as many are fleeing persecution.
Since Sept. 1, U.S. Border Patrol agents have seen an average of 1,500 migrant encounters every day in the El Paso sector, officials said on Tuesday.
“These are human beings that are passing through our community,” D’Agostino said. “It’s just part of their journey. So we welcome them in, not just for that, but to find out what their needs are.”
El Paso’s efforts are not part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial Operation Lone Star, which is also busing migrants out of state.
But the public might be conflating the two operations because they’re happening at the same time, said Miguel Levario, a U.S.-Mexico border historian from El Paso. Levario teaches at Texas Tech University and penned the book “Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy.”
Human rights advocates recently accused Abbott of bussing migrants to Vice President Kamala Harris’ doorstep as a political stunt. “We’re sending migrants to her backyard to call on the Biden Administration to do its job & secure the border,” Abbott tweeted on Sept. 15.
Advocates say migrants were also tricked into boarding flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, an affluent summer vacation town in Massachusetts. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis paid for the flights. A civil rights organization has filed a lawsuit against DeSantis on behalf of the migrants.
Cyclical immigration waves are not new to El Paso and other border communities, but politicians have used the topic as a hot button to galvanize their voting base, Levario said. Abbott is running against former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke for governor of Texas.
“There’s political theater. It happens every election cycle,” Levario said. “DeSantis and politicians are using people as props.”
Immigration reporter and assistant editor Cindy Ramirez contributed to this story.