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In appealing to the faith community to help feed and shelter migrants, Ruben Garcia points to the Bible verse he says is a constituent element among religions.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Garcia said, citing Matthew 25:35. “I’m really praying many more faith communities will take that to heart.”
Garcia referenced the verse as he helped more than 50 migrants board a bus to Denver at the Casa Papa Francisco chapel – a new migrant shelter in Central El Paso – on Thursday night. The bus was set to arrive in Denver on Friday, where migrants were to be received by the non-denominational Denver Community Church.
The charter bus was paid for through donations to the nonprofit Annunciation House that for decades has offered temporary shelter to migrants in the region.
This isn’t the first time Annunciation House has chartered buses for migrants – and Garcia said it won’t be the last. The nonprofit chartered a few buses to Denver and Dallas in 2019, and next week will send a bus to Denver and another to Kansas City in December. Another is being planned for Omaha, Nebraska.
The charters come after the city of El Paso and the Office of Emergency Management last month shut down its migrant busing operations, which sent more than 290 charter buses carrying some 14,000 people to New York and Chicago since late August.
The borderland saw an influx of migrants from Venezuela the last few months that overwhelmed area shelters. That was before the Biden administration in mid-October implemented a shift in policy that allowed U.S. immigration officers to return Venezuelan migrants to Mexico if they crossed into the country between ports of entry.
Garcia said the policy change may have slowed the number of migrants arriving at the U.S. Southwest border, but indicated migrants from various countries are still coming in high numbers.
The El Paso Border Patrol sector continues to see “an elevated number of migrant encounters,” agency officials said in a statement Friday. Sector agents have encountered an average of 1,725 migrants daily since the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. The agency’s El Paso Central Processing Center and its overflow area have averaged about 3,170 migrants in holding daily, officials said.
“What we want to avoid is any more street releases,” Garcia said, referring to the more than 1,000 migrants that border agencies released to the streets of Downtown in September when area shelters were full. The released migrants are processed by border agencies and are legally allowed to remain in the country while they await their immigration hearings.
Border Patrol officials said they haven’t had to release migrants to the streets since Sept. 15. The agency has long worked with nonprofits such as the Annunciation House and its network of shelters to release migrants to them when space allows. It had been releasing migrants to the city’s migrant center until it shut down and is now releasing them to a center run by the county when feasible.
The Border Patrol has also been mitigating the high number of migrants in holding in the El Paso sector by flying them to other sectors to be processed, according to its statement.
“To increase our capacity to receive refugees here, we have to have faith communities elsewhere work with us,” Garcia said, repeating a plea for help he’s long made to churches and church-goers in El Paso and across the nation.
The Welcome Center, a homeless shelter in South El Paso which takes in migrants temporarily, is also bursting at the seams.
“We’ve had to squeeze in as many people as physically possible,” said John Martin, deputy director of the Opportunity Center of El Paso, which runs the Welcome Center. “What we’re seeing is a large number of families from all over, not just Venezuela.”
Martin said that earlier this week, the Welcome Center housed nearly 125 people – the vast majority of them migrants. The center can typically temporarily house about 80 people at a time.
Martin and Garcia both said that though Biden’s policy change has pushed much of the migrant humanitarian crisis into Mexico, the number of migrants arriving at the border and being released into the U.S. remains high.
“What worries us now is that when temperatures drop, we see a 50% to 60% increase in our shelters,” Martin said. “The challenge of housing the homeless, including migrants, still remains.”
Garcia said he’s grateful for the city’s and county’s efforts to help transition migrants out of the region and onto their next destination, but adds more is needed.
The county on Oct. 10 opened a Migrant Support Services Center near the airport to help connect migrants with bus or air travel to their next destination. The center was to assist some 250 migrants daily in its first month of operation and scale up to 600 thereafter. County officials didn’t immediately respond to El Paso Matters’ request for an update on how many migrants the center has served to date.
Garcia said he regrets that the city shut down its busing operations. The city is still assisting migrants by providing some with food and temporary hotel stays, and several city employees remain assigned to area nonprofits helping migrants.
“I really wish the city would reopen its facility to help with the single individuals who need transportation,” Garcia said. “There’s still a need. Even if they were to receive just a few hundred a day it would be helpful.”