In one of the largest mass crossings ever in the region, more than 1,500 migrants waded across the Rio Grande from Juárez into El Paso Sunday night.
“Welcome to the United States!” a young man in the middle of the Rio Grande shouted to the hundreds of migrants arriving at the border from shelters in Juárez on Sunday night. “You made it!”
The migrants who crossed Sunday night were in a group of hundreds of migrants who were escorted by Chihuahua State Police from the city of Jiménez to Juárez earlier in the day in a caravan of 20 buses. The buses split up in Juárez and brought migrants to the Leona Vicario and Kiki Romero shelters.
The migrants said they were from Nicaragua, Peru and Ecuador.
Border Patrol officials said Monday that they had almost 7,500 encounters with migrants between Friday and Sunday. Encounters mean agents interacted with migrants and processed them through immigration laws or public health laws, which allow for immediate expulsion of some migrants.
The mass crossing came at a time when Border Patrol facilities and non-governmental shelters in El Paso are stressed beyond capacity.
More than 5,100 migrants were held as of Sunday in the Border Patrol Central Processing Center, which is designed to temporarily hold 3,500 people, according to a dashboard maintained by the city of El Paso.
U.S. immigration officials released 1,744 migrants in El Paso on Saturday and Sunday. Because that was more than the available beds at shelters run by non-governmental organizations, 611 of them were released on the streets in Downtown El Paso, according to the dashboard.
Border Patrol officials on Monday gave a higher number for street releases, which the agency refers to as “provisional releases.” The agency said it had made 784 such releases Saturday and Sunday.
In the first 11 days of December, Border Patrol recorded 1,755 provisional releases. Migrants released under such circumstances are usually released near Downtown bus stations. Several migrants interviewed Monday in Downtown El Paso said they’d been staying on the streets for several days.
Border Patrol agents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in the El Paso region, which includes New Mexico, have encountered almost 15,000 migrants in the past week, according to the dashboard. That is the highest weekly total of the year so far.
Federal and local officials are bracing for continued growth in migrant crossings with the end of Title 42, a controversial policy begun during the Trump administration and expanded in the Biden administration to quickly expel many migrants on public health grounds. A federal judge has said the policy must end by Dec. 21, though the Biden administration is appealing the ruling.
The caravan that arrived Sunday had been stopped in Jiménez on Thursday by Chihuahua state officials who said Juárez could not handle more migrants. But the migrants were allowed to go to Juárez on buses Sunday.
More than 300 migrants got off seven buses at the Leona Vicario shelter. They would be given food and medical attention and then would be allowed to leave if they wished, said Ana Laura Rodela, a spokesperson for Leona Vicario.
Many migrants in this group were victims of a mass kidnapping in Durango on Dec. 3, when passengers on the Futura bus lines traveling toward the border were stopped by men in police uniforms. They were brought en masse to a house where they were held against their will.
“We were 1,500 people sleeping in a house,” said Carmen, a 29-year-old woman from Peru who did not want to use her real name because she fears reprisals after being kidnapped. “They took everything, my passport, my phone. My legs are covered with bruises from other people kicking while we slept.”
They were rescued by members of the Mexican military after six days, but many of them like Carmen were not able to recover their stolen documents and possessions in the confusion of the rescue operation.
They continued on their way to Chihuahua, where state authorities initially told them that buses would take them to the border in Juárez, where they could cross to surrender themselves to U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The buses arrived at shelters in Juárez instead, where many of the migrants felt they would be locked in just as they had been when they were kidnapped.
“I feel like they are not being straightforward with us,” said Carmen as she sat on the bus in the Leona Vicario parking lot. “I feel like I am being treated like a criminal when I am a victim. I don’t trust anyone.”
When the shelters told the migrants they were free to go, hundreds of them made their way to the Rio Grande two miles away. State police escorted some of the groups from the shelters to the river bank.
Marjorie and her 6-year-old son, also victims of the kidnapping, arrived at the river around 6 p.m. A Venezuelan man helped the little boy across a shallow area of the river near the Puente Negro railroad bridge. Marjorie followed behind, clutching a bag of belongings.
Earlier in the day, a few hundred migrants had formed a line along the El Paso side of the river. Marjorie and hundreds of others from the caravan of buses who streamed across the river joined the line, where some people had started to build fires to stay warm. Others crossed back to Juárez to buy water and food for those in line.
“I am traumatized from threats in my country and I am traumatized from the kidnapping here. All I want is to arrive at a place that is safe,” said Carmen. “That is all we’re asking for.”
This story was updated at 7 a.m. Monday, Dec. 12, to include data from Saturday and Sunday on numbers of migrants released in El Paso. The story was further updated at 3:55 p.m. Monday, Dec. 12, to add comment from the Border Patrol.