The El Paso-Juárez region may soon see even more disruption from a growing influx of migrants as U.S. officials plan to divert commercial truck traffic away from the Bridge of the Americas in order to create room to process the migrants.

“I told (Homeland Security) Secretary (Alejandro) Mayorkas that this is very harmful and they need to find another option,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who confirmed broad outlines of the plan.

Such a move could cause confusion for the regional manufacturing sector and create backlogs at the Ysleta and Santa Teresa ports of entry, two other crossings used by commercial vehicles.

The plan for diverting commercial truck traffic was one part of a hectic Tuesday that saw federal, state and local officials scrambling to contain a growing crisis. Mayorkas, who oversees the nation’s immigration and border security efforts, came to El Paso to meet with border agents, local government officials and migrant advocates.

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A group of migrants were bused by U.S. agents to an Annunciation House shelter in Downtown El Paso on Tuesday, Dec. 13. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

When asked for details of the commercial trucking and migrant processing plans, Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Roger Maier said “regular operations continue” at the Bridge of the Americas.

An average of 460 trucks a day entered the United States at Central El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas in the first 10 months of this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That traffic would now mostly go to the Ysleta port of entry in southeast El Paso, which has averaged about 1,800 trucks a day. Some of it may be diverted to New Mexico’s Santa Teresa port of entry, just outside the western edge of El Paso, which has averaged 414 trucks a day.

‘He wants to break the border’

A further complication for border commerce could be actions by the Texas Department of Public Safety to resume “enhanced commercial vehicle safety inspections” at ports of entry.

The effort appears similar to an initiative that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered in April.

“We support DPS’ frequent enhanced commercial vehicle safety inspections in an effort to continue deterring cartel smuggling along our southern border and protecting the lives of those on Texas roadways. For security purposes, operational details are unable to be disclosed at this time,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said.

Abbott said in April an initiative to inspect commercial vehicles entering Texas was needed to disrupt the smuggling of migrants and drugs, but the governor’s office was unable to point to any such interdictions from enhanced inspections. Texas and Mexico business leaders said the inspection effort disrupted legitimate commerce and damaged the regional economy.

Escobar has called Abbott’s April effort a “stunt,” and criticized the governor again in a Tuesday briefing with the media.

“It almost feels … like he wants to break the border,” she said.

Some border logistics companies in April directed their trucks to use the Santa Teresa port of entry because it wasn’t subject to Texas DPS inspections.

Eze said the governor’s concern is public safety.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety is responsible for ensuring the safety of Texans across our state, including on our roadways. Mexican cartels and human traffickers have shown a clear disregard for those they smuggle in dangerous conditions, like the 53 migrants who died in a tractor trailer in San Antonio,” she said.

Preparing for end of Title 42

More than 3,100 migrants have been released to the streets in El Paso over the past month as the Border Patrol’s Central Processing Center and area non-governmental shelters are over capacity and migrants reach the border in record numbers.

That’s expected to worsen next week with the lifting of Title 42, the emergency health order that allows border enforcement agents to immediately expel some migrants without allowing them to seek asylum. The policy is set to be lifted on Dec. 21 after a federal judge ruled it unlawful.

A busload of migrants, mostly women and children, are dropped off at a Downtown shelter on Tuesday. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

El Paso city government leaders this week have offered no detailed answers about their plans to mitigate the migrant influx, saying they will not resume migrant busing operations unless they secure upfront federal funding. But they haven’t submitted a formal request as required. The city shut down its busing operations in October.

Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said the city still has some 60 employees embedded with nonprofits to help staff up their migrant assistance programs and continues to house COVID-positive migrants in contracted hotels.

D’Agostino said the Federal Emergency Management Agency notified the city it would be reimbursed $3.7 million more of its migrant expenses for the third quarter but has $3.5 million pending. Escobar said FEMA as of Tuesday had already agreed to reimburse all but $1 million of the city’s expenses, and expected the remainder to be paid out as well.

City Manager Tommy Gonzalez and Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino have pushed Mayor Oscar Leeser to issue a disaster declaration to bring in state resources – including busing and personnel. 

“We’re not there yet,” Leeser said during a City Council meeting Monday. The mayor didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Only the mayor or county judge could issue a declaration, which would then need to be ratified by the unanimous vote of the City Council or County Commissioners Court within seven days. City Rep. Alexsandra Annello told El Paso Matters she would not support a disaster declaration. 

Migrants on the streets are given sandwiches, water and snacks from an El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank truck on Tuesday. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

County leaders said they are working to expand their migrant center, and County Administrator Betsy Keller confirmed to El Paso Matters last week that the county has formally requested $34 million a year to do so. FEMA would likely consider the request on a quarterly basis, Keller said.

Since opening its Migrant Support Services Center on Oct. 10, the county has processed nearly 18,800 migrants, helping arrange travel arrangements for those with the funds to pay their own way. The county received more than $6 million in advanced federal funding for the center, which is being operated by a contractor. The funding would only keep the shelter open through the end of the month.

Escobar said she has asked the administration for federally operated short-term emergency shelters for migrants who have been released from Border Patrol custody but cannot be accommodated at nongovernmental shelters. She said the temporary federal shelters would offer migrants respite for up to 48 hours while they make arrangements to travel to their next destinations. The shelters would be run by federal personnel, she added.

Escobar and D’Agostino on Tuesday also said they’ve been working with the Catholic Diocese of El Paso to open more shelter space for migrants.

Diocese spokesman Fernie Ceniceros said the diocese has been in discussions with various entities but could not yet confirm anything. He said the diocese now operates four shelters that are in desperate need of volunteers.

‘We survived the cold night’

While the discussions continue, the migrants keep arriving. 

On Tuesday afternoon, a handful of migrants chased a long white bus down Leon Street in Downtown El Paso, hoping their loved ones were among the next group released to an area shelter – or even the streets.

Migrants from Nicaragua who are waiting for relatives to be released from Border Patrol custody talk to a border agent who had just dropped off a busload of migrants at the Casa Vides shelter in Downtown on Tuesday. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

“They’re not here. It’s not them,” said a tearful woman from Nicaragua, who was waiting for her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to be released from Border Patrol custody. “This is the second bus I chase and nothing.”

She had been released on Sunday and was among a growing group of about 100 migrants setting up camps across Downtown.

Earlier in the day, El Paso police told a group of about 20 migrants who had spent the night in cardboard boxes at the Union Plaza Transit Terminal that they couldn’t stay there and that they had to throw away the cardboard. They moved across the street.

“We survived the cold night and for that we are grateful,” one woman said in tears as she folded up a blanket.

7:30 p.m. Dec. 13: This story has been updated with a comment from Customs and Border Protection.

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.