El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of disaster Saturday night to deal with a deepening humanitarian crisis, with thousands of migrants expected to be released to the city’s streets in coming days.

Less than a mile from City Hall, where Leeser announced the disaster declaration, about 200 migrants were preparing to sleep on sidewalks near two bus stations while they await transportation out of town. Those numbers are expected to swell in coming days, leading the mayor to take an action he has resisted for several weeks.

“The reason why we’re doing it is because I said from the beginning that I would call it when I felt that either our asylum seekers or our community was not safe,” Leeser said. “And I really believe that today our asylum seekers are not safe, as we have hundreds and hundreds on the streets. And that’s not the way we want to treat people.”

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser discussed his disaster declaration at a news conference Saturday evening. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Even with the disaster declaration, El Paso faces tremendous uncertainty on how it will cope with an expected influx of 5,000 to 6,000 migrants a day when a public health policy known as Title 42 comes to a court-ordered end on Wednesday.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, the Border Patrol used Title 42 2.5 million times to expel migrants who crossed the border illegally, without an opportunity to seek asylum or other protections allowed by U.S. law.

A federal judge last month ruled that there no longer was a public health justification for continuing Title 42, and ordered its end on Dec. 21. An appeals court upheld the judge’s ruling Friday, so Title 42 will end on Wednesday unless the Supreme Court intervenes.

El Paso has been the epicenter of a migrant influx from Central and South America in recent months. Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector have been reporting more than 2,500 daily encounters with migrants in recent weeks, five times the numbers of a year ago.

The state’s role

The most immediate impact of the disaster declaration is that it empowers El Paso officials to compel migrants to leave the streets and go to shelters. Many migrants have resisted requests to go to hotels and other shelters, often because they are waiting for family members or other traveling companions to be released by Border Patrol

Shortly after Leeser’s announcement, city vans and buses arrived at migrant encampments to offer rides to shelters. No one was yet being forced to leave the area near the bus stations, though city ordinances prevent camping on city streets.

The disaster declaration also allows the city to ask for the state’s help in sheltering migrants in El Paso, arranging for transportation to other U.S. cities, and providing additional law enforcement assistance.

It’s not clear how much assistance Gov. Greg Abbott, a frequent critic of Biden administration immigration policy, will provide El Paso as it deals with a growing number of migrants. A spokesperson for Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment from El Paso Matters.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, who also has the legal authority to issue a disaster declaration, has declined to do so because of worries that Abbott wants to politicize the crisis.

“Fundamentally, I am concerned about the governor’s response to a disaster declaration and want to ensure that nothing we do and say will have an adverse effect on our community and migrants,” Samaniego said.

State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, has been working with Abbott’s office in recent days to seek assistance. He said the state already has sent charter buses to El Paso that can take migrants to one of four cities – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Abbott’s program to bus migrants out of Texas to those cities has been criticized as a political stunt by human rights groups and Democratic leaders. The buses have been sent without notifying the receiving cities that hundreds of people were on the way. All the destination cities of Texas’ busing efforts are overwhelmingly Democratic.

Blanco said migrants will not be forced to go to a particular destination.

“There’s a form that (the Texas Department of Emergency Management) utilizes to ensure that there’s consent and that the individuals that board those buses are fully aware and understand the destination that they’re going,” he said.

Blanco said he didn’t know if Texas would work  with nongovernmental organizations in the destination cities to receive the migrants and ensure they are cared for.

Migrants from Nicaragua, Peru and other countries wade into the Rio Grande to cross into El Paso on Sunday, Dec. 11. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said the city is hoping that the state will also bus migrants to regional transportation hubs like Dallas, Phoenix and Denver so they can arrange travel to their eventual destinations. 

Blanco said the state charter contract currently doesn’t permit that, and he’s not sure if Abbott would agree to that.

He also said it’s not clear that Abbott will assist El Paso with its most immediate need – sheltering and feeding thousands of people while they await transportation to other U.S. cities.

“My hope is that the state does provide assistance with all of the requests from the city, to include temporary housing, just so folks can get out of the cold, get something to eat, and at least sleep or rest in a warm, safe place as they transition to other cities,” Blanco said.

Where to put thousands of people

D’Agostino said the city does not yet have the facilities to temporarily house the thousands of expected arrivals in coming days.

The city in September and October operated a welcome center in Northeast El Paso to process migrants, but not to provide them with overnight shelter. City spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta said the city currently has no plans to reopen the facility.

Migrants at the city’s Migrant Welcome Center plan for travel to their next destination on Friday, Sept. 16. The city currently does not plan to reopen the center. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso’s traditional network of shelters for migrants and unhoused people is at capacity. The city government has been paying for hotels for migrants. The El Paso Catholic Diocese is using three parishes to create hundreds of new beds for migrants.

The American Red Cross is sending truckloads of cots, blankets and other supplies to El Paso, said Susan Goodell, CEO of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, which is receiving and distributing those supplies.

“We had four tractor trailers of cots, blankets, and hygiene kits delivered to the food bank today. We expect another two tractor trailer loads of supplies tomorrow,” she said.

But the key need, Goodell said, is for “four walls and a roof” – places to shelter the migrants as they await transportation out of El Paso.

The disaster declaration issued by Leeser on Saturday must be renewed every seven days, and requires unanimous consent of the City Council.

City Rep. Alexsandra Annello has been the most vocal critic of a disaster declaration, and she  could end the disaster declaration with one vote. But her opposition softened Saturday after hearing the mayor’s comments.

Her major concern has been Abbott’s busing of migrants. She said migrants are assigned a notice to appear in an immigration court, and she said Abbott may be jeopardizing their ability to stay in the United States by sending them to cities that aren’t near their assigned immigration court.

Annello said the federal government has left El Paso in an untenable position, facing a humanitarian crisis beyond its own ability to address. El Paso needs all the help it can get, including from the state, she said.

“We need a plan from the federal government. We need shelter. We need transportation. The money that they (the federal government) gave us upfront isn’t going to cover that for a very long period of time,” Annello said.

Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News contributed to this story.

Disclosure: El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore is a board member of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank.

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