Aurelia counts the layers of clothes she’s wearing on her 5-foot-2 frame: double socks, gray warmups under a pair of men’s blue jeans, two T-shirts, a pullover hoodie and an oversized jean jacket with a wool lining – the warmest of all.
But what the 38-year-old Ecuadorian woman also counts on to stay warm is a cardboard box as big as her that she has folded to easily carry around.
“It’s the most important layer because the sidewalks are cold and this cardboard helps form a barrier,” she said in Spanish as she cleaned up her sleeping space along Leon Street in downtown El Paso on Tuesday morning.
It was Aurelia’s second night at that spot after having been processed and released from U.S. Border Patrol custody on Dec. 11 – one of nearly 500 migrants seeking asylum who could not be accommodated in area shelters that Sunday.
Like most other migrants entering the community, she has been allowed to remain in the United States to await her immigration hearing – joining thousands of others who have arrived at the border in record numbers the past few months. The vast majority do not have plans to remain here. They are headed to cities closest to courts across the country where their immigration hearings are scheduled.
Some migrants sleeping on El Paso streets could not find room in area shelters, most of which offer a few nights stay while they make other arrangements or find other accommodations. Others ran out of time at shelters and had to pack up and leave to make room for new arrivals. Some choose to stay on the streets where they were dropped off – the spot they told relatives who are still in Border Patrol custody they would wait for them.
Aurelia is surrounded by forts made of cardboard and blankets creatively linked, taped and zip tied to protect the migrants from the elements. On Tuesday, that included wind and rain that made the 37-degree night feel colder than most had experienced in their home countries in South and Central America – or on their month-long journey to the United States.
“Se sacrifica uno por los hijos,” Aurelia said.“It’s what we sacrifice for our children.”
She traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border with her husband, leaving their 15-year-old son behind with his aunt. They hope to send back money as soon as they are able to work in the United States – legally or illegally, she admitted. “It was the toughest decision of our lives, so a few more nights on the streets is part of the sacrifice we’re making for him.”
At the Union Plaza Transit Terminal a block north, El Paso police officers ask other migrants who had set up cardboard shelters to leave the city-owned building.
“We survived the cold night and for that we are grateful,” one migrant said in tears as she folded up a Red Cross blanket. She collected donated apples and oranges into a plastic grocery bag and moved across the street next to an abandoned building under construction.
Other migrants helped city crews empty trash cans, black trash bags quickly filled up a small trailer.
Media from near and far swarmed the area. Some of the migrants waved two-finger peace signs while others pulled blankets over their faces to hide from the cameras.
Back where Aurelia had been staying, a nearby business allowed the migrants to store their cardboard boxes in a work truck, so they could later retrieve them.
More migrants arrived to the area throughout the day, some sat under an overhang at the door of Fire Station No. 11, 314 Leon St.
“At least here we have a roof,” one man said.
“But if you leave you’ll lose it,” another standing nearby interjects.
By lunchtime, migrants filled a small eatery inside the Quick Mart corner store. They ordered burritos, enchiladas and tortas – their one meal for the day, one woman said.
“We’re lucky to have some money and that we weren’t robbed like so many others,” said the woman from Ecuador who preferred not to give her name. She was released from federal custody and dropped off on the streets Monday. She bought a bus ticket to Tennessee – for Wednesday, the earliest available.
It was about 3 p.m. Tuesday when a long white bus circled around Leon Street by the fire station. A few migrants ran up to it and stood by as border agents dropped off about 20 migrants at the Casa Vides shelter.
“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. She hoped they would be on the bus. “This is the second bus I chase – and nothing.”
By about 7 p.m., Aurelia again set up her “cuadrito,” or little square, on the sidewalk. Christmas lights outlined the silhouette of the home across the street. People from El Paso, Las Cruces, N.M., Juárez, Mexico, and other cities near and far drove by delivering pizzas, sandwiches, fruit, coffee, bottled water, blankets, jackets, personal hygiene items – and prayers.
“We couldn’t be more grateful,” Aurelia said. “This is the next phase of our journey and even being out here in the cold we feel blessed.”
By the Greyhound station – where many more migrants set up camp around benches, in alleys and against chain link fences that surround the boarded up buildings in the Duranguito neighborhood – stood Mario. He and a busload of other migrants had been dropped off there earlier that day.
The Ecuadorian who claims to be part of a migrant caravan that was kidnapped in northeastern Durango, Mexico, Mario said he is grateful to finally be in the United States.
“We were scared, I’m not going to lie,” said Mario, adding that he and hundreds of others in the caravan were forced into a building that resembled a party hall. Men in law enforcement uniforms took their money before being let go, he said.
“We had gotten that far and that’s not where we wanted our journey to end,” he said.
The caravan of about 1,500 people was later stopped in the city of Jimenez in Chihuahua before being transported in buses escorted to Juárez by state police. Mario and his friends arrived in Juárez on Dec. 11, and were among the first to cross the Rio Grande into El Paso to ask for asylum that same day.
“We came for the dream of pulling our families forward,” he said as his voice cracked and tears formed in his eyes. He left his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 8, behind because he did not want them to make the treacherous journey, he said.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry, but it’s freezing here and I need one,” he said as he darted off to grab a jacket from a pile of winter clothes someone dropped off nearby.
Among those leaving donations were members of the nonprofit group Grannies Respond/Abuelas Responden – a nonprofit that helped greet migrants as they arrived in New York City from cities in Texas, including El Paso.
They were in El Paso as part of the Witness at the Border Journey for Justice, a 16-day, 2,200-mile border pilgrimage from Brownsville, Texas, to San Ysidro, Calif.
“All was very gracefully received. I listened to stories of their dangerous trips through the jungle. It’s all so overwhelming and heartbreaking,” one woman on the Journey for Justice pilgrimage posted on Facebook.
She noted the stark differences of life between El Paso and across the river in Juárez, noting the beauty of the culture, murals and food in both.
A few blocks away from where the migrants gathered, holiday lights brightened up San Jacinto Plaza. Christmas songs played softly on the sound system.
Visitors enjoyed champurrado and conchas – thick Mexican hot chocolate and sweet bread – as they took selfies at the foot of giant Christmas trees and in front of a life-sized nativity scene.
Teenagers rode electric scooters around the plaza; a family played table tennis; couples strolled hand-in-hand.
Two young men parked their Porsches on Main Street in front of the plaza – where parking is not allowed – to photograph the sports cars against the backdrop of the holiday lights. Police officers on bicycles watched while the men snapped a few pics.
A group of friends at a nearby restaurant warmed their hands over the gas fireplace in the eatery’s patio, then headed indoors when a hostess called their name.
At the corner of Mesa and Mills streets, a man wrapped in a Red Cross blanket stood by orange-and-white wood barricades set up to block traffic. He looked toward the plaza.
“No, ma’am. They’re on that other side,” the man responded, pointing, when asked if he happened to be a migrant who recently arrived in the city.
Nearby, against another barrier, leans his bicycle. Tied to it with bungee cords is a rolled up sleeping bag – and folded-up cardboard.