Plans to shelter and transport an increasing number of migrants arriving at the border daily will continue in El Paso even though the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday extended the public health order that allows for the immediate expulsion of some migrants, city and county leaders said.
“We will continue to proceed as if it is being lifted,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said during a press conference at the Emergency Operations Center in Northeast El Paso. The center has been activated to centralize the region’s response to the migrant crisis.
The preparations include setting up shelters to accommodate up to 10,000 migrants in the community, several thousand likely at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center in Downtown, multiple sources who asked not to be identified told El Paso Matters. City and county leaders did not confirm any shelter locations being considered.
While shelters are set up or expanded across the city, the Texas Department of Emergency Management under Gov. Greg Abbott began busing migrants from El Paso to New York City and Chicago just hours after Mayor Oscar Leeser issued a disaster declaration, a TDEM spokesman said.
Two buses arrived in New York City on Monday, and another was on its way, while one more was en route to Chicago, TDEM spokesman Seth Christensen told El Paso Matters. About 200 migrants from 10 different counties boarded the charter buses after being picked up around Downtown, he added.
Christensen said the TDEM will not bus migrants to other Texas cities, only transporting them to cities that have identified themselves as “sanctuary cities” where migrants want to go. Migrants are not being “coerced or forced” to board the state chartered buses, he said.
Also in response to the mayor’s disaster declaration, the Texas National Guard deployed 400 troops to El Paso on Monday. The soldiers are from the Security Response Force of the 606th Military Police Battalion, which is trained in civil disturbance operations and mass migration response “used to safeguard the border and repel and turn-back illegal immigrants,” the guard said in a press release.
No details on the troops’ specific duties were provided, though Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said they could help staff the shelters.
The response to the migrant crisis will remain in place until it needs to be scaled up or down depending on the outcome of the Title 42 appeal making its way through the courts, D’Agostino said.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts temporarily blocked an order from a federal judge that called for Title 42 to end on Wednesday. The court stay will remain in effect while the Supreme Court considers an appeal by Texas and other states asking to keep the policy in place.
Sheltering a top priority
Hundreds of migrants have been released to the streets almost daily as the Border Patrol’s Central Processing Center in El Paso is above capacity and shelters are overcrowded and turning away migrants.
To keep migrants off the streets as temperatures dip near freezing, the city and county are looking at various sites to stand up temporary shelters – the largest of which appears to be the convention center not far from the international ports of entry and close to several bus stations.
Several sources told El Paso Matters that the convention center is being assessed to prepare it as an emergency shelter to be managed by the American Red Cross.
The city is also continuing to shelter migrants at two hotels, and has expanded the El Paso International Airport’s capacity to allow between 400 to 600 ticketed passengers to spend the night there if they’re scheduled to fly out of the city within 12 hours.
Leeser said the city and county are also working with the El Paso Independent School District to assess whether any of its vacant schools can be used as a temporary shelter.
The county is also still operating its Migrant Support Services Center, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said. The center assists migrants who have the funds to travel out of El Paso and has helped more than 18,000 migrants since opening in October.
In the meantime, other organizations continue to step up their work and expand capacity at their shelters.
John Martin, deputy director of the Opportunity Center of El Paso, said the organization will support a shelter at Sacred Heart Church in Segundo Barrio starting in early January.
The church has opened its doors to migrants the last few days, sheltering more than 100 migrants at any given time, he said. The Opportunity Center will help formalize the process and also allow the Catholic Diocese of El Paso to be reimbursed for its expenses through emergency federal funds.
Martin said he’s still working out details with the Diocese, and didn’t yet know how many migrants the church might accommodate.
The Diocese now operates four shelters – at the Pastoral Center in the Lower Valley, Saint Ignatius and Holy Family in South Central, and Saint Francis Xavier by the Bridge of the Americas – and is in desperate need of volunteers, spokesman Fernie Ceniceros said. He didn’t provide any information on whether the Diocese plans to set up more shelters, but county and city leaders have said they’ve been working with the Diocese to do so.
The Rescue Mission of El Paso is leasing two vacant buildings owned by the Public Service Board, which oversees El Paso Water, to temporarily shelter migrants, said Blake Barrow, the nonprofit’s chief executive director.
Both buildings are across the street from the Rescue MIssion and have working utilities. One of the buildings, which is 7,000-square-feet, will begin taking in migrants by week’s end – although migrants may have to sleep on the floor until arrangements for cots or sleeping bags are made, Barrow said.
Migrant shelters at both the Rescue MIssion and Opportunity Center will operate as subrecipients for federal funds the county has received for its efforts.
The network of more than a dozen migrant shelters under the Annunciation House umbrella are also in full crisis mode, taking in migrants as space allows when others are able to leave.
Annunciation House founder and CEO Ruben Garcia didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story, but recently told El Paso Matters that he has been working to connect with churches and faith-based organizations outside of El Paso to receive migrants.
Christensen of the TDEM said that the state wouldn’t likely provide any shelters unless the city and county, together with the area’s nonprofit organizations, first exhausted all their resources.
“All disasters in Texas are local,” he said. “When all resources are exceeded, that’s when you ask for state assistance. Before we can come in and provide additional assistance, you have to show us you’ve exceeded all your resources.”