As Texas National Guard troops put up concertina wire along the Rio Grande riverbank in El Paso under Operation Lone Star on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to President Joe Biden demanding he deploy federal “assets to address the dire border crisis.”

“This terrible crisis for border communities in Texas is a catastrophe of your own making,” reads the letter. It also states that the administration’s “inaction to secure the southern border” is putting migrants’ lives at risk as temperatures continue to dip in Texas. Temperatures are expected to drop to 23 degrees in El Paso this week.

The guard arrived in El Paso on Monday – days after Mayor Oscar Leeser issued a local disaster declaration over the growing migrant influx – and hours after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the lifting of Title 42 that would have opened the way for more migrants to seek asylum and enter the United States.

Texas National Guard soldiers string concertina wire on the El Paso side of the Rio Grande on Tuesday, Dec. 20. The area has been a popular crossing point for migrants seeking entry into the United States. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Early Tuesday, the guardsmen began lining the river bank with their green camouflage Humvees as they installed the wire fence along the river, curving it upward toward the border wall. 

The wire fencing is meant to help reroute the migrants toward the Paso del Norte port of entry nearby, where guardsmen directed the migrants to go in order to request asylum.

Hundreds of migrants who had for days been lining up there to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents and ask for asylum dispersed back into Mexico, while hundreds more simply moved further down the riverbank and again formed another line.

Members of the Texas National Guard deploy to the banks of the Rio Grande in El Paso to block the border with concertina wire and armored vehicles, Tuesday, Dec. 20. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Border Patrol began demobilizing its temporary outdoor processing site in the Chihuahuita neighborhood in south El Paso in early December, shifting its operations to sector stations, including the Paso del Norte port of entry, El Paso sector officials said in a statement earlier this month.

Guardsmen on the river, troopers on the highway

The Texas Military Department told El Paso Matters that the 400 guardsmen serving along the border are there under state orders as part of Operation Lone Star – the controversial border security initiative launched by Abbott in March 2021 in response to increased migrant encounters at the border.

Aside from the state soldiers on the border, state troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety this week began patrolling along the César Chávez Border Highway, which runs parallel to the Rio Grande.

On Tuesday, the troopers’ black patrol SUVs and trucks could be seen parked along the highway in the Lower Valley as they directed migrants back across the border or toward Border Patrol vehicles parked nearby. 

As Border Patrol agents and Department of Public Safety troopers watch from the roadside, migrants walk along the U.S. side of the Rio Grande levee. (Ramon Bracamontes/El Paso Matters)

Several more migrants walked on the U.S. side of the levee behind the border wall – some turning back toward Mexico when they saw the law enforcement vehicles nearby and others trying still to get across an opening on the wall.

On July 7 this year, Abbott issued an executive order authorizing the Texas National Guard and the Texas Department of Public Safety to return to the ports of entry migrants they apprehend for illegally crossing the border.

“Absolutely not what I’d like to see,” County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said via text when asked about the state law enforcement agents on the El Paso-Juárez border. He added that he’s “extremely cautious” that the state agencies may begin initiatives not coordinated with the city.

Leeser, who for months resisted issuing the declaration, didn’t return requests for comment for this story. 

However, when the migrant influx began growing in May, the mayor said he didn’t call for a disaster declaration because he was concerned that doing so would prompt the governor to send the Texas National Guard to the region. At that time, the City Council instead approved an emergency ordinance that allowed city personnel and resources to be assigned to work with nongovernmental organizations that provided migrant shelter and other services.

Shelter plans remain unclear

In issuing the local declaration, city and county leaders hoped to get state assistance in sheltering migrants and busing them to regional transportation hubs in nearby cities such as Phoenix, Denver and Houston – neither of which is likely to happen.

Officials with the Texas Department of Emergency Management have said the state will only transport migrants to cities like New York City and Washington, D.C., that claim to be “sanctuary cities.” The state also will not bus migrants to other Texas cities. TDEM officials also said they’ll only assist with sheltering operations when the city, county and nongovernmental organizations have exhausted all their resources.

Migrants gather in front and around the gymnasium at Sacred Heart Church in Downtown El Paso on Tuesday Dec. 20, 2022. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

Before the Supreme Court blocked the lifting of Title 42 on Monday afternoon, city and county leaders were working with the American Red Cross to establish mega-migrant shelters, reportedly including at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center in Downtown. In a press conference later that day, Leeser and Samaniego said plans to feed, shelter and transport migrants would continue as planned.

On Tuesday, however, it remained unclear if plans to set up shelters for the migrants were still on track as the state continued busing migrants out of the region. City and county officials didn’t return calls for comment on the shelter plans.

“My biggest fear is that everybody’s going to be working in the right direction with the right heart, but the reality of it is I don’t want to see replication or duplication – we need to look at what the needs are and fill those needs,” said John Martin, director of El Paso’s Opportunity Center for the Homeless.

The city and county have been working with the American Red Cross to assist with setting up migrant shelters.

“We have moved shelter supplies to El Paso and have Red Cross volunteers on standby to support shelters established by our partners,” the organization said in an email statement Tuesday evening.

“We are also supporting various organizations providing aid to migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border and in several other cities throughout the U.S. This includes supporting organizations with services for migrants in their care by providing training and relief supplies such as cots, blankets, hygiene items, first aid kits and towels,” the statement continues. “And, depending on local needs, our assistance might also include providing food, water, comfort, health services and mental health support.”

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...