Hundreds of migrants who entered the country without being processed by Border Patrol  are not being allowed in El Paso shelters that receive federal funding, including the city’s convention center. 

The Catholic Diocese of El Paso and Annunciation House are opening two facilities to help migrants who primarily come from Venezuela – but only for a few days starting Thursday night.

Those two temporary shelters will open to all migrants regardless of their immigration or processing status for the next few nights when temperatures will dip to 24 degrees, an official with the diocese confirmed. The official did not say how many people the shelters would accommodate.

The city opened up the Judson F. Williams Convention Center in Downtown to migrants on Wednesday, with about 200 people spending the night. Set up as a temporary shelter by the Office of Emergency Management and the American Red Cross, the convention center has about 1,000 cots set up. It can be expanded to accommodate up to 1,500 people.

“All individuals in our community must abide local, state, and federal policies and laws,” an email statement from the city reads. “We also must follow the same policies and laws.”

The statement said city officials could “connect” undocumented migrants with U.S. Customs and Border Protection “to begin the processes to enter our community.” The spokeswoman didn’t respond to follow up questions on how that was being done.

Migrants, many of them from Venezuela, pass the time on the sidewalk near Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Wednesday, Dec. 21. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Most of the migrants who crossed without being processed by Border Patrol are Venezuelans who expected Title 42, the public health policy allowing the U.S. to expel migrants, to be lifted on Wednesday. The Supreme Court on Monday extended the policy, which if lifted would have allowed the Venezuelans to legally seek asylum.

If Venezuelans and migrants from some other countries turn themselves into Border Patrol after crossing without processing, they will likely be expelled under Title 42.

The people who have been processed by Border Patrol agents and allowed to enter shelters are often migrants excluded from Title 42 expulsions because they are from Nicaragua and other countries not subject to that public health order. Venezuelans were generally excluded until October, when the Biden administration expanded the policy to cover citizens of that country. 

‘The need is overwhelming’

The diocese has four migrant shelters, but those only receive migrants who have been processed through Border Patrol.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Segundo Barrio, just blocks from the border, is not considered one of the four official diocese shelters. But in the last few days, it has been inundated with migrants looking for a hot meal and a place to stay. The church opened its gym to migrants on Dec. 13.

“We’ll try to fit in as many as possible while keeping things safe and comfortable,” said the Rev. Rafael Garcia, the church’s pastor.

Among them are Jesus and his wife, Miriam, who arrived in the United States on Wednesday. They crawled through a hole in the border fence. Both slept on the street that night.

Hundreds of migrants wrapped around the outside of Sacred Heart Church in Segundo Barrio on Thursday, Dec. 22, hoping they’d get to spend the night inside the church’s gym. (Daniel Perez/El Paso Matters)

“It was really cold,” Miriam, 33, said Thursday afternoon, adding that she hoped they would be among the relative few who can sleep inside the church gym. 

The church opens the doors at 6 p.m. nightly and the guests must leave at 8 a.m. the next morning, Garcia said. Migrants are fed dinner and breakfast. The church has been filled to capacity, accommodating about 130 people, but may squeeze in more if needed.

“This is a hectic time for us. I hope other institutions do something similar,” Garia said as hundreds of migrants wrapped around the church. “The need is overwhelming. I don’t know how long we can help.”

‘Politics aside’

That frustration was being felt by other organizations trying to help.

“We’re in strong disagreement with the city on this,” said John Martin, executive director of the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, referring to the city turning away migrants who entered the country without being processed by Border Patrol. “The need right now is for the undocumented.”

Martin said he understands the city is likely only offering shelter for the migrants with Border Patrol paperwork in order to be reimbursed by the federal government for its expenses. 

Many of the migrant shelters, primarily those run by the city and the Office of Emergency Management, either receive advanced funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or are reimbursed for their expenses.

Those funds, part of FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, can only be used to assist migrants legally in the country.

Martin said he’s had to turn away migrants arriving at the doors of both the Opportunity Center and the Welcome Center, formerly a farmworker’s shelter that this August was transforming into a homeless shelter.

About 140 homeless people – primarily migrants – spent Wednesday night at the Welcome Center, whose capacity is typically 85 people, Martin said. The Opportunity Center has room for 120 but Martin said he accommodated more than 290.

“Politics aside, these people need to be inside the next few nights,” Martin said, adding that he fears anyone sleeping outdoors in below-freezing temperatures may not wake up the next day. 

‘Pero, ¿porque?’

On Wednesday evening, migrants stood in an orderly line along Overland Street near the Greyhound bus station Downtown. They held all their belongings closely – including their documents from immigration officials providing they were in the country legally.

YouTube video
Pastor Joel Palomino of Iglesia Roca y Potencia, a Christian church in South- Central El Paso, prayed over migrants on Wednesday, Dec. 12. He especially blessed Venezuelans who were in El Paso “without papers.” (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

Staff with the Office of Emergency Management escorted the migrants – many of them families with babies and young children – a few blocks up toward the back of the convention center.

Those who entered the country without being cleared by Border Patrol and were not allowed into the shelter tried to emotionally cope with what some expected would happen.

Ni modo,” one man said in Spanish. “Oh, well.”

Pero, ¿porque?” another said in anguish, asking “But, why?” as others comforted him.

Pastor Joel Palomino of Iglesia Roca y Potencia, a Christian church in South-Central El Paso, prayed over migrants. He especially blessed Venezuelans who were in El Paso “without papers.”

“God opened the way for you here,” he said, urging the migrants not to be discouraged at this phase in their journey. He also told them not to become so desperate that they do “wrong and evil things.” Instead, he said, they should pray and remember why they left everything they had behind to come here.

Migrants of different nationalities kneeled around him and raised their hands in prayer – some as tears ran down their faces.

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...