Three government-owned buildings – the city’s convention center and two closed schools – form the backbone of El Paso’s plans to respond to an even more significant influx of migrants crossing the border.

During a special City Council meeting on Friday night, Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said setting up the shelters is the next priority because no one knows when  Title 42 will be lifted and no one knows how many people will attempt to cross from Juarez into the United States. 

“As we know, there’s a lot of people in Juarez waiting to cross over. We don’t know what that flow is going to look like,” D’Agostino said of what will happen when Title 42 ends. “We are being proactive. We are setting up as much bed space as we possibly can.”

The Downtown shelter at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center was opened last week and is set up to house about 1,000 people but can be expanded to 2,000 if needed. The two El Paso Independent School District schools that will be used are Morehead Middle School on the Westside and Bassett Middle School in Central.

El Paso Independent School District employees worked to clean out Bassett Middle School in Central El Paso. The school is expected to be used as a temporary shelter for the rising number of migrants. (Christian Betancourt/El Paso Matters)

Despite the continued use of Title 42 – a pandemic public health order that lets border agents immediately expel some migrants without allowing them to seek asylum – El Paso, for weeks, has seen a non-stop flow of migrants crossing the border. 

Leana left Cuba on Dec. 8. She made her way to Nicaragua and then made the trek to El Paso for almost 20 days. She learned about the convention center shelter on Christmas  morning as she crossed and was processed. 

“There weren’t a lot of people at the shelter,” she said. “It took minutes to be let in. It was fast. When we got off the bus, we formed a line and they were guiding us and telling where he had to go. We sat down, they explained to us what the rules were and the meal schedules.”

The convention center served as shelter for Leana for a day until she was able to make her way to the El Paso International Airport to complete the final leg of her journey to Miami, where her sister awaits her.

“That is something that you go through once and can’t go through it again,” she said of her trek from Cuba to El Paso. “It was grueling. Once I got to Nicaragua I was on my own. I was asking around to find my way. I had to walk a lot. I suffered a lot.”

El Paso Matters does not identify migrants by their full name.

Additional shelters

The city shelters are needed to help alleviate the strain on the nongovernment organizations that are trying to keep up with the temporary housing demand.

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)

“We’re not alone in this,” El Paso City and County Emergency Management Coordinator Jorge Rodriguez said. “We also have all of our faith-based community that has been receiving for some time.”

At the convention center, three sections are divided by makeshift cloth barriers holding military green cots furnished with white blankets stamped with the American Red Cross logo. The shelter is divided into sections so that migrants can be separated by families, single men and single women. 

“There are also areas for them to charge their phones and eat meals,” D’Agostino said.

Logistics at the shelter are being coordinated by the American Red Cross, which did not have a representative available to answer questions during a convention center tour last week.

“They’ve been assisting us in this operation, we’ve been discussing it with them since last weekend,” Rodriguez said. “It was great to see how quickly they were able to bring their resources and their volunteers.”

The only event that was relocated from the facility was the Sun Bowl Fan Fiesta, scheduled for Dec. 30. D’Agostino said the city’s WinterFest and skating rink, which are on a plaza outside the convention center, would continue as planned.

Two private security firms were hired to help protect the migrants and maintain the facility as a safe place.

“They’ll remain here 24/7,” said D’Agostino. “We have also added additional police patrols. We have additional patrol units in the downtown area.”

EPISD employees volunteered their time off last week to clear out Morehead and Bassett schools. The city has been working to make sure the fire systems work, that the technology is in place for the internet and that the kitchen and heaters work.

City of El Paso and El Paso Independent School District employees began clearing out vacant Morehead Middle School Monday. The school will be used as a temporary shelter by the city to house the rising influx of migrants crossing the border. (Christian Betancourt/El Paso Matters)

The schools must be set up with Wi-Fi connections to allow migrants to communicate with their sponsors and family members to be able to find passage to their next destination.

The available capacity for the schools has not been determined yet. Families with children will be housed there and the migrants will be bused in and out of the schools and will be fed three meals there. 

“We’re looking upwards, maybe of 1,200 to 1,500, but only time will tell once we get in there,” D’Agostino said.

Morehead Middle School, on the Westside, was closed about six months ago and merged with another school. Workers were seen last week inside the school clearing out district property so it could be used for the expected influx of migrants in the city.

The school district is not charging the city rent for the temporary use of the schools. And the federal government is expected to provide about $10 million in reimbursement to the city.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...