The historic number of migrants arriving at the Southwest border – particularly in El Paso – has created a humanitarian crisis further complicated by the flurry of court rulings surrounding Title 42.

The public health order that allows migrants to be expelled without an opportunity to apply for asylum, Title 42 was imposed in March 2020 by the Trump administration at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Biden administration planned to end the policy on May 23 of this year after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the pandemic was under control.

Following several lawsuits and court rulings, the end of Title 42 was pushed back to Dec. 21. But the Supreme Court on Dec. 19 temporarily blocked its lifting and on Tuesday ruled that Title 42 will stay in place through at least February 2023, and likely longer.

For the past eight months, local governments and a slew of nongovernmental organizations have been scrambling to prepare for the thousands of migrants expected to arrive here when Title 42 comes to an end – all the while managing a record number of migrants who have already entered the community.

Migrants line up for a hot cup of coffee outside of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in south El Paso on Wednesday. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

Here are answers to seven frequently asked questions about the migrant humanitarian crisis on the border:

Did El Paso’s disaster declaration trigger Operation Lone Star to come here?

Mayor Oscar Leeser issued a disaster declaration on Dec. 17, setting the wheels in motion for the state to intervene in the migrant humanitarian crisis in El Paso. On Dec. 23, the City Council unanimously ratified and extended the declaration through Jan. 17. The council will need to vote to extend it again.

Mayor Oscar Leeser speaks during a joint city-county press conference on Monday afternoon, saying that local authorities will continue to prepare for an influx of migrants despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to stay the removal of Title 42. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The declaration triggered Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border initiative, Operation Lone Star, to come to El Paso, the Texas Division of Emergency Management told El Paso Matters. That includes busing migrants to “sanctuary cities” such as New York City, Washington D.C. and Chicago – but not to any Texas cities, TDEM officials said.

El Paso city officials said the state has transported about 325 migrants from El Paso to New York City and Chicago in six charters – five of them to New York.

However, city leaders have insisted that the buses are not part of Operation Lone Star. Rather, they say, the buses are state-sponsored charters sent in response to the city’s request for transportation assistance.

“Operation Lone Star, as we understand it, is a multiagency initiative between the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to address illegal immigrants. The state-sponsored buses are transporting sponsored migrants who have been processed and released by CBP,” city officials told El Paso Matters in a statement on Wednesday.

Abbott and state agencies under him refer to migrants – regardless of whether they are legally in the country after requesting asylum – as illegal immigrants.

Why are there shipping containers and concertina wire along the Rio Grande?

Under Abbott’s direction, the Texas Division of Emergency Management set up a dozen shipping containers and over a mile of fencing along the Rio Grande near the Chihuahuita neighborhood in south El Paso.

The locations were determined by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard, TDEM officials said. The containers and fencing “will remain as long as necessary to impede the flow of illegal immigrants into Texas communities,” TDEM added.

On Dec. 19, the Texas National Guard deployed 400 soldiers and dozens of military vehicles to El Paso to set up what it called “a contingency border fence.” On Dec. 22, the guard deployed 200 additional personnel and 40 more military vehicles to El Paso.

National Guardsmen stand watch at the Rio Grande west of the Paso del Norte Bridge, though most migrants shifted their crossing point eastward where a line has formed for processing, Wednesday, Dec. 21. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The guard set up concertina wire along the Rio Grande, blocking migrants who had been crossing the river and asking for asylum at a temporary mobile Border Patrol processing unit. The migrants are now being rerouted toward the Paso del Norte port of entry – or further, where many have been entering the country without being processed by Border Patrol.

City leaders have said state personnel along the border are not part of their requests for assistance.

What is part of their request, city officials said, are the state troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety. The majority of the troopers have been patrolling along the César Chávez Border Highway, which runs parallel to the Rio Grande, and in Downtown.

Do the state’s actions cross into the federal government’s authority to enforce immigration law?

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, told El Paso Matters she’s concerned the state is enforcing immigration law – or trying to. She said she asked CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller if the federal agency had requested state help or if the state had requested permission to set up along the Rio Grande. Miller said no to both, Escobar said.

At issue may be whether the barriers are placed on state, federal or private property, Escobar said.

“Frankly, what the city requested with their declaration was humanitarian support, not this,” Escobar said.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, at center, talks with migrants in Downtown El Paso on Wednesday. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

In response to El Paso Matters’ questions about who requested or authorized their presence at the El Paso-Juárez border, the TDEM and the Texas Military Department both said they were acting under state orders as part of the governor’s Operation Lone Star.

Neither department responded to questions about whether they coordinated with any local governments or federal agencies to set up the barriers, and whether the barriers or the state personnel are operating on federal land.

Earlier this month, the U.S. government sued Arizona and its governor, outgoing Republican Doug Ducey, over the placement of similar shipping containers along its border with Mexico, claiming they trespassed on federal land. Arizona quickly settled the lawsuit and has agreed to take down the makeshift border barrier by Jan. 4, the Associated Press reported last week.

Will the ‘tent city’ being set up in the far Northeast El Paso shelter migrants?

The soft-sided facility being set up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection will be used to temporarily detain and process migrants – not to serve as a shelter. Located on a plot of land along U.S. Highway 54 and Mesquite Hills Drive acquired from the El Paso Public Service Board by the Department of Homeland Security last year, the facility will be staffed by Border Patrol processing coordinators and agents as well as contracted personnel, CBP officials said.

The Border Patrol is erecting a soft-sided migrant processing facility in Northeast El Paso. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

Migrants are held in Border Patrol custody until it’s determined whether they will be expelled from the country or are allowed to legally remain in the United States to await their immigration hearings. Migrants cannot be held in custody for more than 72 hours. 

The new facility will be able to hold about 1,000 migrants starting sometime in January, CBP officials said. The agency’s first Central Processing Center in the city opened in 2020 near its El Paso Station on Gateway Boulevard South and Hondo Pass Drive. 

The Border Patrol’s El Paso sector earlier this year set up a temporary mobile processing center by the Rio Grande near the Chihuahuita neighborhood, but began demobilizing it in early December. The agency is processing migrants at ports of entry, as well as the Central Processing Center.

What happens to migrants who enter the United States without authorization?

Migrants who enter the country without being processed by Border Patrol are subject to expulsion under Title 42 or may be placed in expedited removal, the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement. Anyone who is ordered to be removed is subject to be barred from entering the United States for five years under Title 8.

A group of migrants marched from south El Paso to the El Paso County Courthouse on Wednesday. The migrants asked that they be allowed to travel to their next destination without being stopped by border agents and that they be authorized to work in the United States. Many also condemned the Mexican government for alleged mistreatment and abuse. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

Venezuelans attempting to enter the United States between ports of entry will be returned to Mexico. They will also be barred from applying for asylum under the recently implemented migration process for Venezuelans.

Why are there still so many migrants on the streets?

Migrants are arriving at the border in record numbers despite the status of Title 42: In October and November alone, the El Paso sector of Border Patrol reported more than 106,560 migrant encounters, an increase of 261% over the same time last year, according to the latest data available. Many were repeat encounters.

That has led to thousands of migrants being released to area shelters – and onto the streets when those shelters are full.

Some migrants are able to pay to travel to their next destination – either on their own or through the help of the county’s Migrant Support Services Center, which helps them arrange their flights or bus trips. Since opening on Oct. 10, the center has processed more than 25,300 migrants – including 2,375 last week alone. The county is looking for a larger facility to accommodate and assist more migrants daily.

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City officials escort migrants into the El Paso Convention Center late Wednesday night. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

The American Red Cross on Dec. 21 stood up an emergency shelter at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center in conjunction with the El Paso Office of Emergency Management to accommodate 1,000 people. Two closed middle schools are also being turned into shelters.

Those shelters are in addition to a network of about a dozen nongovernmental “hospitality sites” associated with the Annunciation House, as well as others run by the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, the Rescue Mission of El Paso and the Catholic Diocese of El Paso.

Shelters that receive federal funds cannot take in migrants who have entered the country without being processed by Border Patrol. 

That has left hundreds of migrants without anywhere to go.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Segundo Barrio has been allowing migrants, regardless of their processing or immigration status, to sleep inside its gym at night. But space is limited, so priority is given to women and children. The diocese, which runs four shelters, opened two additional churches to all migrants when temperature dropped below freezing last week. Those two will remain open through at least the end of the month.

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Several hundred migrants, the vast majority from Venezuela, congregate outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church in south El Paso on Tuesday. The church has opened its doors for migrants to sleep overnight and has offered them meals. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

The city has also stationed a Sun Metro bus near the church and one near the Greyhound bus station in Downtown where migrants are gathering to serve as “warming centers.”

Still, some migrants are choosing to sleep on the streets, saying they’re distrustful of the government and fear they’ll be turned into border agents. Others are waiting for relatives to be released from Border Patrol custody and don’t want to leave the spots they last told them they would be.

What can I do to help? 

Countless community members have stepped up to help – some by volunteering at area shelters, others by delivering food, blankets and clothing to the migrants on the streets. Others have given financial donations to organizations providing the migrants assistance.

But the need keeps growing.

The temporary shelters, or “hospitality sites,” as Annunciation House founder and director Ruben Garcia calls them, need more hands-on volunteers. And the diocese is especially in need of help, officials said.

Volunteers help welcome migrants, prepare and serve meals, set up and clean eating or sleeping spaces, sort and distribute donations, and more.

Monetary donations help with everything from paying rent and utilities to buying food and kitchen supplies, as well as helping fund travel for those without the means to pay for themselves.

Please note that the majority of migrants out in the streets don’t have any place to store or ways to carry donated items. Warm clothing, blankets, small to medium backpacks or duffel bags are useful, but donating bulky items or large, electronic or battery-operated toys should be avoided.

Here’s a short list of places where you can donate time, money or supplies:

Click here for more detailed information on how you can help.

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...