Yosimar sat alone on a set of steps outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Tuesday, the sun on this 46-degree morning shining across the street. She shrugged her shoulders shyly when asked why she was in the shade and not under the warm sunlight.
“I don’t want to leave the church,” she said. Pointing down the street where hundreds more migrants like herself had been congregating in growing numbers she added, “and there’s too many people over there.”
Like countless migrants who entered the United States without being processed by U.S. Border Patrol the past few weeks, the 20-year-old Venezuelan said she fears the uncertainty of her fate in the country.
“We just don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” Yosimar said, bags of donated blankets around her and a box of fruit at her feet. “We feel stuck now because we were told not to leave or we could get caught by immigration.”
Over the last few weeks, the crowd of migrants around Sacred Heart had vastly grown and quickly spilled onto surrounding streets and alleys in South El Paso. Each day brought new groups of migrants leaning against chain-link fences and red brick facades as droves of children played with soccer balls, Barbie dolls and rocks nearby.
Police presence also grew: El Paso police, Texas Department of Public Safety and U.S. Border Patrol units increasingly patrolled the area and groups of officers walked the streets and alleys in greater numbers.
While there was worry among the migrants, there was hope that some law, some lawmaker, the president, perhaps, would allow them to remain legally in the United States – at least temporarily. By Wednesday morning, that hope was dashed.
Border Patrol agents detained van loads of migrants on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, several migrants around the church told El Paso Matters. And while it hasn’t been the first time Border Patrol, El Paso police or state troopers detain or arrest migrants in the area, this week’s detentions may mark the largest so far.
“Border Patrol agents conduct enforcement actions in accordance with DHS policy without denying access to needed medical care, access to schools by children, access to places of worship, access to disaster or emergency relief sites and other protected areas,” El Paso sector Border Patrol officials said in a statement.
Agency officials didn’t provide details on any specific actions or how many migrants were detained, but they did say they recently increased the number of agents patrolling the area “in response to migrants evading apprehension in the El Paso area.”
Border Patrol “uses a layered approach that includes patrolling the border itself, nearby areas and neighborhoods, and conducting checkpoints – both stationary and temporary,” the statement said.
Agents focused on those migrants on the streets across from the church, approaching them and asking to see identification and paperwork that would allow them to be in the country legally, migrants and area residents who witnessed the Border Patrol checks said.
“They arrived and asked people for their papers,” one 25-year-old migrant from Colombia said Wednesday morning, tears in his eyes. “From what I saw, what I witnessed, nobody was mistreated. They approached people and then escorted them into the vans. They took men, women, children – complete families.”
But there was chaos – and lots of tears, he said. He and many others ran and hid. Some like him returned to the area hours later.
“You saw the damage afterward. People were crying because they separated families. It was a hard hit. It was emotional. It impacted people,” said the Colombian migrant, who didn’t want to give his name. “We traveled for months to get here. We crossed the jungle in the Darien Gap. … We were detained time and time again in Mexico. And now we’re here only to be sent back again.”
A Venezuelan migrant who didn’t want to give his name said he had walked to a nearby store and missed the Border Patrol detentions. He returned to his spot along Mesa and Father Rahm streets to find the area nearly empty.
“They took my brother. There’s all his stuff,” the 23-year-old said, pointing to duffel bags piled on the sidewalk. “We’re told they’d be sent back to Mexico, but we don’t know where in Mexico.”
By mid-morning Wednesday, the migrants were all on the sidewalks directly surrounding Sacred Heart. The streets and alleys nearby were clear of migrants, of piles of blankets and of bags of personal belongings.
The growing crowd – and the law enforcement officers in the area – had worried some residents in the South El Paso neighborhood just blocks from the border.
“Se esta poniendo mal,” a man who lives in a nearby apartment on Mesa Street said in Spanish on Tuesday. “It’s getting bad.” The man, who didn’t give his name, said the noise, the smell and the traffic were growing worse by the day. And with law enforcement around, he added, “ya es demás” – it’s too much.
El Paso police said the department has increased its presence around Sacred Heart, where they’ve also made a number of arrests the past few days.
“The increase resulted from various complaints from migrants and area residents about drug activity and individuals attempting to take advantage of migrants,” police said in a Dec. 30 press release.
In one case, a 24-year-old Venezuelan was allegedly charging people to park at the Los Limousines bus company’s parking lot across from the church. The man fled when approached by police, who pursued and tackled him. The man was allegedly in possession of drug paraphernalia. A district court judge declined the case, so the man was released to Border Patrol. Two other male Venezuelan migrants were arrested and jailed under drug-related charges, one under a $25 bond and another under a $177 bond.
State troopers are also patrolling the area after the city issued a disaster declaration last month. The city requested state assistance with law enforcement to help patrol Downtown areas where migrants are gathering, including the streets near the Duranguito neighborhood by the Greyhound bus station.
On Wednesday morning, tensions rose between a group of mostly male migrants and two Border Patrol agents who stopped and exited their vehicle on Overland Street by the Greyhound station.
Words were exchanged before one of the agents said, “vengan,” or “come here,” in Spanish.
One migrant could be heard telling others to calm down; that if they approached the agents they could be detained and taken away. “Ay nos vemos,” or, “We’ll see you around,” one of the agents said before the two got back into their vehicle and left the area.
But it’s the South El Paso area around Sacred Heart that’s become the epicenter of the migrant humanitarian crisis.
On any given day, migrants trade sandwiches for cigarettes, offer haircuts or a shave for a few dollars, or beg passersby for work, money or information on where they can get either. Patience is waning among those who follow unwritten rules of society while others cut in line, get more than one bagged lunch or leave trash behind.
Most migrants express thankfulness for continued donations of food, clothing and blankets; while others begrudgingly say they’ve grown tired of sandwiches, apples and lukewarm coffee – and of sleeping on cold, hard sidewalks with nowhere to go.
“We need help,” a Nicaraguan woman sitting on the curb at the corner of Mesa and Father Rahm streets said on Tuesday when asked how she was doing. “We were told buses would take us to New York or wherever we want to go, but we’re still here. Do you know what’s happening?”
That frustration is palpable, including from the shy Yosimar.
Yosimar was among a group of 10 people, mostly relatives, who left Venezuela three months ago. They arrived in Mexico by train in early December and had hoped to seek asylum in the United States on Dec. 21, when the public health order allowing for the quick expulsion of Venezuelans and other migrants was to end.
But Title 42 remains in place through at least February and likely longer, causing desperation among migrants who instead entered the country without being processed by Border Patrol.
“Now they tell us it won’t be until June or July (for Title 42 to end),” said Yosimar’s partner, Luis, 24, who joined her at the steps of the church on Oregon Street on Tuesday. “We don’t understand how people from other countries could come over. Why not us?”
Yosimar, Luis and others in the group arrived in El Paso on Dec. 31. They hope to get to New York City to find work – and earn more than the $15 a month they earned in Venezuela.
“We’ll do anything, clean toilets,” said Yosimar, redoing the messy pigtail holding back her long black hair. “We want to work and send money home.”
Around the block, on Father Rahm Avenue, Josue, 32, played soccer with his 4-year-old daughter while his son, 7, strummed a guitar with a broken string. His wife was on the phone nearby, notifying family members they were still in Texas.
“He doesn’t know how to play,” the young girl says confidently in Spanish about her big brother’s guitar skills. “But he plays and sings for us.”
The boy shakes his head when asked if he could sing, then shyly hides behind his father.
“¿Qué nos va a pasar?” asked Josue, whose tall thin frame hovered over his son. “What’s going to happen to us? Do you know?”
The Nicaraguan native and his family were turned away when they asked for asylum in mid-December. They entered the United States without being processed by Border Patrol on Dec. 30 and hope to get to Detroit, Michigan, where other Nicaraguans have found work, he said.
But like Yosimar and Luis, Josue said he feels trapped in El Paso. He only has enough funds for two bus tickets and needs four – and he’s had to dip into the travel money to buy food and personal hygiene items when there hasn’t been enough donations to go around.
“Everybody here has been super nice and very generous, even the police,” Josue said, citing his son’s guitar as his most treasured donation from the community. “But we want to move on and get to work.”
On Wednesday, Josue and his children could still be seen playing by the church. Yosimar and Luis were not in their spot on the church steps; their whereabouts unknown.