The sounds of crowds of people talking, crying, laughing and praying around the streets of Downtown El Paso were silenced overnight Wednesday as U.S. Border Patrol agents swept up large crowds of migrants near the Greyhound bus terminal.

By Thursday morning, all that remained were sidewalks lined with piles of blankets, clothes and toys – which were thrown away by city crews who quickly swept and cleaned up the area.

It felt as if the migrant humanitarian crisis had never happened.

The Downtown area is one of two where hundreds – if not thousands – of migrants had been congregating the past several weeks, sleeping on cold sidewalks and living life on the streets with the help of complete strangers. The second area is around Sacred Heart Catholic Church in South El Paso, where migrants have also been detained the past few nights. While several hundred migrants remain there, many more have either been detained or fled the area.

The Border Patrol crackdown comes days before President Biden visits El Paso on Sunday, though El Paso sector officials said that the agency’s actions and operations have no correlation to the president’s visit.

Agency officials said they couldn’t provide information on how many migrants were detained at specific locations, but in a statement said that undocumented migrants encountered Downtown are processed no differently than those encountered at the border.

“When agents encounter a non-citizen with no documentation to show they have entered the country legally or have permission to remain or be present in the United States legally, that individual will be detained, taken into custody and processed in accordance with U.S. immigration laws,” the statement reads.

That includes being removed from the country.

A family that has been offered space in a shelter for the night gathers belongings from an alleyway behind Sacred Heart church Wednesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“To see people run, the fear in their eyes, it was heartbreaking,” a 42-year-old migrant from Colombia said in Spanish on Thursday after seeing her friends detained by Border Patrol the night before. She was processed at the border 20 days ago and was allowed to remain in the country to await her immigration hearing, she said. She’d been staying on the streets, fearful of going anywhere else.

“The way they took women, children especially, was very sad. For us as human beings who have a heart, it was very sad,” said the woman, who wouldn’t give her name in fear of retribution. She said she was kidnapped in Colombia for several days five years ago, and eventually was released. She left Colombia about three months ago.

“All we want is a chance,” she said. “With God’s favor, there will be a solution to all this.”

Biden visit, new immigration plan

On Thursday, Biden and the Department of Homeland Security announced an immigration plan that will allow up to 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the United States – if they apply from their home countries. The migrants accepted under that program would be able to work legally in the United States for up to two years.

The plan, however, would also allow for the expedited expulsion of more migrants from those countries to Mexico. DHS officials said Mexico has agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants a month under Title 42, the public health order that was to expire in December but remains tied up in the courts.

A Texas National Guardsmen on Dec. 21 speaks to migrants waiting on the El Paso side of the Rio Grande through a megaphone, telling them that it is illegal to be in this area and they must go back to Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Additional migrants would be processed under standard immigration laws – likely resulting in deportation and a five-year ban from being able to enter the country legally.

“Stepping back, fundamentally, we are here because our immigration system is broken, outdated, and in desperate need of reform. The laws we enforce have not been updated for decades,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Thursday in remarks during a Q&A session in Washington on the department’s preparation for the end of Title 42. 

“At the same time, the world is experiencing the greatest displacement of people since World War II, and our entire hemisphere is gripped with mass migration,” Mayorkas said. “The dynamics at our Southwest border have changed dramatically.”

Border agents encountered a record 2.4 million migrants at the Southwest border in fiscal year 2022, which ended in September. Migrants continue arriving at the border – including El Paso – in record numbers. El Paso sector Border Patrol officials said they recorded an average of 1,800 migrant encounters per day in December.

Shelters closed, streets cleared

Last month, nearly 10,000 migrants who had made their way to El Paso were either expelled or sent to other Border Patrol sectors for processing – providing some relief to area shelters that were already overwhelmed and overcapacity as up to 500 migrants were released to the streets on some days.

That led to the city issuing a disaster declaration last month, allowing the city to open up shelters – and triggering Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial Operation Lone Star program to set up here. But the state did not assist with shelter operations as the city had requested; nor did it provide help with short-distance busing to take migrants to cities with larger airports and bus terminals.

The state has bused just under 360 migrants to New York City and Chicago in seven different charters since the Dec. 17 declaration, city officials said. The last bus, transporting 33 migrants to New York City, left El Paso yesterday.

The American Red Cross, with the city and the Office of Emergency Management, set up the Judson F. Williams Convention Center as a temporary shelter for migrants. The shelter was deactivated on Wednesday. Two vacant schools were also prepared to serve as temporary migrant shelters – one of which on Thursday housed about 40 migrants.

The convention center and other federally funded shelters did not accept migrants who had not been processed by Border Patrol, leaving many who didn’t have the documentation needed to remain in the United States out in the cold.

Migrants from Venezuela prepare to bed down for the night on the sidewalk outside of Sacred Heart church Wednesday, unsure if police or Border Patrol will come through the informal camp during the night. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The migrants kept coming in droves, setting up encampments around Downtown and South El Paso. Portable toilets and washing stations were erected and city buses were set up for some migrants to get warm and charge their phones.

By Thursday, all signs of that were gone from Downtown. 

A couple of migrants who were allowed to remain in the country mingled with local homeless people who’ve long made those streets their sleeping quarters. 

Around Sacred Heart – where Border Patrol won’t deny migrants access to the church – smaller crowds of migrants remain, fearful for their futures as city and state police and Border Patrol units continue patrolling the neighborhood.

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...