The day after President Joe Biden visited the border, U.S. senators visiting El Paso listened to local leaders propose ways to alleviate the migrant situation – from providing transportation to major airport hubs to allowing the city to shelter undocumented migrants.

While the senators didn’t share their thoughts on the specific proposals, the lawmakers acknowledged the request.

“It’s easy thousands of miles away in Washington D.C. to think we know what’s happening here, what the causes are, what the answers are, there’s nothing like coming and listening to the experts,” Sen. John Cornyn, (R-Texas), said.

Cornyn was among the senators who met with El Paso officials, representatives from non-government organizations and Texas law enforcement on Monday. The roundtable discussion included Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.).

A bipartisan group of senators meet with roundtable panelists at Bassett Middle School to learn about migration issues in El Paso, Monday, Jan. 9. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

A humanitarian disaster rapidly unfolded in El Paso last month after non-government shelters reached capacity, forcing migrants stuck in El Paso to sleep outside in frigid temperatures. While the number of border crossings has since fallen, U.S. immigration policies continue to leave many undocumented migrants in limbo in both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez

Since March 2020, immigration officials have used emergency health order Title 42 to immediately expel migrants, rejecting their legal right to seek asylum. Fearing expulsion, some migrants have remained homeless for months in Juárez. Others risked crossing into El Paso anyway without getting processed by U.S. Border Patrol.

This is not the first time the El Paso community has experienced a rise in border crossings, which come in ebb and flow. El Paso leaders asked for long-term reform, which would address future peaks in border crossings.

The discussion was held at Bassett Middle School, a vacant El Paso Independent School District school the city converted into a migrant shelter. Here are five changes they proposed to the group of senators:

Open federally-funded shelters to undocumented migrants

As the visiting senators toured classrooms in Bassett Middle School that had been converted to shelter space the rooms sat empty with rows of green cots, despite migrants spilling into the streets surrounding Sacred Heart Church just last week.

City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said the federal government either needs to set up tents on the border or allow the city to house undocumented migrants. Because the city shelters receive federal funding, they do not permit migrants to use their services if they have not been processed by border agents. This has put a strain on non-government shelters, such as the ones run by Sacred Heart Church and Annunciation House, which are allowing people to enter regardless of status.

Shield volunteers from criminal liability

Rev. Mark J. Seitz, bishop of the Diocese of El Paso, asked the senators to protect people providing humanitarian aid from liability. He said it’s not the church’s job to check migrants’ documents and volunteers have become fearful of prosecution. 

In December, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the state’s attorney general to investigate NGOs he claims are helping migrants illegally cross the border. He did not provide any evidence to support his allegations.

“We’re not in the smuggling business, we just want to make sure no one dies on our streets,” Seitz said.

In an impassioned speech, Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House asked the Texas Department of Public Safety – who were present at the discussion – if he and his volunteers could essentially go to prison for helping migrants. Facing the senators, he demanded that lawmakers confirm that providing humanitarian aid is a prosecutable event.

“The church is at risk because the volunteers are asking themselves, ‘If I feed someone who’s unprocessed, if I give someone a blanket who’s unprocessed, if I help them get off the street, am I liable to be prosecuted for that?’” Garcia said. “Shame on us, that on this day, this is even being brought up in the United States.”

Bus migrants to bigger transportation hubs

El Paso County Judge Ricardo A. Samaniego asked for support in bussing migrants to transportation hubs, as most migrants are only staying in El Paso temporarily. State Sen. César Blanco made the same suggestion last week at a preview event for the 2023 Texas Legislature session

During the height of migrants entering El Paso, many were stranded because buses and flights out of El Paso airport were at capacity. Flights out of El Paso can also be too expensive for migrants. El Paso leaders have suggested busing people to cities such as Phoenix and Houston, where bigger airports offer more flight options.

Cities in Florida and Texas are among the most requested destinations, but Abbott refuses to transport migrants to other cities in Texas. Operation Lone Star instead buses migrants to “sanctuary cities,” such as New York, Chicago and Washington D.C.

Fast track ability to work

Samaniego also called for a way that would allow migrants to work. Many migrants in the past several months have told El Paso Matters about their desire to begin working, but the bureaucratic red tape can mean months to even a year before they obtain a work permit. Asylum seekers must wait 150 days after filing their asylum application to apply for employment authorization.

Senators (from left) Chris Coons, John Cornyn and Kyrsten Sinema listen as Bishop Mark Seitz asks that humanitarian organizations be allowed to help migrants without threat of prosecution, Monday, Jan. 9. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Sheriff Ronny Dodson of Brewster County, a border region about 300 miles southeast of El Paso, also asked for some kind of fast-tracked worker program. He said restaurants are closing and small communities are dying from lack of help. 

Without work permits, many people turn to working under the table, where they are more vulnerable to labor abuses and exploitation. Jon Barela, chief executive officer of Borderplex Alliance, an advocacy group for economic development, said a modern guest worker program could bring highly needed, humane labor to the border.

Protect undocumented minors

Some of the migrants fleeing dangerous situations are children and babies, and it’s been “tragic” that the U.S. hasn’t been able to guarantee their safety, said Seitz. Undocumented minors are at risk of deportation to their country of origin. Local leaders like Barela support codifying DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States if they arrived as minors. If the Biden administration were to codify DACA, the program would have federal protection from legal challenges. 

DACA recipients can renew their permit every two years, but a “teeter totter of court rulings, presidential actions and failed Congressional efforts” have put their opportunity to stay in the United States in constant jeopardy, El Paso Matters reported.

At the end of the event, the senators held a press conference agreeing that the immigration system needs an overhaul, with Sinema calling the issue a failure of the federal government. 

“We need an immigration system that is safe, orderly, humane and legal,” Cornyn said.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...