In El Paso, where more than 2,000 migrants were crossing into the U.S. just about every day in December, city and county leaders worked with the local diocese, the Red Cross and nonprofits to feed, shelter and protect the new arrivals.

In Laredo, Texas, officials work not only to shelter the migrants who attempt to enter but also to immediately connect them with legal advisors so that they may seek asylum.

And in Yuma, Arizona, migrants are quickly referred to nonprofits that help them continue to their next destination.

The scenes across these three cities are typical of what has been happening along the U.S.-Mexico border for the past year, as unrest in several Central and South American countries has put thousands of migrants on a path to the United States. The Department of Homeland Security reports that between January and September 2022, close to 2.4 million encounters with migrants occurred along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Now, with Trump-era pandemic restrictions known as Title 42 expected to possibly expire in February, cities along the Southern border are continuing to strategize and prepare for another influx of migrants.

During a special El Paso City Council meeting on Dec. 23, Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said the city must be prepared when Title 42 is lifted.

“As we know, there are a lot of people in Juárez waiting to cross over,” D’Agostino said of the Venezuelans and other migrants who are stuck in Juárez for the chance to request asylum in the U.S. when Title 42 ends. “We don’t know what that flow is going to look like. We are being proactive. We are setting up as much bed space as we possibly can.”

A Red Cross volunteer sets up cots at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (Christian Betancourt/El Paso Matters)

The Title 42 border policy, initiated by former President Donald Trump in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic and later expanded by the Biden administration, allows border agents to immediately expel many migrants without providing them the opportunity to seek asylum. The policy was set to expire on Dec. 21. On Dec. 19, the Supreme Court ordered that the restrictions remain in place until it hears arguments in the case in February.

Even though the expiration is on pause, officials in these border cities say they are continuing with preparations for the end of Title 42.

Using vacant government buildings 

El Paso continues operating under a disaster declaration issued on Dec. 17 by the mayor and extended by City Council on Dec. 23. The order was extended for 30 days to help keep migrants off the streets. The emergency declaration prompted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to send 400 soldiers with the Texas National Guard to the city. 

The Judson F. Williams Convention Center was set up to accommodate 1,000 migrants and can be expanded to 2,000 if needed, city officials said. The American Red Cross set up these shelters with assistance from the city and the El Paso Office of Emergency Management.  The capacity of the two vacant El Paso Independent School District schools – Morehead and Basset Middle Schools – that will be used has not yet been determined, but city officials expect the schools to accommodate similar numbers. All shelters have been closed but are ready to be reopened if needed.

These government-owned buildings, together with the county’s efforts to help arrange transportation for hundreds of migrants a day, form the backbone of El Paso’s administration’s plans to respond to the eventual end of Title 42. The local governments’ preparations are in addition to the migrant shelter and assistance programs that a slew of nongovernmental organizations have provided to the new arrivals for decades prior to this latest influx of migrants.

Among other groups, the Annunciation House and its network of more than a dozen shelters provide temporary housing and support for migrants and refugees; the Catholic Diocese of El Paso runs five migrant shelters; El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank provides meals; Opportunity Center for the Homeless provides shelter, clothing and toiletries; and the Rescue Mission of El Paso and the Sacred Heart Church provide dinner and overnight stays for migrants.

In Laredo, NGOs lead the way, ‘praying that all works out’

In the City of Laredo, Fire Chief Guillermo Heard serves as the emergency management coordinator. He said the community has an efficient system where most of the releases by DHS in the city are happening at a soft-sided facility in South Laredo.

“Our local non-governmental organizations coordinate the transfer to their centers for respite care and for their travel to their final destination,” he said. “Laredo NGOs have assisted over 100,000 migrants this year.”

The Catholic Charities Diocese of Laredo serves as a decompression zone for migrants entering through Eagle Pass, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley, and Arizona at their La Frontera Shelter on 1901 Corpus Christi St.

“We expect an increase of migrants arriving at the border either at the bridge or crossing the river,” said Rebeca Solloa, executive director of the organization, about the lift of Title 42. “We hope that they will present themselves at the ports of entry bridges. The Mexican border cities have had many immigrants residing in their cities waiting for the lift of Title 42.”

The shelter can host from 500 to 700 people during the day and 250 overnight. It serves as a respite place for migrants to receive food, travel snack bags, showers, change of clothing, internet connection to contact their families and overnight stays if needed.

Crews on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, clean up portable toilets and wash stations on Chihuahua Street in Downtown El Paso where migrants had been congregating in growing numbers for weeks. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

“We communicate with them to determine their most immediate needs and find ways to resolve them,” said Solloa. “The migrants arriving at our shelter will see that there are caring staff and volunteers to help them with their onward journey. (We offer) case management to help them plan their travel to their final destination, transportation to the local terminals for their departures, and personal attention for specific needs.” 

Heard said no emergency declaration has been issued in the city, and officials have been in constant communication with federal, state and local partners to prepare for the expiration of Title 42 and any possible aftereffects in the community.

“The city will continue coordinating with local stakeholders to provide assistance to the migrant population through our local NGOs,” he said. “We have been coordinating with them on a possible expansion of their shelters.” 

The city, Heard said, does not run any shelters or other services for migrants.

“Currently, our local NGOs are the only ones providing services to the migrants,” he said. In 2020, the City of Laredo received funding to assist in migrant operations; the city has requested further assistance for 2023. “Our role is to provide assistance to all community members in need, including visitors.”

The hope for Solloa is that the influx of migrants, whenever Title 42 is lifted, happens in an orderly manner to ensure migrants receive proper care and attention to their asylum requests: Migrants should be prepared to walk across the bridge into the U.S., pass through a point of entry, provide contact information for expected sponsors, and travel to their destination based on discussions with their sponsor. 

“Each time we learn about the lifting of Title 42, we start preparing with getting the necessary staff, food, clothing, etc., ready. So we will continue to put our plan in place for the lift of Title 42 and hope and pray that all works out well.”

Yuma: ‘Nowhere to surge’

The City of Yuma, which borders Mexico with San Luis Rio Colorado and Algodones, has a population of about 100,000. Every day, Mayor Douglas Nicholls told Next City, about 1,000 migrants come through the border, “the majority of which are then interdicted by border patrol.”

A “very low percentage” of these migrants are asylum seekers, he said. “They are pushed through the regular system, and then most of them are released upon their own reconnaissance for a future court date for removal or asylum protection if they end up seeking that at a later date.”

On Dec. 20, DHS began releasing individuals into the city of Yuma, which hasn’t been seen since March 2021. That day, the Yuma sector — which encompasses 181,760 square miles between California and Arizona — was anticipated to release 50 migrants to the city streets, Nicholls said. 

“This sector has the highest ‘in custody’ numbers in the nation right now, and there does not appear that additional resources are coming to assist,” he said. “The releases beginning [Dec. 20] may be a daily occurrence.”

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

As migrants are released from the Department of Homeland Security, they are turned over to the nonprofit Regional Center for Border Health. The group organizes migrants’ passage out of the city and to their ultimate destination. At the moment, Nicholls said, that means bus rides to airports in other cities. 

Yuma serves as a transit point for migrants making their way to their ultimate destination. Regional nonprofits try to get them on their way within a day.

“Sometimes it takes two days, but they’re trying to prevent having to shelter people,” Nicholls said. “The nonprofit here does an amazing job. The process, right now, is about 350 people a day. The city doesn’t provide any sort of food or housing or medical care, or any of those emergency services like that. We rely upon the nonprofit to take care of it or, more importantly, the federal government to take care of it.”

The influx of migrants coming through cities should be a problem the federal government deals with, not the communities where they cross, according to Nicholls: “The cities will do what we can to assist. But the federal government needs to own that issue and not try to push it off on the cities, towns, and counties.”

At this point, Nicholls said, Yuma is “just beginning to see…what we saw a year ago, and that is people walking through the community without going through border patrol.” Such cases, he says, are starting to tick up.

Nicholls said he does not expect an influx of migrants through the border in Yuma if Title 42 is lifted since Yuma doesn’t encounter many asylum seekers.

“The situation here is different than in most of the other parts of the country,” he said. “Only about 10%, or about 100 people a day, are qualified for Title 42 repatriation. So when Title 42 goes away, we’re not going to see a dramatic change if the numbers don’t shift.”

Problems would arise, according to Nicholls, when the numbers of those being processed grow so the city can’t handle it and they do not receive help from other towns since most of their encounters are sent to be processed at other DHS locations in El Centro, San Diego and Tucson.

“Those sectors have between 40-60% of their populations that are Title 42 eligible,” he said. “So when those people start coming back through, those systems won’t have the capacity to take from Yuma. So we won’t have anywhere to surge to help with the flow. That’s going to be the dramatic negative impact here in Yuma.”

Yuma has been under a disaster declaration since Dec. 9, 2021. The County of Yuma enacted a disaster declaration on Dec. 14, prompting Nicholls to meet with the state and federal government officials to request aid. 

“After the meeting, I was provided a copy of the plan for the response to Title 42 terminating,” he said. “The plan remains extremely vague and inadequate at this time despite having asked for the plan about two years ago. The plan also focuses on moving migrants through the system faster to release into the U.S., not focusing on the reduction of the flow and curtailing these record numbers.”

Nogales, Arizona: ‘Stretching our capacity to love’

In the city of Nogales, which shares the same name both in the U.S. and Mexico, the Kino Border Initiative is preparing to welcome migrants by offering an array of services to support holistic accompaniment. The organization’s services include daily meals, clothes, first aid, psychological and pastoral accompaniment, social workers, and job and employment support through their Livelihood Project.

Volunteers serve coffee to migrants outside of Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Tuesday. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

“We are confident that we can come together as communities and a society to provide welcome and a just process for people who have been stranded at the border by Title 42,” said Joanna Williams, Executive Director of the Kino Border Initiative. “We look forward to the opportunity to continue to stretch our capacity to love our neighbors.”

A partnership with Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project allows Kino to offer legal assistance in both countries. “We also work with migrants to advocate for more just and humane immigration policy change in the U.S. and in MX,” said Kino Director of Communications Gia Del Pino.

Del Pino shared the story of Elena – a mother from Mexico seeking asylum with her children – with whom the organization works.

“I watched the news and felt great joy for my children and me,” Elena said. “If they remove Title 42, it will benefit all the migrants who are here without work, living in the streets and in danger. Since I left my town, I have been in danger, and so are my children. Here in Nogales, they already robbed me. They already tried to take my child from me. I am waiting for the government’s response.”

This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

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,...