At the height of winter, thousands of migrants on the streets of Downtown and South El Paso depended on cardboard boxes to help protect them from below-20-degree nights and freezing rainfall.

This week, as spring temperatures hovered above 80, cardboard was in as much demand to provide shade as water was to quench the thirst of nearly 500 recently arrived migrants gathered outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

“Nos estamos muriendo – de sed, de hambre, de ganas de trabajar,” said one Venezuelan migrant as he shaped a large cardboard box into a makeshift tent Thursday afternoon. “We are dying – of thirst, of hunger and of the desire to work.”

The Venezuelan was among several hundred who have made their way to the Segundo Barrio church the last few days – the vast majority without being processed by the U.S. Border Patrol and therefore not eligible to stay in area shelters that receive federal funds to operate. A few turned themselves into border agents, they said, and were granted entry into the United States to await their immigration hearing.

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About 500 migrants — the vast majority Venezuelan men — gathered outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church in South El Paso on Thursday. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

The migrants said they had spent weeks or months in Mexico waiting for the lifting of Title 42, the health policy that has allowed the U.S. to rapidly expel migrants. Title 42 is expected to end on May 11 when the COVID-19 public health emergency expires. In its place, the Biden administration has proposed a measure that would require asylum seekers to first seek protection from their home country or in a country they travel through on their way to the United States.

But with tensions rising between migrants and law enforcement in Juárez – including the fire at a migrant detention center that killed 40 migrants after guards failed to unlock the cell – the migrants said they could no longer wait in Mexico.

New immigration measures

On Thursday, the administration announced new plans to help curb the influx of migrants and reduce illegal migration at the southwest border: Opening processing centers in Colombia, Guatemala and other countries. No timeline was given, but the centers would allow qualifying migrants to legally enter the United States – or Canada or Spain.

The administration expects at least 5,000 people per month to apply to legally enter one of the three countries, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a Thursday press conference in Washington, D.C. 

Additionally, a new program for people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia to reunite with family already in the United States is also being created. Applicants will undergo background checks, and immigration agents will determine on a case-by-case basis if they are eligible for the reunification parole process. Details of the program are not yet finalized.

The administration also noted that the CBP One application that allows people to request asylum from their home countries – or from Mexico if they’ve already migrated there – will soon open more appointments with immigration agents at U.S. ports of entry.

“These measures do not supplant the need for congressional action,” reads a fact sheet from the Department of State’s Office of the Spokesperson. “Only Congress can provide the reforms and resources necessary to fully manage the regional migration challenge.”

Several hundred migrants gathered outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church in South El Paso on Thursday. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who also applauded the latest immigration measures as a step forward.

“For decades, our country has chosen to address immigration as a border-only issue, an illogical, detrimental approach that has created great challenges at the border,” she posted on Twitter on Thursday. “I’m proud the @WhiteHouse has announced the expansion of in-country processing, something I have long called for.”

She added: “While I’m proud to see this new action, it’s on Congress to act. Anything less is dereliction of duty.”

‘The border is not open’

Neither the new measures nor the end of Title 42 means the border is open, Mayorkas said, adding that the U.S. will keep enforcing Title 8. 

A section of the U.S. Code that allows for the expedited removal of migrants who are deemed inadmissible, Title 8 carries steep consequences, including at least a five-year ban on reentry and potential criminal prosecution for repeated attempts to enter unlawfully.

That message is one that Border Patrol El Paso Sector Chief Anthony “Scott” Good has been pressing, particularly as the sector reported more than 265,000 migrant encounters as of March 31 in the current fiscal year, he said on Twitter. That’s an increase of 134% over the same time period the previous fiscal year, and more than any other sector in the nation.

Good told the El Paso Times that the Border Patrol will be strongly enforcing Title 8 and plans to open a third soft-sided facility to serve as migrant processing center in June. The agency is expected to receive additional asylum officers to process people faster and will continue working with area nonprofits like the Annunciation House to manage the release of people into the community.

El Paso city leaders this week said Border Patrol will continue practicing “lateral decompression” during periods of large numbers of migrants arriving at the border: Sending them to other cities to be held and processed.

‘Between Mexico and nowhere’

El Paso migrant shelters and other nonprofits are already feeling the hard pinch of the influx – quickly running out of room, volunteers and donations to serve them.

The Welcome Center operated by the El Paso Opportunity Center for the Homeless set up makeshift camps in a nearby parking lot when it reached capacity earlier this week. The center, as well as the Rescue Mission of El Paso and other groups, is asking for donations to help.

A few blocks away at Sacred Heart on Thursday, a handful of volunteers from Keepers Kitchen: Helping Hands and Del Sol Church arrived with 15 pounds of briskets and pounds of potatoes, carrots and other vegetables to feed 250 people. 

They quickly realized it would not be nearly enough. But others came through with donations of hot dogs and water and were able to feed about 400 people.

“We were overwhelmed, but we’ll be back,” said Kerry Vogel of the Keepers Kitchen nonprofit as she helped give out bottled water to a line of migrants that wrapped around the block. 

Volunteers from Keepers Kitchen: Helping Hands and Del Sol Church serve migrants brisket meals outside of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in South El Paso on Thursday. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

Other good Samaritans dropped off more water, snacks, clothes and shoes. Crews set up blue portable toilets and yellow trash cans around the church along Father Rahm Street.

City officials on Monday said they were preparing for an expected influx of migrants, including having several facilities available to serve as emergency shelters if needed. They cited, however, that the city was largely unable to assist those migrants without the documentation to be in the country legally because they operate those services using federal funds.

Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said providing long-distance busing for migrants as it did during the last migrant influx in December was a “last resort.’

“We’re just going to help them facilitate their travels … so whether that’s emergency sheltering, transportation to the airport or bus terminal, or even to another transportation hub,” he said.

The El Paso County government, in the meantime, has been operating its Migrant Support Services Center that helps those with the funds to travel reach their next destination. The center had processed nearly 28,000 from October when it first opened through late March; it can manage about 1,200 migrants daily. The county has also set up partnerships with nonprofits and churches in the area, as well as in Houston, to help manage the migrants’ travel and short-term shelter needs.

On Thursday, groups of migrants spilled into nearby streets and alleys, trading cigarettes, shoes, phone chargers and other necessities. The majority said they are from Venezuela, though a handful said they are from southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

Some of their friends have been taken away by Border Patrol agents, they said, after police caught them fighting, smoking pot – and loitering.

“We feel like we’re between Mexico and nowhere,” said the 34-year-old Venezuelan, asking if El Paso was in Texas. “We don’t want to be in Mexico. Everyone here has been nice, but this is not where we want to stay. And some of us have nowhere to go.”

He said he arrived in Juárez about six weeks ago to wait for Title 42 to expire – or for any other law, policy or measure to allow him to plead his asylum case. 

But uncertainty, fear and desperation set in, he said, and sought safety in numbers when groups of migrants crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. through gaps in the border wall.

Around him, other migrants tell of being threatened, extorted, robbed, assaulted and kicked out of the shelters and hotels where they’d been staying in Juárez.

“We’re being persecuted in Mexico worse than in the countries we left,” the Venezuelan man said. 

A woman who arrived at the border two weeks ago crossed into El Paso with her young daughter on Tuesday without turning themselves in to border agents. She said she fled Venezuela after her mother’s house, still under construction, burned down. It was on a small plot of land the family had saved up for years to buy, she said, and still had mostly wood and cardboard walls. 

They lost what little they had, she said, and feared the fire was set intentionally by criminals looking to illegally resell the land.

Ya no pudimos más,” she said as she fanned herself with a piece of cardboard. “We couldn’t take it anymore. We had to leave, but no way were we staying in Mexico.”

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...