The U.S. Department of Defense is deploying 1,500 active-duty troops to the Southwest border to help with “non-law enforcement duties” in anticipation of the migrant increase expected when Title 42 ends next week.

The troops will be deployed for 90 days to help with ground-based detection and monitoring, data entry and warehouse support, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Tuesday. The personnel will augment the 2,500 National Guard troops already deployed to the border to assist the DHS.

“DoD personnel have never, and will not, perform law enforcement activities or interact with migrants or other individuals in DHS custody. This support will free up DHS law enforcement personnel to perform their critical law enforcement missions,” the statement reads. 

It is unclear how many of those federal troops will be stationed in El Paso. The Department of Defense personnel are separate from the Texas National Guard troops sent here by Gov. Greg Abbott under his controversial initiative Operation Lone Star in December.

While the additional federal troops will be helpful, it does little to mitigate the current situation on the streets of El Paso that are already overwhelmed with migrants who have nowhere to go, one area nonprofit leader said. That the majority here today are undocumented and generally ineligible to stay in shelters that receive federal funding makes the situation more urgent, they added.

“We are in such a stage of desperation right now we don’t know what else we can do,” said John Martin, director of the El Paso Opportunity Center for the Homeless in South Central El Paso, where some 450 migrants have set up camp in an alleyway as the center is at capacity with 200 people inside. “We are not able to sustain any real level of help based on the number of people we have needing assistance.”

On Tuesday, more than 4,700 migrants were in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody in the El Paso sector, according to the city’s migrant dashboard. The database also reported more than 1,000 daily migrant encounters in the sector, which includes El Paso and all of New Mexico; while about 7,000 daily encounters were reported across the southern border. 

The public health policy that allows the U.S. to immediately expel migrants without providing them an opportunity to request asylum, Title 42 was enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. When the public health emergency ends at midnight May 11, so will Title 42. 

That means that migrants from eight countries barred under Title 42 will be able to request asylum – including the thousands who have been waiting across the border in Juárez.

El Paso leaders said they appreciate the additional military troops assisting so that border enforcement agents can better manage the migrant influx – so long as their role doesn’t involve enforcing immigration laws.

“The assistance is welcomed,” city of El Paso spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta said in an email. “It is our understanding that they are being deployed to assist CBP with operational support at this time.”

In a video call with reporters on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said she was grateful for the help El Paso and other border cities were receiving through the Department of Defense.

“The more agents we can get back to the line of duty, the better, which is why I support the plan that (Homeland Security) Secretary (Alejandro Mayorkas) has put in place,” she said.

“We have to know who’s coming into our country,” Escobar said, adding that using military personnel in a “non-law enforcement capacity” will help get Border Patrol agents back to their mission. “We have to be able to identify every single person. And I’m a big believer in that being a component of border security.”

Escobar stressed that what’s really needed is comprehensive immigration reform, saying she will soon introduce bipartisan legislation with “common sense solutions” to a global problem. She wouldn’t divulge any more details of the legislation. 

Until then, area churches and nongovernmental organizations are working double overtime trying to mitigate the recent influx of migrants.

Martin, of the Opportunity Center, said he received six American Red Cross volunteers at the center on Tuesday after El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser issued a disaster declaration over the migrant humanitarian crisis on Sunday. The declaration is the second in six months that triggers the city’s emergency plan, including setting up shelters with the help of the Red Cross and other organizations.

Even with the help, Martin said the organization is at a breaking point.

“The individuals are coming to us desiring assistance, and with limited staff and resources, we cannot work with them all,” Martin said. He said the center is having trouble providing the migrants with three meals a day and will very soon have to resort to providing just one meal a day and snacks to hold them over as much as possible. He said the organization is hoping for more assistance from the Red Cross and the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank, especially as the migrants keep arriving.

“Put in your newspaper that we’re not here to harm anyone or take jobs from anyone,” a Venezuelan man told El Paso Matters as he helped pick up trash from the alley behind the Opportunity Center. “We’re here because there was nothing for us in our country except violence and poverty.”

A stuffed toy is among the items inside a makeshift tent housing migrants outside the El Paso Opportunity Center for the Homeless in South Central El Paso on Tuesday. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

Leeser and other city leaders on Sunday asked the public not to donate food or other items to the migrants on the streets in order to discourage them from entering the country without the proper documentation and congregating in public spaces.

Pastor Timothy Perea of New Life Faith Center and his parishioners called that message inhumane.

“They’re trying to discourage us but these people are starving and we can’t turn a blind eye,” Perea said, adding that the church fed more than 1,000 people at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Segundo Barrio on Sunday and some 800 on Monday.

“One of the main things we’re trying to avoid is that these people get so desperate, so hungry, that they start stealing.” Perea said. “Not eating also creates a lot of sickness.”

The crowd of migrants has grown from about 500 last week to more than 1,200 on Tuesday.

“There’s more people here every day and we’re all lost without any information,” said Juel, a 27-year-old Honduran who has been in El Paso seven days without being processed by Border Patrol. “Everybody tells us something different. We just want a chance to plead our case and maybe get a meal so we don’t starve.”

As Juel talked, an older woman pushing a small rolling cart with groceries tried to make her way around the migrants who crowded the sidewalks. He helped her cross the street, and returned shaking his head.

“She told me we shouldn’t be here without our papers begging for food,” he said.

Perea said also that he believes El Paso needs to remain the friendly, welcoming city it has long been, and said that he and other groups plan to continue helping as long as they could.

“They’ve passed seven countries, they got here and they’re hungry,” he said. “We have to help.”

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...