Illuminated by the lights in a glass-encased statue of the Virgin Mary and a lighted candle placed at her feet, a 47-year-old man from Ecuador read the nondescript flyer handed to him as he awoke shortly before 5:30 a.m.Tuesday.

“Did you cross the border between international bridges? If that’s the case, were you processed by Border Patrol agents or by some other Customs and Border Protection official?” the flyers read in Spanish.

For him and his two friends, the answers likely spelled the end of their months-long journey to the United States – including one month sleeping on the streets of Juarez and one week in El Paso.

“The door hasn’t opened for us,” the Ecuadorian man who declined to give his name said, wiping his eyes. He was in the country without documents, hoping for a hail Mary that would guarantee him a chance to remain here without fear of deportation. “We are cornered here without knowing what to do.”

A group of men from Ecuador read flyers handed to them by plain-clothed border enforcement agents shortly before 5:30 a.m. Tuesday asking them to turn themselves in for proper processing if they entered the country unlawfully. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

The flyer asked migrants to turn themselves in to Border Patrol for proper processing and was handed out to the man and about 750 other migrants around Sacred Heart Catholic Church in South El Paso by border enforcement agents in plain clothes. 

It marked the first step in a “targeted enforcement operation” against those who have not been processed for entry into the country that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced late Monday. The operation comes two days before Title 42 expires.

Migrants, most from Venezuela, form a line to surrender themselves to Border Patrol on Tuesday after receiving a warning of an impending “enforcement action.” (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

By about noon, at least 300 people were lined up at a CBP processing center off Oregon Street parallel to the César Chávez Border Highway – some praying as they approached Border Patrol agents and long white buses awaiting them. A stream of others slowly made their way there; some walking and others bused in by border enforcement agents. 

Wilamaris, a 20-year-old Venezuelan who left her home country five years ago, breastfed her hungry 2-year-old son as she waited in 85-degree weather alongside her husband and the baby’s godfather. El Paso Matters doesn’t identify migrants seeking asylum by their full names because many fear persecution and fear for their safety.

Wilamaris, a 20-year-old Venezuelan, with her 2-year-old son, wait to be processed by Border Patrol on Tuesday after spending several days in the streets of El Paso. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

“In two years, they’ve tried to kidnap him twice,” Wilamaris claimed, once in Ecuador where she lived a few years and again in Venezuela where she returned to visit family for a short while. The family also spent a few years in Peru and Colombia before arriving in Mexico five months ago and crossing into El Paso eight days ago. “We hope they hear our case and give us a chance to stay until we can get our court hearing.”

Enforcement actions & protections

CBP said in a press release that the agency would not take enforcement action near locations that restrain people’s access to essential services, which typically include hospitals, churches and shelters. Multiple sources told El Paso Matters that the migrants would have 48 hours to surrender themselves to Border Patrol, with the likelihood of being released to stay in the country if they don’t have a criminal record.

Ruben Garcia, founder and director of the Annunciation House, said he personally took a group of eight refugees to turn themselves in about 10 p.m. last night after hearing about the CBP plan – a symbol of the strong relationship the Border Patrol has with the community, he added.

“The credibility of the Border Patrol is on the line. I have no reason to believe they’re not going to stand behind what they say,” Garcia said. “My impression, my experience, with Border Patrol over the last few years is that they’re much more willing to work with the community; that they consider themselves as part of the community.”

Garcia said he estimated that 50% to 60% of the people at Sacred Heart and the Opportunity Center are “unprocessed” and he believed giving the migrants this notice was “really the way to go and also a way to keep calm in the city to avoid as much chaos as possible.”

Wilson, center, reads a leaflet that Border Patrol agents handed out to migrants in at pre-dawn Tuesday. The leaflet tells migrants to present themselves at a Border Patrol station for processing. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

When asked about Tuesday morning’s operation, Border Patrol El Paso sector officials referred El Paso Matters back to the Department of Homeland Security news release issued Monday night that provided few details of the operation.

El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz, who talked to migrants at Sacred Heart early Tuesday, said the plan sounded “like this might be the best opportunity they have. They don’t have a lot going for them. But these are the assurances we have received and we hope that they will have an opportunity.”

What’s next

The migrants who are processed and allowed to remain in the country legally to await their immigration hearings can then receive services at area shelters – or hospitality sites as Garcia calls them.

For Garcia, the rush of migrants into the community is nothing new; he’s been operating Annunciation House for 40 years – including the large influx of families in 2018 and 2019. What’s different this time, he said, is the community’s preparation to receive them. He said there are too many unknowns in terms of numbers to say how Thursday and Friday will play out. 

But he’s hopeful.

“Our role – as well as the city, the county and everyone else – is the same on May 12, 2023, as it was on May 12, 2019 – it’s always been about having sufficient hospitality capacity,” he said. “If refugees are being released, is the capacity there so people are not on the streets?”

Garcia said he believes with controlled releases, the capacity exists.

“If come Friday, Border Patrol releases 2,000 people a day, there is capacity. The challenge is moving them on. If we can move those 2,000 people out of the hospitality suites within 24 to 36 hours, it’s manageable.”

A bus transporting migrants drives down Oregon Street on Tuesday morning. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

He said that’s because the city, the county and an array of nonprofits have come together to find shelter space for migrants: Annunciation House and a network of about 15 church and nonprofit shelters; the city partnering with the American Red Cross and the El Paso Independent School District to stand up two closed middle schools as emergency shelters; and the county working with the Rescue Mission of El Paso, the El Paso Opportunity Center for the Homeless and other nonprofits to house people migrating through the borderland.

“We’re clearly in a much more significantly improved posture than in 2018-19 and I’m very grateful for that,” he said.

County migrant center plays key role

One of the key players in addressing the migrant influx is the El Paso County government, which last fall stood up a Migrant Support Services Center. Operated by private contractor the Providencia Group using federal funds, the center helps coordinate travel arrangements for migrants who have the funds to get to other cities. 

The county this week asked Providencia to up their staffing to accommodate up to 800 migrants a day, though the contractor can scale services up to 1,200 a day as needed.

“It is very important to have a humane process in place for these individuals sent over to us by CBP,” El Paso County Commissioner Sergio Coronado told El Paso Matters last week. “We’re confident we provide that at our migrant center. It’s our goal.”

The center has processed more than 33,000 people since opening in October, including nearly 2,870 from April 23 to May 6. The migrants processed last week were primarily from Venezuela, Columbia and Ecuador, as well as from El Salvador and Perú. Their top destinations are Chicago, Dallas, New York, Houston and Denver, county officials said.

The county has received nearly $11.7 million in federal funding for migrant operations from the federal government since October, and is pending receipt of about $19 million to operate through December.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser issued a disaster declaration effective May 1, prompting the help of the Red Cross. He and other city leaders said that aside from the school shelters, the Judson F. Williams Convention Center may also be opened to migrants if needed.

In announcing the emergency declaration on April 30, city leaders said busing migrants as it did last year would be a “last resort.” But in a news conference days later, when crowds of migrants on the streets grew from about 500 to nearly 2,000, they said they were preparing to implement long-distance busing using federal funds. 

No other details were provided at the time, and city officials didn’t immediately respond to questions from El Paso Matters on Tuesday.

Off plan at Opportunity Center

By early afternoon on Tuesday, the alleyway outside the Opportunity Center for the Homeless was largely clear, aside from about a dozen people who were standing in the alley or taking shelter in a makeshift camp set up in the employee parking lot.  

“The situation in the alley right now is night-and-day compared to what we’ve seen,” said John Martin, director of the Opportunity Center. He said there were about 225 people in the alley Tuesday morning compared to nearly 800 over the weekend.

About 225 migrants slept in the alleyway outside the Opportunity Center for the Homeless on Tuesday morning, down from about 800 over the weekend. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

The majority had made their way to the CBP facility on Oregon Street after migrants heard of others who turned themselves in, were processed and released.

But things didn’t go as planned at the center on Myrtle Street in South Central El Paso. 

Border Patrol agents did not drop off flyers at the Opportunity Center or offer to bus migrants to the CBP facility, Martin said.

Instead, he heard on a call with local officials at about 10 a.m. Tuesday that undocumented migrants would have two hours to turn themselves in to be processed. In order to make it on time, several center staffers began driving migrants to the CBP facility in their own vehicles, Martin said. 

“We were told we were going to have non-uniformed officers down here at 6 o’clock in the morning. That it was going to be purely educational and informative in nature, and many of us were here at 6 in the morning waiting, and there was nobody,” Martin said. “Everybody was caught by surprise, because we were all told of a specific plan, and everything changed by 10 o’clock this morning.”

He expressed some frustration that federal officials didn’t follow the plan they had set the day before.  

“I wish (federal agencies) would be more open and transparent with their communications,” he said.

Going forward, Martin wasn’t sure how many migrants may return to the Opportunity Center after they’re processed and receive a court date to make their asylum claim. Those who are processed and allowed to stay would have access to federally funded facilities and resources that are not available to undocumented immigrants. 

“If they truly are processed, and then receive the appropriate documents, they may return to us, which is fine. Because now we have a way of working with them, on travel and other related issues,” Martin said. “Once they’re processed, they may go directly to the county processing center, and then, if they require an overnight stay, then they may come back to us.”

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...

Diego Mendoza-Moyers is a reporter covering energy and the environment. An El Paso native, he has previously covered business for the San Antonio Express-News and Albany Times Union, and reported for the...