Update, 3:10 p.m.: This story has been updated with the city’s announcement of increased law enforcement.
As Title 42 ends, El Paso’s Office of Emergency Management has again used federal funding to convert two vacant middle schools into migrant shelters.
Bassett Middle School in Central El Paso is ready and can house 1,000 people. Should that shelter fill up, Morehead Middle School in West El Paso, which also has a capacity of 1,000 guests, can start taking people in, said Laura Cruz-Acosta, a spokesperson for the City of El Paso.
Unlike in the winter when the city last opened its shelters, the emergency team will not prepare the Judson F. Williams Convention Center in Downtown El Paso for migrants unless the need arises, Cruz-Acosta said.
As of Thursday morning there were no migrants staying at Bassett Middle School. Neither U.S. Customs and Border Protection nor non-government organizations had dropped anyone off, though city officials said the first drop-off could arrive at any time.
Also, the city announced Thursday afternoon an increase in law enforcement presence throughout the county starting now. A statement from the city said the increased presence is needed because some migrants are traveling in large numbers and have been crossing streets at will, while others have gone into neighborhoods seeking shelter and assistance.
“Motorists are being reminded to take extra caution when traveling on roadways near the border and around the downtown area,” the city press release said. “The community should not pick up or try to give rides to anyone in those areas.”
Title 42 is a public health policy the Trump administration framed as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. For more than three years, the Trump and Biden administrations have used the health order to expel migrants from certain countries and deny them the legal right to request asylum. The restriction lifts on Thursday at 9:59 pm in El Paso (MST), when the COVID-19 public health emergency expires.
In mid-April, a large number of people began crossing the border and camping outside Sacred Heart Church and the Opportunity Center for the Homeless in El Paso. By May 8, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people slept on the streets as humanitarian organizations scrambled to feed and shelter people.
Many of the people who were undocumented have since left the sidewalks to surrender themselves to U.S. Border Patrol for processing – with the likelihood they can remain in the country legally to await their immigration hearings if they do not have a criminal record, according to CBP. Those with processing documents can now use the city’s and county’s federally funded migrant services.
CBP did not respond to El Paso Matters’ questions about how many people turned themselves in during the “targeted enforcement operation” and whether border agents transported migrants off the streets to any facilities.
Why couldn’t El Paso open its migrant shelter sooner?
City officials expect CBP and humanitarian organizations – such as Annunciation House and the Opportunity Center for the Homeless – to transport people to the shelter, but aid groups can also contact the Office of Emergency Management for city employees to pick migrants up.
The shelter could not open sooner because the facility was not ready and NGOs have been handling people who’ve been processed, said Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino at a press conference on Wednesday. Many of the migrants who arrived in the past few weeks, as well as in December, did not present themselves to border authorities for processing – meaning they went around the border checkpoints and the city could not legally shelter them using federal funding, D’Agostino said.
CBP is not present in the shelter, so people who are undocumented cannot come to the facility for processing, he added.
Bassett Middle School is also not zoned to operate as a shelter, so the city could not begin its migrant operations there until Mayor Oscar Leeser declared the state of emergency on April 30, Cruz-Acosta said.
Leeser last declared a disaster on Dec. 17, 2022, after border enforcement agents released migrants hundreds at a time into the streets from September through December. The city opened a shelter at the Downtown convention center, followed by the Bassett Middle School shelter in late December. By then the number of migrants arriving in El Paso plummeted and Bassett Middle School ceased operations within two weeks after low occupancy.
Who is funding and running the El Paso migrant shelter?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is completely funding the city’s migrant services, Cruz-Acosta said. City employees with support from the American Red Cross oversee the operation, while eight contracted security guards are posted at Bassett Middle School.
The American Red Cross has provided cots, which are set up in the school gymnasium and classrooms. Services include meals and transportation out of the city.
El Paso received $12.6 million from FEMA last week to fund the emergency response, in addition to $14.4 million earlier this year. The city requested $40.2 million in total, which will likely come in pieces, Cruz-Acosta said.
In the past, the city partnered with hotels for additional shelter, but as of Wednesday the city is not actively using hotel space, said Enrique Dueñas-Aguilar, a spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management. The city is also not contracting Endeavors, an emergency shelter provider, this time, he said.
Under Leeser’s last disaster declaration, the city signed a $1.5 million contract with Endeavors, despite a federal investigation that found the company did not meet health care protocols and spent millions of dollars on unused hotel space, including in El Paso, in its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
How is El Paso transporting migrants out of the city?
Migrants who have a U.S. sponsor likely have the financial means to purchase a plane or bus ticket, D’Agostino said.
Case workers at the city’s “welcome center” in Northeast El Paso will help people purchase their tickets. City officials expect migrants to stay one to two nights at Bassett Middle School as they await transportation to their desired destination. The city will deploy Sun Metro buses to take people to El Paso International Airport and the bus stations.
El Paso will also send people on charter buses to larger transportation hubs, where there are more flights and possibly cheaper plane tickets, said Jorge Rodriguez, the emergency management coordinator for the city and county. The city already partnered with Houston to transport migrants there, and is discussing additional routes with Dallas, Austin and Denver leaders, Rodriguez said.
People who do not have a sponsor or financial means may be transported on a charter bus to popular destinations, including New York City and Chicago, D’Agostino said. Tens of thousands of migrants have made their way to New York in the past year, where many remain in limbo without a work permit or permanent housing.
Will the new immigration rule reduce the need for migrant services?
On Wednesday the U.S. Department of Homeland Security finalized a new rule that could curb the number of asylum seekers entering El Paso.
The United States will deny people asylum at the border if they do not first register through the government’s online app – which migrants described as largely dysfunctional – or seek protection in a country they previously passed through.
The restriction goes into effect when Title 42 expires. Rodriguez said on Wednesday the city is still assessing information but does not yet know the full impact of the policy.