El Paso is again seeing small groups of migrants sleeping on the streets of Downtown and South El Paso as area shelters are at capacity and migrants are “timing out” of their allowed stay.

The latest influx of migrants appears to be due in part to the El Paso sector Border Patrol – which includes El Paso County and all of New Mexico – taking in migrants from other sectors whose processing facilities may be at or over capacity. Families with children are among the first to be processed and released from Border Patrol detention.

The city’s migrant dashboard showed more than 4,400 people in Border Patrol custody on Monday – slightly more than the number of those in custody after the mid-May rush of migrants who turned themselves in to Border Patrol ahead of Title 42 expiring.

But the number of encounters in the El Paso sector have remained relatively steady since mid-May, with about 700 to 900 daily encounters, the dashboard shows. That compares to more than 2,000 daily encounters in December 2022 and more than 1,500 daily encounters in May.

The El Paso sector has been receiving migrants from Del Rio, an El Paso CBP spokesman told El Paso Matters, without providing further details. The El Paso sector on several occasions has sent migrants to other areas – most notably in December when some 6,000 migrants were transferred to other cities to be processed in what Border Patrol calls “lateral decompression.” 

The El Paso sector Border Patrol has not conducted street releases – which the agency refers to as provisional releases – since late last year, Border Patrol officials said in a statement.

A woman from Venezuela sits in an alley by Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Downtown El Paso with her 3-year-old-son on Monday. The woman and her husband were given ankle monitors after being processed by U.S. Border Patrol and allowed to remain in the country to await their immigration hearing. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

Several migrants around South and Downtown El Paso said they have “timed out” of some shelters where they were only allowed to stay three to five days but are stuck in the area because they don’t have financial means to travel to their city of destination. Some wore ankle monitors; most carried papers that allow them to stay in the U.S. legally until an immigration court hearing; a few said they crossed illegally and were in fear of being caught and deported.

“We crossed at Del Rio, ended up in New Mexico and now we’re here,” said Jovan, a 32-year-old migrant from Venezuela as he stood in line for food outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church in South El Paso on Monday. El Paso Matters doesn’t identify migrants by their full names because many are fleeing persecution.

Holding a plate of spaghetti, Jovan said his wife and 3-year-old son were inside the church gymnasium, a shelter which at the time is only taking in women and children. “I hope they already ate,” he said as he talked about his journey.

He said he and his family turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents after crossing illegally – a decision they made after trying unsuccessfully for more than three weeks to land an appointment to request asylum through the CBPOne app. From there, they were taken to New Mexico and released to a shelter in Las Cruces, he said.

The family, who doesn’t have money to pay for their travel to Chicago, said they spent five days at the Las Cruces shelter and were brought to El Paso on Thursday.

“We’re grateful that we’ve had food and that we’ve had a place to stay, even if I had to spend the last few nights out here on the streets,” said Jovan, a plumber and general construction worker. “But this is also the last night that my wife can stay inside, so we’re hoping for a miracle.”

Jovan said that miracle would be that his cousin in Chicago could come up with the money they need to take a bus there. He said he has an appointment for an asylum hearing in about 18 months, and hopes he can work in construction and not have to depend on handouts.

‘Trend changes every day’

Over the weekend, the city provided hotel rooms for 150 migrants, including 50 families; while the county began processing families in its Migrant Support Services Center that typically assists only single adult migrants. The city again set up a row of port-a-potties in front of Sacred Heart, where extra police were on duty.

Leaders from both local governments and several nongovernmental agencies said they’re working together with Border Patrol to help keep families off the streets.

Two young Venezuelan migrants challenge each other to be the first to try spaghetti and chicken salad outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

“We don’t know every night how many people are going to come,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said during a Monday City Council meeting. “We don’t know the mix – whether it’ll be families, children, single adults. The trend changes every day.”

His comments followed a presentation by emergency management coordinator Jorge Rodriguez, who said the rise in migrant families arriving at the border is partly driven by “smuggler misinformation that has created a surge in the system.”

Rodriguez said that three Downtown area shelters closest to the border – including Casa Vides run by the Annunciation House network, the Rescue Mission of El Paso, and the Welcome Center run by the Opportunity Center for the Homeless – have requested additional staffing help in the last few weeks.

“We’ve seen more than a bit of an uptick,” said Blake Barrow, chief executive director of the Rescue Mission. “It’s been pretty busy. … and the future appears will be even busier.”

Barrow said the organization is housing more than 200 migrants a night, and is considering setting up tents and cots across the street on a property it rents from El Paso Water. He said he’s looking to buy the property, which includes two buildings and a large parking lot, from the utility to expand its capacity.

“We’re expecting a big increase in the fall; this isn’t going away,” Barrow said. “We’re running out of room and you’re going to see people on the streets again if we’re not prepared.”

The Biden administration is appealing a recent ruling by a federal judge that blocked an immigration rule that largely limits asylum. That rule, enacted in May to replace Title 42, denies asylum to most migrants who don’t apply for asylum online or seek protection in a country they’ve passed through before arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Title 42 allowed border agents to quickly expel migrants from several countries without providing them an opportunity to seek asylum.

If that ruling is upheld, the border could again see a major influx of migrants seeking asylum at our door.

‘We don’t want to be here’

Sitting on the sidewalk in front of Starr Western Wear in Downtown, two Venezuelan women played with their children and asked passersby for help to buy a bus ticket to Chicago.

Most people nodded ‘no,’ others dug in their pockets for spare change. A few told them to go home.

“I wish they could see the poverty in my country, how corrupt the government is and how you’re threatened if you don’t give up half of the little money you make,” said one of the women, a 30-year-old who traveled to the United States with her two young children.

She showed photos of herself working in el campo picking grapes and kiwi, saying she wouldn’t mind working farmland in the United States as long as her children wouldn’t have to when they grew up.

For now, she and her 23-year-old friend are bouncing around shelters and hoping for help to reach Chicago, where they have asylum hearing appointments in about two years.

“We don’t want to be here on the streets any more than you want us here,” the 23-year-old said. “We’re just looking for work, for an opportunity that we didn’t have in our country.”

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...