Area nongovernmental organizations are again sounding the alarm on a humanitarian crisis looming at El Paso’s doorstep – fearing U.S. Border Patrol will soon have to release hundreds of migrants to the streets as holding facilities and shelters are bursting at the seams.

Many migrants have already been sleeping on sidewalks, alleys and other public spaces in Downtown, South and South-Central El Paso – some for several weeks – as they time out of shelters or are turned away because of lack of space.

“We’ve lost track of what capacity means,” said Blake Barrow, chief executive director of the Rescue Mission of El Paso, which shelters migrants alongside the area’s homeless. “We are beyond full.”

The El Paso Border Patrol sector is encountering an increased number of migrants, including Wednesday when several small groups crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso and requested asylum at the border wall. Many didn’t make it across, thirsty and begging for water as they walked along the Rio Grande before approaching Texas National Guard troops who stood behind the concertina wire blockade and shouted, “Push them back!”

A Texas National Guardsman is on alert as a group of migrants approaches the Rio Grande near the X in Juárez on Wednesday, Sept. 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Adding to that, the El Paso sector is also receiving migrants from other sectors – Tucson and Del Rio – in what Border Patrol calls lateral decompression, agency officials in El Paso confirmed. Border Patrol officials, however, didn’t respond to El Paso Matters’ inquiry about how many people in custody are transfers from other sectors.

Those who are processed by Border Patrol here are released to shelters across El Paso and southern New Mexico or to the county’s Migrant Support Services Center, which helps arrange travel for those with money to pay their own way. Some end up temporarily staying in hotels, which the city pays for with federal funding while it looks to open an emergency migrant shelter at a vacant middle school. 

Numbers on the rise

The average number of migrants in custody in the El Paso sector has fluctuated between 4,000 to more than 5,500 daily the past five weeks, leading to the Border Patrol releasing between 2,000 to 3,600 migrants from custody a week in that same time period, according to the city’s migrant dashboard

Border Patrol officials said the data on the dashboard doesn’t originate from the agency and couldn’t confirm those figures, stating only that the daily average encounters in September are at 957.

The dashboard, which local governments and nongovernmental organizations use to gauge trends in migration through El Paso, showed nearly 5,600 migrants were in Border Patrol custody on Tuesday, when agents encountered more than 1,300 migrants and released about 780. 

On Wednesday, Border Patrol released nearly 950 people, about 360 of whom were taken to the county’s migrant center, according to several sources who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to discuss the numbers publicly.

About 780 were taken to shelters across El Paso, as well as Deming and Las Cruces in New Mexico. About 170 others had been processed under the CBP One app, and were either taken to a Las Cruces shelter or released on their own because they had resources to pay for their own stay and travel.

Migrants sit on the sidewalks near Sacred Heart Church on Wednesday, Sept. 13, as authorities say El Paso shelters have nearly reached capacity again. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

But by 5 p.m. Wednesday, about 54 families – 170 people – still needed placement, several sources told El Paso Matters, and were taken to hotels.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in an email response said the Department of Homeland Security is working to “quickly decompress the areas along the Southwest border, and safely and efficiently screen and process migrants to place them in immigration enforcement proceedings consistent with our laws.” 

That includes deploying enhanced automated processing systems and surging resources such as soft-sided facilities, mobile processing units, medical screening personnel, contract data entry specialists, contract air and ground transportation, and Border Patrol processing coordinators, the statement continued.

‘Comiendo puras moscas’

Despite those resources, the wave of migrants in the community has been building up for weeks.

With the increased encounters and lateral transfers, more migrants are being released to area shelters. But because many are families from Venezuela who don’t have resources to travel out of El Paso, they stay in the region longer.

Some migrants around Sacred Heart, many with babies and toddlers, on Wednesday said they timed out of shelters. Others were turned away at shelters that were already over capacity. A few women opted to stay outside with their male companions who weren’t allowed in shelters that were giving priority to women and children. 

Ya llevo dos dias comiendo puras moscas,” one migrant said as he walked away from the food line outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church when meals ran out. “For two days I’ve eaten nothing but flies.”

The man didn’t want to give his name, but said he’s been in El Paso for about a week and has slept outside three days. A man who walked beside him shouted, “five for me!”

Volunteers at Sacred Heart Catholic Church hand migrants plates with small servings of pasta and tortilla chips on Wednesday. (Cindy Ramirez / El Paso Matters)

“We’ve been out in this heat and endured some rain at night. We kind of wish we had a little rain now,” said Jon, a 32-year-old Venezuelan, as he sat under a tree seeking shade from the 88-degree weather.

Salsa music played on a small battery-operated radio as some migrants danced. Others sorted through clothes and handed out snacks a passer-by dropped off.

“They don’t particularly bother me, but it’s been almost a year of this and sometimes it gets to be too much,” said Jose Torres, who has lived across Sacred Heart for 15 years. “They’re everywhere again.”

The Welcome Center in Segundo Barrio, run by the El Paso Opportunity Center for the Homeless, on Tuesday night sheltered nearly 180 people – about 60 above capacity – and turned away dozens more. 

“We had about 30 single males sleeping outside last night,” Opportunity Center Director John Martin said. “We’re just out of room.”

Sacred Heart took in about 180 people and the Rescue Mission about 240, both surpassing capacity.

“The need is now,” Martin said. “We need a space that can accommodate 400 to 500 beds. If we decompressed now, we would have 250 beds filled and the rest, rather soon.”

County focusing on travel

County Commissioner David Stout said that the city and county in “numerous conversations” had decided that the county’s “lane” would be providing transportation assistance to migrants. The city’s “lane” would be shelter services to augment the nongovernmental organizations.

“The local shelter networks have been telling us they’re overcapacity and are hoping the city will step up and play a larger role in sheltering,” Stout said.

He said the county will continue to assist in processing migrants for travel for as long as funding allows, but doesn’t know what the city is planning.

From Aug. 14 to Wednesday, the county’s migrant processing center had assisted more than 4,860 people, about 57% of them Venezuelans, Stout said. About 340 of them were chartered to Houston under a partnership with the Catholic Charities Organization there.

The county, using federal funds, has just under 40 contracted workers at the center who can assist up to 600 people per day. The center can scale up to serve up to 800 people a day if necessary, Stout added.

County officials said the county has just over $16 million in federal funding available for the migrant response through December and has applied for $15 million more to run through September 2025.

Stout said the city has “a lot more money” but hasn’t been upfront on how they plan to spend it.

Martin and Barrow echoed that sentiment.

“I would like the city to be more transparent about their short- and long-term plans,” Martin said. “I’m concerned not just about the migrants, but about the local homeless population that will start needing shelter in late October when the weather starts changing.”

Barrow said he hopes the city quickly sets up an emergency shelter, saying the city is the only entity that has building space and funding available for it.

City officials didn’t respond to El Paso Matters’ request for comment.

The city has about $25 million in federal funds to spend on migrant services by Dec. 31, Jorge Rodriguez, coordinator for the El Paso City and County Office of Emergency Management, said during a Tuesday City Council meeting.

City looks to manage shelter

The city has applied for another $10 million in federal funds that will be available in January, he added.

On Tuesday, several city leaders reiterated that the city is focusing on hotels to help shelter migrants when nonprofits are full.

“As of this weekend, we’ve opened up a second hotel to help support sheltering needs during this period,” Rodriguez said. “That’s primarily to help Customs and Border Protection decompress their Central Processing Center.”

He said the city took in 160 single adults into hotels on Monday, and another 100 on Tuesday.

Interim City Manager Cary Westin said the city has been “judicious and smart” about using federal funds to pay for the hotel stays, saying the city can up capacity “if we have a short-term surge” of migrants.

The city is negotiating the purchase of the vacant Morehead Middle School on the West Side to use as an animal shelter – and an emergency migrant shelter, Mayor Oscar Leeser said at an Aug. 14 City Council meeting. 

He didn’t give further details, including how the city plans to pay for the building. The city at the time told El Paso Matters it did not have a timeline for the purchase, but didn’t respond to a request for an interview on the matter. They also didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

During a Tuesday council meeting, Leeser cut short city Rep. Alexsandra Annello’s questions about migrant shelter operators’ concerns that street releases are imminent.

Leeser reiterated Rodriguez’s report that the city is providing hotel rooms, assisting with bus transportation from the Border Patrol processing center to the county’s migrant center, and assigning city staff to some nongovernmental organizations to help run their shelters.

“Our number one priority is the safety of our community and our number one priority is that there is no street releases,” Leeser said, “and if there’s going to be, we need to know prior to so we can prevent it.”

El Paso Matters photographer Corrie Boudreaux contributed to this story.

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...