After having to shelter 700 migrants in local hotels in one day last week, the city is setting up an emergency “overflow” shelter at Nations Tobin Recreation Center in Northeast El Paso.

City officials in an email Monday said they didn’t anticipate having to use the facility on Railroad Drive and are setting it up “out of an abundance of caution.” They didn’t say how many people it might accommodate or who would staff it were it to open.

Crews opened dozens of boxes containing cots and lined them along the recreation center’s roller rink on Monday, an Instagram video posted by the social media site FitFam El Paso shows. News crews at the site, including El Paso Matters reporters, were not allowed inside to see the setup but did see workers unloading equipment and taking it into the facility as El Paso police officers looked on.

That comes as El Paso and other Southwest border cities are experiencing another increase of migrants — including hundreds that crossed the Rio Grande and lined up along the border wall in El Paso on Monday. To help mitigate the influx, the U.S. Border Patrol has also been conducting lateral decompression efforts, where they transport migrants from different sectors to others with larger holding capacities.

On Friday, the city took about 700 migrants to local hotels as shelters run by area nongovernmental organizations were overcapacity and dozens of migrants slept on the streets after timing out of them or being turned away. 

The city has been using federal funds to pay for the hotel rooms that are temporarily housing migrants, including another 700 prior to Friday. The Office of Emergency Management is “currently operating hotels with over 900 migrants being provided food and shelter as they secure and await their travel,” city spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta told El Paso Matters in an email Monday.

Two cousins from Venezuela sat outside the Superlodge Motel in Northeast on Monday, one with a grocery bag containing a slice of wheat bread, some potato chips and a bottle of water. 

“We don’t want to beg, but we don’t have permission to work,” said Emanuel Peña, 24, a barber by trade, as he lifted his shirt to show how thin he is now.

The men said they would work doing anything – including sweeping streets – to make money to get to Denver and Dallas.

Two migrants sit outside a Northeast El Paso motel on Monday, one of several the city is using to temporarily house those who cannot be accommodated in overcapacity shelters. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

“The city and OEM have provided shelter for more than 4,200 migrants over the last seven days in hotels,” the email stated, adding that hotels are “more humane than opening emergency shelters, especially for families.” 

That sentiment was also expressed by Mayor Oscar Leeser and Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino during a Friday press conference, where they stated that hotels provide families privacy – but also repeatedly said using hotels as shelters was a costly option.

Leeser has repeatedly stated the city’s No. 1 priority has been not to have street releases –  when migrants who were processed by Border Patrol and allowed to remain in the country to await their immigration hearing are released from custody onto the streets near bus stations, the airport, churches or shelters.

Cruz-Acosta emphasized that due to recent “surge efforts,” the Border Patrol hasn’t had to release migrants to the streets of El Paso as they have in California and Arizona. 

Some El Paso city representatives said they were taken by surprise to hear that the Nations Tobin rink was being set up as an emergency shelter.

City Rep. Alexsandra Annello, who represents the park area, has been calling on city leaders to openly talk about their plans to mitigate the migrant influx.

“We need to be helping our partner NGOs,” Annello told El Paso Matters on Monday. “I’m happy (the city) is stepping up, but I also understand the frustration of the community.”

A city of El Paso fire department van on Monday drops off supplies at the Superlodge Motel in Northeast El Paso where migrants are being temporarily housed. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

Northeast city Rep. Joe Molinar showed up to the site on Monday morning but wasn’t allowed in. He said he was concerned about having migrants roaming the streets as they are along Dyer Street where they’re being housed in several hotels.

“This is overwhelming our resources, overwhelming our city and overwhelming our citizens,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have a solution but that the influx needs to be dealt with at the federal level. “You need to shut down the border, but then we’ll get people saying that’s not right and not the solution.”

Cruz-Acosta said the city and OEM have “multiple plans and operations in place to address different scenarios and ensure the community’s public safety and well-being, while also providing a humane approach to migrants traveling through our community.”

John Martin, director of the El Paso Opportunity Center for the Homeless, is among several shelter operators who have been sounding the alarm on what they call a humanitarian crisis at the region’s doorstep – and calling on the city to set up a shelter to help.

“We’re seeing a bottleneck where we can only handle so many,” Martin said, adding he was pleased to hear the city was preparing the Nations Tobin site as a shelter. “The numbers are growing – and growing exponentially.”

The city’s migrant dashboard shows more than 4,000 people in Border Patrol custody in El Paso on Sunday, with nearly 900 migrants being released to area shelters and the city hotels that same day. The dashboard also shows Border Patrol agents on Sunday encountered over 1,200 migrants in the El Paso sector, which encompasses the county and all of New Mexico.

The El Paso County Migrant Support Services Center is at full capacity, receiving about 600 migrants a day, county spokeswoman Laura Gallegos said in an email. The center helps migrants make travel arrangements to their next destination and also provides shuttle services from area shelters to the airport and bus terminals.

Gallegos said the county is also ramping up its coordinated charters to Houston from once to twice a week, and could increase up to four times a week as needed.

“The county is working on other overflow sheltering solutions to include financially supporting other faith-based organizations to increase shelter capacity in the community by 200+ beds of congregate sheltering,” Gallegos said in the email.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

El Paso Matters reporter Daniel Perez contributed to this report.

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...