Update 9:20 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 24: El Paso city officials began using Nations Tobin Recreation Center to shelter migrants on Saturday.

Shelters in Downtown El Paso are beyond capacity as they handle the latest surge of migrants arriving at the border, and shelter directors are calling on the city to open more bed spaces – even as the city is opting to keep a recently-established shelter facility empty and “on standby.” 

The directors of the three main shelters providing lodging for migrants – the Rescue Mission, Sacred Heart Church and the Opportunity Center for the Homeless – said they’re having to turn away single adults in order to prioritize space in shelters for women and children.

“We’re now at numbers that none of us have ever seen,” said Blake Barrow, CEO of the Rescue Mission El Paso, which he said is lodging about 250 people each night, including nearly 100 children under the age of 10.  

“The important thing is that the Downtown shelter network has enough capacity to care for the people that are coming across,” he said. “Clearly, we do not.”

On Friday, a city spokesperson said the shelter that the city set up at Nations Tobin recreation center in the Northeast “is still on standby,” without addressing the press conference shelter directors held earlier in the day to call for assistance amid the lack of shelter space.   

As of Thursday, the city was paying for hotel rooms for more than 1,000 migrants at nine different hotels in El Paso to prevent people from being released onto the streets. While it’s more expensive, the city has so far chosen to keep migrants in hotels because it’s the more humane option and gives migrant families privacy, the spokesperson said. 

The three main Downtown shelters have a total space for about 450 people combined. But with the influx of migrants, there’s no space in shelters for single adults, mostly men, said John Martin, director of the El Paso Opportunity Center for the Homeless.

 “The single adult population is left out of the mix. Those are the ones that you typically see that are forming encampments around each of our facilities, and within public places,” Martin said. 

“The city may be putting in new efforts. And we, like you, are anxious to hear what that will be here in the near future. But we’ve estimated that we need additional shelter capacity of roughly 500 beds,” he said. 

Migrants who have managed to cross the concertina wire barrier at the Rio Grande attempt to create shade as they wait at the border wall without water, Monday, Sept. 8. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The three Downtown shelters have collectively served more than 15,000 different people since January, Martin said. But overcrowding at shelters has become a bigger problem recently because migrants – the vast majority from Venezuela – often don’t have money to travel to another city, and end up staying in El Paso for a week or longer until they can get enough money, versus staying here for a day or two like earlier waves of migrant groups did. 

“Each of us see between 40 and 80 new faces a day,” Martin said. “The problem is, with 30 going out, we’ll have 50 coming in.”

El Paso County, meanwhile, has processed more than 48,000 migrants at its migrant processing center near the airport, Precinct 2 Commissioner David Stout said. The county is set to spend about $28 million it received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency by the end of the year on migrant-related expenses.

“We put in a request for an additional $15 million to take us through the first months of the next year,” he said. 

Although Martin of the Opportunity Center warned about the current lack of bedspace in Downtown shelters, he said the city seems to be eyeing a potential solution to future spikes in the number of migrants arriving at the border in El Paso. 

The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve the sale of Morehead Middle School to the city for $3.8 million, which the city may convert into a migrant shelter.  

The El Paso City Council will vote on the purchase on Monday. The city would use federal COVID-19 relief funds, which expire at the end of the year, as well as money from FEMA. If approved, the agreement would allow the city to lease the school until the deal closes so there would be no delay until the city could use the building to house migrants. 

The conversion of Morehead Middle School into a shelter “would hugely alleviate the situation” and provide space for single males as well as women and children when other shelters are full, Stout said. 

Still, Martin and Stout said they have had “limited” dialogue with the city about the growing numbers of migrants and overcrowding at shelters, and they were unsure why the city hadn’t opened the shelter at Nations Tobin yet.  

“It’s been a little obscure to understand what exactly their plan is,” Stout said of the city government. “I wish we weren’t in a situation where we’re scrambling.”  

The city didn’t immediately respond to questions about the shelter director’s press conference or Stout’s comments. 

A group of migrants manage to cross the concertina wire barrier at the Rio Grande on Monday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The influx of migrants earlier this week prompted U.S. Customs and Border Protection to pause commercial traffic at the busy Bridge of the Americas port so that CBP agents could focus on processing migrants instead of trucks. 

A collection of border-based business groups – including the El Paso Chamber and the regional business chamber in Juarez – on Friday lamented the closure of ports along the U.S. border, saying the flow of goods is “being choked by the inability of our congressional leaders to lead in bipartisan immigration reforms,” the business groups said in a statement.

“Congress isn’t serious. They have willfully participated in allowing border issues to perpetuate,” the statement read. “The U.S. Federal Government must act and (we) are recommending Congress step in and request the use of all legislative means possible for intervention.”

Stout said county officials in places across the U.S. often talk to him about labor shortages, which he said migrant workers could help address. President Joe Biden on Thursday announced the extension of a program that will allow nearly half a million Venezuelans who arrived before July 31 to remain in the country and work legally for 18 months.

“We have the opportunity to provide working opportunities for these folks. And we need to continue to push for that,” Stout said, adding that barring migrants from entering the U.S. would only push them “back into the hands of the cartels,” and enrich human smugglers.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday said a state agency would send buses to El Paso and Eagle Pass, Texas, to transport “migrants who have been processed and released by the federal government into Texas communities” to places such as New York, Denver and Philadelphia. 

Virtually all of the migrants that downtown shelters are serving are waiting in the U.S. legally, said Mike Debruhl, the shelter director at Sacred Heart. Most are free on parole until their asylum appointment date that they scheduled through the CBP One app.

“It’s very easy to differentiate us versus them, and to become tribal,” said John Hogan, the Migrant Building Coordinator with the Rescue Mission of El Paso.

However, migrants who are seeking temporary shelter in El Paso “are just people with hopes and dreams, fears. Most of them are running from a horrible situation,” he said. “A lot of people are just trying to find a better life.”

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...