Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add the number of charters that left El Paso on Monday and the number of migrants the county served at its center.
“It’s nice to meet you,” 10-year-old David said proudly in near perfect English as he sat with his mother and baby brother on a bench near Union Depot in Downtown El Paso on Monday.
He smiled, then asked in Spanish, “¿Lo dije bien?” (“Did I say it right?”), adding that he’s been practicing English and is eager to enroll in school in the United States.
He dreams of becoming an artist, perhaps in drawing, and maybe a famous soccer player, he said as he showed off his footwork and rattled off random history facts he’s learned on his journey from Colombia: “(El Paso) and Texas used to be part of Mexico,” he exclaimed, “but now it’s part of the United States.”
David, whose family is from Venezuela but had lived in Colombia for six years, was among several hundred recently arrived migrants who on Monday waited near the Union Depot for a chance to board a charter bus to Chicacgo, Denver or New York City.
The charters are part of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security initiative Operation Lone Star and come after city leaders requested help from the Texas Division of Emergency Management to bus migrants out of the region.
The buses were activated in El Paso and Eagle Pass over the weekend and are in addition to bus operations in Brownsville, Del Rio, Laredo and McAllen, the governor’s office said in a press release.
Saying El Paso has reached a “breaking point,” Mayor Oscar Leeser on Saturday announced that the city requested the state’s assistance for charter buses. Five buses departed El Paso on Saturday – two to New York City, two to Chicago and one to Denver – all cities led by Democrats that Abbott claims are “self-declared sanctuary cities.” No buses went out on Sunday, but an additional seven charters went out on Monday to those same cities.
Several migrants in El Paso were hoping to get to Tennessee, North Carolina or Florida, but charters there weren’t being offered. Tennessee and Florida state governments are completely led by Republicans; North Carolina has a Democratic governor but a Republican-controlled Legislature.
The city on Saturday opened an emergency shelter at Nations Tobin Recreation Center in Northeast, taking in 400 people there while housing another 1,000 in nine different hotels as the network of more than a dozen area nongovernmental shelters have been overwhelmed for several weeks. The number of migrants in hotels dropped to under 400 by Monday. Also Monday, the El Paso City Council approved the purchase of the vacant Morehead Middle School, which will be used in part as an emergency shelter.
City leaders had for weeks resisted opening a temporary emergency shelter, saying hotels would be enough to avoid migrants being released to the streets by Border Patrol – despite nongovernmental shelter operators warning of another migrant humanitarian crisis.
Leaders with the El Paso County government, which runs a Migrant Support Services Center connecting migrants with travel arrangements, on Friday joined in the call that the city do more. The center received and processed more than 3,700 migrants last week alone.
The number of migrants being released into community shelters by the El Paso Border Patrol sector doubled from about 2,200 a week in early August to 4,000 a week in early September – then doubled again to 8,000 a week in mid-September, according to the city’s migrant dashboard. Still, the city held back – until this weekend.
“So this is something that we weren’t prepared for but these numbers have really escalated a lot quicker than we ever anticipated,” Leeser said during a Saturday press conference.
The Biden administration has been ramping up resources at the border to increase enforcement, including deploying additional military personnel to the border, expanding detention and processing center capacity and doubling removal flights.
On Friday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection leaders met with Mexican officials in Ciudad Juárez, agreeing to implement more than a dozen initiatives to “depressurize” Mexico’s northern cities, Mexico’s National Migration Institute said in a press release.
Among them, Mexico will deport some migrants if it can negotiate with certain countries to receive its citizens. Mexico will negotiate with Venezuela, Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia and Cuba, the institute said.
Migrants who have been expelled by the United States at an international bridge connecting El Paso and Juárez will be taken into custody by Mexican immigration officials, the agency also said in the release.
And both the U.S. and Mexico governments will work with Mexico rail operator Ferromex on “rescue and deterrence” operations such as setting up control and verification points on certain routes to keep people from boarding the freight trains to get to the border, the agency reported.
At least one human rights group said the measures will cause “grave damage.”
“Not only does this agreement show a lack of compassion toward people who have fled unspeakable harm, it will also put individuals at further risk of human trafficking, extreme violence and danger,” Marisa Limón Garza, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said in a statement.
Finding shelter, shade – and the silver lining
Migrants in El Paso this week said those measures won’t be enough to keep people from seeking the “American dream,” especially as countries like Venezuela and Colombia struggle with corruption, poverty and violence.
“We are very happy and grateful that God has given us the opportunity to arrive here, and now we just need a little extra blessing to get to where we’re going and get to work,” said Jose Enrique, a 35-year-old Venezuelan who was at San Jacinto Plaza Monday morning.
He said he left behind his wife and two children, a 5-year-old and 10-month-old, in Venezuela and hopes to get to Chicago to find work and send money home. He said he hopes his family will join him in the United States when he’s settled.
Migrants have been congregating in various areas across El Paso, primarily in the South Side, Downtown and Northeast near shelters. Many have found shade at Armijo Park and Firefighters Memorial Park, as well as San Jacinto Plaza, which city crews have begun preparing for the holiday WinterFest celebration.
“We’re just going city-to-city and country-to-country on luck,” said Disney, a 19-year-old woman from Venezuela who was at San Jacinto Plaza on Monday morning. She had been slowly making her way to the U.S. with her mother, but said she “lost” her in the Darien Gap jungle in Panama.
“She fell behind and for a few days I didn’t know where she was or if she was alive,” Disney said. She said she eventually heard from her mother, who on Monday remained in Border Patrol custody.
She said she hoped to land a spot on a charter bus to Chicago as soon as she’s reunited with her mother, and asked for directions to them.
On Monday evening, at Union Depot from where the charters were departing, one man refused to board a bus without his dog, turning down the ride and walking away with the pup on a leash. One woman tearfully said goodbye to her partner, who stayed behind to wait for other relatives who were still in Border Patrol custody.
A young man shed tears when he misplaced his paperwork allowing him to remain in the United States to await his immigration hearing – documents he needed to board the charter bus. He later put his hands together in prayer as security guards at the site called to him after a woman turned in the documents.
A pair of young children high-fived and fist-bumped a security guard, asking him about the weapons and other equipment on his gun belt.
The crowd started to grow as the sun slowly faded.
“Somos muchos,” David, the 10-year-old, said, trying to count the people sitting on the sidewalk. “There’s a lot of us.”
He marveled at a train passing by behind Union Depot, saying it looked like la bestia, or the freight train that runs from southern Mexico north toward the U.S.-Mexico border. His family didn’t ride it, he said.
He ate a lollipop while his mother Dayana breastfed his 6-month-old brother Matias. His father sat on the sidewalks a few feet away.
“We don’t know how long the wait is going to be,” Dayana said in Spanish, explaining that her family was able to make an appointment for their asylum claim through the CBP One app while they were in Monterrey, Mexico. “But we’ve come this far, we’ll survive one more night.”
Still, she said she hoped they would be taken into a shelter to spend the night. She didn’t want to sleep “bajo las estrellas,” or under the stars.
Many others have spent the night on sidewalks and alleys, covering themselves with cardboard, Red Cross blankets, towels or a few layers of clothing. The nights have been cold and windy and the days hot and dry, some migrants noted. Food and water have been scarce, but they haven’t gone without either completely, they said.
And the hospitality, while not perfect, has been much better than most places, with people treating them respectfully and kindly, they added.
“It’s very nice here,” David said as the sun set. “People are friendly. The sky looks different – más bonito.”