El Paso County, city weigh options to stem humanitarian crisis as migration swells

El Paso Times

El Paso county commissioners on Thursday weighed options for creating a "migrant support services center" while city emergency managers opened a busing hub, as dozens of migrants remained in homeless conditions Downtown.

The U.S. Border Patrol released 1,166 migrants to the street over eight days through Wednesday — a pace of "provisional," or street, releases not seen in El Paso in years. Both the county and city are wrestling with how to prevent an increase in lawful migration through the region from turning into a humanitarian crisis on El Paso streets.

Many of the migrants are arriving from Venezuela. Unlike previous groups, many Venezuelans lack strong family connections in the U.S. or sponsors able to help them financially. The country's economy has collapsed and their currency is all but worthless.

"We have peaks (in migration) that are really difficult sometimes and anomalies, and this anomaly is among the hardest," County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said during an emergency commission meeting Thursday.

A migrant from Nicaragua wakes up in the early morning after having slept in El Paso's streets on Sept. 15, 2022. Some migrants are awaiting help from family members in order to continue their journey inside the U.S. after having petitioned for asylum and have been released by Customs and Border Protection.

Venezuelan and Nicaraguan families woke up Thursday in the vicinity of the Greyhound bus station. Several said authorities prevented them from pitching the tents that El Pasoans had donated days earlier. There were children, too, sleeping on blankets, but some families had moved to hotels.

While many are moving on quickly to their destinations, others are struggling to contact their sponsors or make travel arrangements and are living in the elements.

The county faces funding challenges as commissioners determine where to house a support services center and how the county would run it, with the goal of stemming a humanitarian crisis. The commissioners are considering new leases, as well as county-owned facilities in the Coliseum area.

There are few ways to fund crisis prevention with federal funding, county Chief Administrator Betsy Keller said; the Federal Emergency Management Agency will typically reimburse a locality months after money is spent on an emergency.

Keller said her team is working to secure special "advance" FEMA funding to set up a services center that could help recently released migrants get oriented, contact family members and secure travel arrangements to their destinations. Separately, if the county wanted to create a full-blown migrant shelter, the price tag could reach $16 million annually, which would require advance federal funding.

County commissioners are expected to vote Monday on which options they'll pursue.

A woman plays with dogs after U.S. Border Patrol agents lined up migrants before moving them to a secure area underneath the Paisano overpass in El Paso on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.

Meanwhile, the city has focused its assistance on transportation.

In a guest column published Thursday in the El Paso Times, Deputy City Manager Mario D'Agostino said the Office of Emergency Management has opened a new "Migrant Welcome Center."

"The city’s Migrant Welcome Center assists in processing paperwork and providing travel arrangements," D'Agostino said. "The center, which is not a shelter, does help coordinate shelter and travel while providing food, clothing, medical attention, and access to free phone and internet service."

"Migrant families are kept together and are fed and housed at emergency shelter hotels, providing privacy and space for family units," he said. "Hospitality sites offer food and shelter for people traveling alone, ensuring the migrants are safe and cared for while in El Paso."

Migrants receive donations from residents of El Paso on Sept. 15, 2022. Some migrants are awaiting help from family members in order to contniue their journey inside the U.S. after having requested asylum and having been released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The city didn't immediately respond to a request for additional information about the center on Thursday.

The El Paso Times has learned that OEM is accepting 300 migrants per day directly from the Border Patrol at a warehouse-type building in the Northeast, according to two sources with knowledge of the setup who were not authorized to discuss it with the news media. Logistically, the center's services aren't available to those migrants who are being released Downtown.

City-chartered buses are departing from the welcome center site adjacent to a COVID-19 testing center. A security officer stationed at the gate said media wasn't allowed to enter; a sign in the parking lot read "shelter drop off area."

In 2018, during the Trump administration, the Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped off hundreds of migrant families on El Paso streets during the Christmas season, without coordinating with local government and NGO leaders. Many residents responded as they have this time around, with food, water, blankets and other support.

Apart from that period, the Border Patrol's El Paso Sector has historically worked hand-in-glove with the nonprofit Annunciation House to release migrants to its network of shelters, rather than to the street.

The Annunciation House network continues to host migrants, but the number of people arriving has outstripped the capacity of the volunteer-run shelter network to host people, especially after Annunciation House closed its largest shelter in El Paso, Casa del Refugiado, in July.

The migrants arriving in El Paso "present unique circumstances," said Border Patrol El Paso Sector spokesman Carlos Rivera.

"In El Paso, CBP is encountering a significant number of Cuban and Venezuelan migrants who have fled the repressive, authoritarian regimes in those countries," he said.

Lauren Villagran can be reached at lvillagran@elpasotimes.com or on Twitter @laurenvillagran.