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As border crossings soar, Biden relies on shelters to manage influx


Alex Ordoñez, center, calling his family in Nicaragua after arriving at La Posada, a shelter for migrants in San Benito, Texas.

By Eileen Sullivan


When seven newly arrived migrants were released from government custody on a recent afternoon with nowhere to stay the night, an emergency shelter in the small border city of San Benito, Texas answered the call, sending a volunteer to make his fifth such pickup of the day from nearby Brownsville.


The shelter, La Posada Providencia, had hot food waiting, and ramen noodles for later if the migrants were still hungry. Several of the men, who had come from Cuba and Nicaragua, quickly collapsed on cots fitted with clean sheets and pillows. The volunteer would drive them to the airport early the next morning, and they would then continue their journey northward.


As the United States experiences the largest wave of migration at the southwestern border in decades, it is increasingly relying on an informal pipeline of shelters and other way stations to house and feed migrants who are allowed to stay on a temporary basis, many of whom are seeking asylum, and to help them arrange travel from border communities to wherever they plan to wait — a wait that could potentially last years — for their immigration court proceedings.


From the time President Joe Biden took office last year through April, the government has admitted about a quarter of the migrants apprehended at the southwestern border for entering the country illegally, or about 700,000 out of 2.7 million, according to an analysis of federal data. The rest have been swiftly expelled under an emergency public health order related to the pandemic, or sent back under another legal authority. On Friday, a federal judge ordered that the rule, which was supposed to be lifted Monday, remain in place. The administration said it would appeal.


Already though, many of the thousands of migrants crossing each day are being let in — of the record 234,088 migrants who arrived in April, nearly half were released into the country for various reasons, including humanitarian exceptions to the public health order and insufficient detention space. In some cases, the government cannot expel people — Cubans and Venezuelans, for example — because it has no diplomatic relations with the country of origin.


As the Biden administration sees about 8,200 border crossings a day — or nearly the population of College Station, Texas, entering the country every two weeks, far more than at this time last year — it is counting on small nonprofit organizations like La Posada Providencia to manage the influx into border cities and towns, helping to stave off politically explosive images of chaos and disorder before the November midterms.


Some of the shelters, though, are becoming overwhelmed. So many migrants are crossing the border near El Paso that a shelter there is working with the city to quickly bring on more staff and add space. A shelter in Eagle Pass is also reaching capacity and looking for ways to move migrants out of town faster.


“You’re going to see many, many individuals having to be released to the street,” Ruben Garcia, director of the El Paso shelter, warned during a news conference last week.


Whether providing a meal, a place to cool off or sleep, legal guidance, medical care, transportation or help figuring out how to reach a destination, these shelters and centers, sometimes working with state and local officials, fill a void in the country’s outdated immigration system.


The Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have informally relied on such places for years. But the Biden administration, facing significant pressure to show it was prepared for the end of the public health order, recently made them a central piece of its response plan. The administration also included modest funding for the organizations — $150 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency grants — in its annual budget request, a first.


Still, it is a far cry from the formal relationship the government has with nine resettlement agencies it contracts with to provide an array of services to refugees, such as those who came from Afghanistan over the past year and who are coming now from Ukraine.


For years, the people crossing the southwestern border without documentation were largely single Mexican men. That started to change in 2011, and changed all the more in 2014, when people from other Central American countries, including entire families, started fleeing rampant violence.


At the time, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas, took in hundreds of migrant families that crossed near the southernmost tip of the state. There, the migrants would receive medical attention, shelter and supplies to help get them through the hours of travel that lay ahead en route to their destinations.


Before the church stepped in, migrants were simply dropped off at the local bus station after they were released by Border Patrol officials.


But as more families crossed, the church became overwhelmed. Volunteers called on Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of the Catholic Charities branch in the Rio Grande Valley. Since then, Pimentel has overseen a short-term shelter and aid center that can host 1,200 people in downtown McAllen, just across the street from the bus station.


Typically, the migrants coming through the centers already have contacts in the United States and plans to unite with them, often setting off within hours of being released from government custody. At many of the centers, employees and volunteers will call migrants’ relatives or friends to confirm their plans, and help them buy a bus or plane ticket, typically paid for by the migrants or their contacts.


Many migrants take buses from border towns to cities with major airports, then fly to their destinations, typically Houston, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Washington or Los Angeles.


Recently, however, more migrants are appearing without a plan or a contact. Shelters can quickly become overwhelmed in such circumstances.


The release of hundreds of thousands of migrants into the country over the past year is not the result of a clearly defined immigration policy but is, in many cases, a consequence of the government’s inability to expel them for various reasons. And unless the outdated immigration laws are changed, the pattern will continue, many said, adding that as it is now, the shelters and respite centers need far more support than the FEMA grants provide.


“It’s a temporary solution. It should not be how we support organizations doing this,” said Marisa Limón Garza, senior director for advocacy and programming at the Hope Border Institute, a human rights organization in El Paso. “It’s unsustainable.”


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