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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

El Paso, long an immigrant haven, is tested by spike in arrivals

Migrants crowd around a counter in a shelter run by Opportunity Center for the Homeless, an organization that has been sheltering migrants released by immigration authorities, in downtown El Paso, Texas on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

By Simon Romero, Edgar Sandoval and J. David Goodman

From providing refuge during the Mexican Revolution to sheltering asylum-seekers during the Trump administration, El Paso, Texas, has long rolled out the welcome mat to migrants following their star to the United States.

But as migrant arrivals surge this month, becoming so overwhelming that some border crossers are sleeping on downtown streets as temperatures dip below freezing, El Paso’s historic hospitality may finally be wearing thin.

“You feel bad, because they are good people running away from troubled countries,” said José Cruz, 75, himself an immigrant who came to El Paso from Mexico in 1998. Standing across from the international bridge downtown, Cruz shook his head in disbelief. “But this city, this country, can’t absorb everybody.”

For many like Cruz, the crisis is arousing a mix of emotions, reflecting how the pressures of receiving so many newcomers at once are straining a haven sometimes described as the Southwest’s Ellis Island.

The Border Patrol said that over the weekend, an average of 2,460 migrants arrived each day in El Paso, with the city currently the busiest arrival point for unauthorized migration along the entire southern border.

The number could escalate even further next week if the federal government lifts a public health order that has allowed it to expel large numbers of migrants who otherwise might have been allowed to seek asylum in the United States. At that point, total arrivals across the southern border could reach 12,000 a day, from a recent average of about 8,000, administration officials said.

Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, met in El Paso on Tuesday with Border Patrol managers and local officials amid the escalating arrivals.

“It’s an extraordinarily powerful picture of why we need our immigration system reformed through legislation,” Mayorkas said in a meeting with local reporters. “Our asylum system is broken. Our immigration system as a whole is broken.”

He said the government was considering an expansion of the program that currently allows Ukrainians and Venezuelans to “prequalify” for asylum processing and enter the United States by plane, rather than by taking a hazardous trip across the border aided by smugglers.

On the streets of El Paso, the escalation in migration has been visible everywhere. Groups of migrants stood outside a shelter that had no more room. At night, many of the arrivals were huddled on the sidewalks and in alleyways under blankets and coats, trying to keep warm. Some have been wandering through the city with seemingly no place to go.

With few local options, the city may have to resume busing migrants to other cities around the country, said Laura Cruz-Acosta, a spokesperson for the city, where immigrants already make up about one-quarter of the population.

When it comes to dealing with the increase in migrant arrivals, authorities in El Paso, a longtime Democratic bastion, have taken a different tack from other parts of Texas along the border.

El Paso County is not among the dozens of Texas counties that signed on to Gov. Greg Abbott’s declaration of a disaster along the border, eschewing the kind of law-enforcement-focused approach that the state has favored.

The border in El Paso has all of the federal infrastructure that exists in other areas, but it does not have the same deployment of state police officers and National Guard members along the border sent as part of Abbott’s border mission, known as Operation Lone Star.

The city has not taken part in the state’s program of arresting migrants for criminal trespassing on private ranch land, as several other Texas counties do, and it did not participate in the state’s busing program.

Instead, the Democratic leaders of El Paso created their own busing program, which they could restart soon. It sent roughly the same number of migrants — about 14,000 — to cities north and east of Texas as Abbott did with his statewide program between August and October.

By contrast, farther east along the border, the city of Eagle Pass in Maverick County — also a Democratic-run part of the state — has been a more willing participant in Abbott’s efforts.

Officials there, predominantly Democrats, have complained of the strain of providing services to migrants and have welcomed the financial support Abbott’s program affords for law enforcement.

Despite such contrasts, Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit which provides shelter to migrants, began sending busloads this week to places like Kansas City, Missouri, and Omaha, Nebraska.

Ruben Garcia, the organization’s director, said he viewed the need to send migrants to other cities through a humanitarian lens.

“El Pasoans don’t want people on the street primarily and overwhelmingly because they’re human beings,” Garcia said. “There might be other cities where people don’t want refugees on the street because they ruin the landscape.”

Still, Garcia lamented El Paso’s preparedness for this crisis compared with previous influxes. A declining number of volunteers has depleted the capacity of shelters in the city even as the demand for their services has escalated, he said.

“The volunteers were largely older people who were retired, and elderly people were the most affected by the pandemic,” Garcia said. “The number of local churches open to receiving refugees has gone down considerably.”

As the Border Patrol has released a larger-than-normal number of migrants in recent days, most of them from Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba, the influx is the only talk of the town in El Paso. It is especially inescapable in the stores downtown that cater to the new migrants, selling everything from lowrider apparel to discounted toys.

Edgar Monzón, an El Paso resident for three years and counting, said he recognized a bit of himself in the migrants taking their first steps in the United States after an ordeal.

About 17 years ago, he, too, crossed without authorization and made his way to California before moving to El Paso to be closer to his parents. Now he makes a living as a cabdriver, sometimes picking up migrants who come from Guatemala, as he did.

“What do I tell them? Nothing — good luck,” said Monzón, 33. “I know what they are going through because I was one of them once. I assume the government knows what they are doing because they are letting them through.”

But for some business owners, including Sunny Butler, who owns Sunny’s Accessories in downtown El Paso, the constant flow of migrants has fueled concerns.

It is hard to admit such feelings, Butler said, because “they are human, and we feel for them, and many are women with children.” She wondered aloud whether El Paso needed to reconsider its approach.

“I do get nervous. One side of me says, ‘I want to help,’ but the other side says, ‘I’m nervous,’” Butler said. “There are just too many people crossing right now. I’ve never seen so many migrants here.”

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