EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The largest migrant shelter network in El Paso doesn’t have enough volunteers to cope with the rising number of migrants being released by border agents.
That’s why its director is asking local governments to take over operations at its largest facility and urging the Biden administration to set up a migrant “hospitality center” at nearby Fort Bliss.
The plea comes after federal officials last Sunday dropped off 119 asylum-seekers at a Downtown bus station. That happened because federal detention facilities and the nonprofit Annunciation House exceeded capacity. Annunciation House Director Ruben Garcia said that situation will become commonplace unless stakeholders come up with solutions soon.
The U.S. Border Patrol is reporting an average of 1,200 migrant encounters a day in the El Paso Sector; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Office of Field Operations have routed 4,400 migrants to Annunciation House’s 15 regional shelters and churches in the past 10 days, Garcia said. He fears things get worse once border agents lose the ability to swiftly expel non-vulnerable migrants under Title 42 public health order.
“If right now that Title 42 has not been lifted we have already seen (migrants released on the street), I have no doubt that if Title 42 is lifted on May 23, you’re going to see many, many individuals having to be released to the street. It will without question overwhelm the (non-governmental organizations) capacity,” he said. “That was a clear example of what we expect to see more of as we go forward.”
The federal government has relied on Annunciation House to provide temporary housing, food and assistance with getting transportation for migrants released on Notices to Appear in immigration court. But the nonprofit is experiencing a shortage of volunteers due to concerns over COVID-19 and the “vilification of migrants” in some political and news media circles.
Garcia said El Paso officials have reassigned 29 employees to help out at Annunciation House, but more is needed.
“The city and county have been putting great pressure on the federal government to look at the possibility of the federal government open hospitality capacity, specifically they referenced Fort Bliss,” he said. The Biden administration last year set up a “village” in Fort Bliss to temporarily hold up to 10,000 Afghan refugees.
“We are not speaking about detention, we’re speaking about hospitality capacity where they open up the space with all of the requirements of hospitality: places to sleep, the meals, restrooms, showers,” he said. “Just as importantly, that their staff have the capacity to begin to do travel arrangements so that as people arrive at that hospitality space they are able to have the families buy them plane tickets and bus tickets and move on.”
However, late Wednesday U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said Fort Bliss is not an option.
“We let the city know this weekend that Fort Bliss is not an option. When the country was housing Afghans, that was run by the military and they are just not available now and neither is the site,” Escobar said during a Zoom call with reporters. “Fort Bliss is not available and not an option, and (U.S. Border Patrol) Chief (Gloria) Chavez informed the city” of that.
Escobar, who represents most of the El Paso area in Congress, said the federal government would reimburse nonprofits and local governments with expenses related to the migrant challenge.
Annunciation House’s Garcia is also calling on local officials — the city, the county or the local Office of Emergency Management — to take over management and staffing of Casa del Refugiado, which is the nonprofit’s primary facility for housing migrants in transition right now. That facility had 380 migrants on Tuesday night, according to volunteers.
“If you’re going to lift Title 42, you absolutely got to have hospitality capacity beyond what the NGO network is able to bring to the table,” he said. “I am also calling on the city and county of El Paso to open up their own hospitality capacity.”
Once local governments staff the facility, Annunciation House volunteers can be reassigned to staff smaller shelters and churches to house more released migrants.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego on Tuesday told KTSM he is talking to stakeholders, including Annunciation House, about how best to prepare for the increased number of migrants crossing the border in the region and those who are released from federal custody.
Migrants, volunteers overcome language barriers
The laughter of children and the chatter of adults talking to relatives on cell phones fills the large main hall of Casa del Refugiado shelter in El Paso.
Creole-speaking women talk to each other while sitting on cots; a few American volunteers mill about to see if the refugees need anything.
Near a wall, Maria Paola watches over her three young children while recalling the events that led her family to travel 2,800 miles north from the province of Neiva Huila, Colombia, to El Paso, Texas.
The region has been the site of a decades’ old low-level war between the Colombian army and right-wing paramilitary groups against guerrilla insurgents.
“We were threatened by the subversives, then the paramilitary. We had to grab our belongings and became displaced,” the mother of three said.
The young family moved to another town, farther from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and closer to other relatives. But the involvement of her father with human-rights groups, which have been monitoring abuses amid the armed conflict, got them new threats.
“He started getting calls that we were going to be killed, that we needed to leave the country. That is the reason we left,” she said. “The Colombian authorities didn’t do anything about it, so (my husband and I) decided to save ourselves because we have three small children.”
Maria Paola cried when asked how the journey went. “It was a very difficult trip. We had to endure many days of hunger […] and many humiliations,” she said. “We never knew what to expect, maybe we would be robbed, maybe we would be raped. Too many things.”
The one pleasant surprise, she said, was turning themselves over to U.S. immigration authorities and receiving “a good treatment.”
“They treated us well, the food was good,” she said, referring to a four-day stint in an immigration detention center.
Maria Paola said she’s also grateful with the Casa del Refugiado volunteers.
That kind of gratitude heartens volunteers like James Camp, a college professor from Kentucky who spends several weeks a year volunteering at Annunciation House facilities such as this one.
“I bring students down every spring break for their border awareness experience,” said Camp, whose relationship with Annunciation House began in 2007. “I tell people I come here to get my soul food. When we look at the immigrant, I see the face of Christ. The gospel of Matthew tells us that who we need to be is to feed the poor, serve people water, visit people in prison, visit the sick. That’s the essence of what this place is.”
Camp said people who may have a negative image of migrants need to be aware of the “push” factors that displace them from their homes and bring them to the United States.
“If you can’t eat, if your children are not safe, no matter where you are, you’re going to move,” he said. “When you engage in that kind of dialogue rather than looking at the politics, it changes the frame. We need to look at individuals on a human level but also look at the structural forces that create movement. People don’t want to move from where they are, they don’t want to change their culture … but then you are forced to…”