Bracing for the next migrant surge
As Title 42 comes to an end, border cities and ministries prepare to host thousands more illegal immigrants
Most mornings, buses carrying between 500 and 700 immigrants pull up in front of Mission: Border Hope in Eagle Pass, Texas. After U.S. Customs and Border Protection processes the latest group to wade across the Rio Grande, Immigration and Customs Enforcement contacts the nonprofit shelter to let staff know how many to expect. Staff connect the travelers with transportation companies to help them avoid price gougers and scammers.
The large, metal warehouse echoes with hundreds of conversations. Mission: Border Hope is the only immigrant shelter in the small city of Eagle Pass, Texas—the epicenter of the recent rise in border crossings. The organization previously served the community of Eagle Pass, but as crossings skyrocketed, Border Patrol asked the ministry to open its doors to the vulnerable sojourners.
Director Valeria Wheeler is on maternity leave but is still working to prep the shelter for even more migrants. She isn’t the only one. Border cities and the ministries on the front lines of every immigration flow are preparing for the end of Title 42 with few answers about the future of border policy for the next few months.
Title 42 is a federal public health order that allowed immigration authorities to expel illegal immigrants immediately on public health grounds. Since early in the pandemic, the United States used the order to turn away border crossers before they could file asylum claims. On Nov. 15, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan found the policy to be “arbitrary and capricious.” Title 42 doesn’t provide much of a public health benefit anymore, Sullivan argued, and it sends migrants back to dangerous countries while ignoring their right to seek asylum under immigration law.
Immigration authorities expect a jump in illegal border crossings when the policy ends in less than four weeks. To handle the influx, experts anticipate the administration will release more immigrants into the United States on parole to await their immigration court hearings.
From what Wheeler has heard from CBP, Mission: Border Hope shouldn’t see any dramatic increase until next year. In the meantime, Wheeler hopes to expand capacity by hiring four more people to join her staff of 16. More staff can help immigrants make travel arrangements more quickly and move them through the shelter to make room for the hundreds more that will show up the next day.
“We started very small ... and let me tell you that it never has been easy,” Wheeler said. “At the beginning I was so freaked out and nervous because anything can happen.” With winter fast approaching, Wheeler considers their work even more essential. Most of the immigrants who pass through aren’t used to the fickle South Texas temperatures—45 degrees one day and 75 the next. In addition to staff, she said the center needs adult winter clothing. It disappears quickly.
Almost 500 miles away, about 500 to 1,000 asylum-seekers are released into El Paso, Texas, each day. Street releases fell after the Biden administration began expelling more Venezuelans under Title 42 in late October, but Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino told the city council that he expects those numbers to climb once the administration lifts the policy. The city closed its Migrant Welcome Center after the administration’s October announcement. Officials are waiting to reopen until the city receives a $7 million reimbursement from the federal government.
“Customs and Border Patrol asked us a few weeks back, our federal partners asked us, if we could possibly stand up a processing center again. What we told them is we couldn’t do that, we need the reimbursement or we need advanced funding for an operation that size again because it is a tax on the community,” D’Agostino said.
The city also ended its charter buses for immigrants to New York and Chicago last month. Beginning in late August, El Paso sent 292 buses to New York and Chicago carrying almost 14,000 people. City officials said that a renewed surge may force the city to restart its busing initiative.
Sami DiPasquale serves in El Paso as the executive director for Abara, an organization that supports a growing network of border shelters. He says local authorities and shelters are weary of preparing for policy flip-flops and delayed federal funding. “I know there’ll be a huge call … to churches and other groups to open their doors if needed,” he said, “I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty if [Title 42] is going to get extended again.”
But DiPasquale is hopeful. He witnessed state and city agencies, multinational nonprofits, UN agencies, and grassroots nonprofits on both sides of the border work together to address the humanitarian needs of migrants during the end of the Migrant Protection Protocols. The Trump-era policy forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while immigration courts decided their cases. When Title 42 officially ends on Dec. 21, DiPasquale said Abara will amplify the needs of border shelters, work with churches who are willing to open their doors to immigrants, and recruit volunteers.
“I think it’s easy to get caught in the parties, in battling and forget the beautiful people who are connected to those issues,” he said. “How is the church responding to those who are hurting and in need and what’s our faith calling us to do first and foremost?”
In Del Rio, Texas, Shon Young is an associate pastor at City Church and the president of the Val Verde Humanitarian Border Coalition. The respite center helps immigrants find transportation, feeds them, and gives them Bibles. Young says the impending policy change doesn’t alter their work much. “You’re dealing with the government going back and forth…you never know,” he said, “We know we can handle whatever comes our way when it comes.”
The coalition has stocked up on winter clothing, but its day-to-day operations remain the same. If crossings rise dramatically, Young said, they will shuffle immigrants through the shelter more quickly and increase transportation from their center. His calendar is full of mission teams scheduled to come from around the country to help in the new year.
It won’t be the first time the city has handled a humanitarian crisis. In 2021, about 14,000 Haitian asylum seekers camped under the Del Rio international bridge, waiting to be processed by CBP. Young and volunteers from many other churches served thousands of meals to immigrants and brought food and sports drinks to exhausted Border Patrol agents and Texas Department of Public Safety officers.
“We’ve experienced high flows before,” he said. “So when the time comes, if there’s a need, we just call out to the local church … and ask people to partner with us.”
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