El Paso grapples with surge of migrants, braces for more

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Authorities in El Paso, Texas, described a humanitarian crisis Thursday as they grapple with the daily release of roughly 1,600 migrants to local shelters and the streets of the border city amid preparations for even larger flows if Trump-era asylum restrictions end next week as scheduled.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser told a news conference that the city is distributing outdoor toilets and water stations as it offers overnight hotel rooms to migrants, whose numbers are exceeding capacity at a county reception facility and the region’s network of shelters with nonprofit and faith-based groups.

The Department of Homeland Security is indicating it may release more migrants into the United States when Trump-era asylum restrictions end next week, with local government and border officials warning of immigrants waiting to cross into the U.S. Under current restrictions, migrants have been denied rights to seek asylum more than 2.5 million times on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

El Paso in recent days has witnessed hundreds of migrants wading across shallows waters of the Rio Grande into the U.S., forming lines along a border wall to approach immigration authorities and request refuge. City officials fear the asylum-rule change could double local migrant crossings, estimated at roughly 2,500 migrants a day over the past week.

Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said migrants currently perceive Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, as a relatively secure place to approach the border amid dangers in Mexico of extortion and organized crime.

The City of El Paso announced Wednesday it received a new $6 million commitment to underwrite its migrant response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“This funding and shelter is not the answer, it’s a Band-Aid to really a bigger problem,” said Leeser, a Democrat elected in 2020. “It’s something we’re going to have to work with the (United Nations) and other countries, to work through a situation … that’s again is bigger than El Paso and that now has become bigger than the United States.”

Mario D’Agostino, a deputy city manager leading the emergency response, said the sheer number of migrants is straining not only local staff but also U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“They’re working long hours, day and night, they’re doing processing rather than their primary function of securing the border,” he said.

City officials say that most of the migrants released in recent days by federal immigration authorities have some financial means or sponsors in the U.S. to pay for transportation to communities in the U.S. interior. But he said the city is bracing for an even larger surge in asylum-seeking migrants that may not have resources for further travel.

The city recently disbanded its aid and communications center for migrants, while suspending a busing program that delivered thousands of mostly Venezuelan migrants to Chicago and New York in September and October.

D’Agostino outlined a new strategy that might ferry migrants to large, nearby transportation hubs, such as Dallas, Denver and Phoenix. He said federal immigration authorities are preparing to possibly process and directly release migrants at a bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso.

The city’s response to surges in migration numbers stands in contrast to border-security efforts by Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, who has deployed troops to the border and gotten attention for busing migrants to faraway Democratic strongholds.

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