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El Paso tries to house many migrants in freezing weather – but some don't qualify

An asylum-seeking migrant from Nicaragua bundles up at the border as she waits to be processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 22, 2022.
Jim Urquhart for NPR
An asylum-seeking migrant from Nicaragua bundles up at the border as she waits to be processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 22, 2022.

El PASO, Texas — With temperatures dropping and thousands of migrants still in the city, leaders in El Paso have been scrambling to open up emergency shelter beds as quickly as they can, but only some migrants qualify to stay.

"We're not permitted inside the shelter because we crossed without permission," said a woman named Adda. We're not using her last name, or those of other migrants who entered the U.S. without detection. Adda is from Venezuela and traveled to El Paso with a group of seven family members, including her pregnant daughter.

"We went to ask if we could stay in the shelter because my daughter is pregnant," Adda said in Spanish. "But they told us no, not without a permit."

The city has opened an emergency shelter with 1,000 cots inside its convention center just a block way — but it's only open to migrants who have immigration paperwork after turning themselves into the Border Patrol. The city says that policy is set by the federal government, which is helping to foot the bill. And it's leaving potentially hundreds of migrants out in the cold.

Cities in Texas have raced to move migrants off the streets and into warm shelters as temperatures plunged into the teens overnight. Shelters in El Paso are overflowing as thousands of migrants have arrived in the city in recent days, anticipating the end of pandemic border restrictions.

An asylum-seeking migrant from Valenzuela sorts through her belongings of hers, her husband's and four sons while they are living unsheltered after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 22, 2022.
/ Jim Urquhart for NPR
/
Jim Urquhart for NPR
An asylum-seeking migrant from Venezuela sorts through her belongings of hers, her husband's and four sons while they are living unsheltered after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 22, 2022.

"We wanted to make sure that we were able to get everyone who was on the street off the streets before this cold weather hits," said Mario D'Agostino, the deputy city manager in El Paso.

Migrants without paperwork can stay in shelters in town run by churches and non-profit organizations — but those are crowded. City officials hope that by opening up emergency shelters, they can relieve some of that crowding.

"We are sending buses out to their location to pick up people and bring them over to the convention center so we can free up the space," D'Agostino said.

On Thursday, the sidewalks near the Greyhound bus station were still lined with blankets and makeshift bedding as dozens of migrants tried to keep warm at night.

"We sleep on leftover cardboard pizza boxes inside layers and layers of blankets," said Carlos Areas in Spanish. He recently arrived from Nicaragua.

This latest wave of migrants stationed themselves a block away from old brick tenements that have housed generations of immigrants in El Paso going back more than a century. A local food bank parked a small U-Haul-sized truck on a side street where volunteers passed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bags of spicy pork rinds.

El Paso police officers on bicycle patrol encouraged migrants to relocate to the emergency shelter a block away in the city-owned convention center. But many of the migrants who were still on the street had not turned themselves into the Border Patrol.

An asylum-seeking migrant from Valenzuela holds one of his for sons as he is living unsheltered with his wife after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 22, 2022.
/ Jim Urquhart for NPR
/
Jim Urquhart for NPR
An asylum-seeking migrant from Venezuela holds one of his for sons as he is living unsheltered with his wife after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 22, 2022.

Title 42 still in limbo

The reason that some migrants are allowed into the U.S. while others are turned away has to do with the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42. Since March of 2020, those restrictions have allowed immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants from Mexico and northern Central America.

But in practice, those restrictions have been applied unevenly — in large part because Mexico has refused to take back migrants from certain countries, including Cuba and Nicaragua. Until recently, Venezuelan migrants were also exempt — but now they too can be expelled to Mexico under Title 42.

"We didn't turn ourselves into the Border Patrol for fear they would send us back after all we've suffered to get here," says a woman named Gabriela. She and her husband Jean-Carlos crossed undetected with their four young children this week.

Hoarse from being out in the cold, she described their journey from Venezuela, and how they were separated for a time in the dangerous Darien Gap jungle in Panama.

A food bank drops of food, blankets and supplies to asylum-seeking migrants living unsheltered after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 22, 2022.
/ Jim Urquhart for NPR
/
Jim Urquhart for NPR
A food bank drops of food, blankets and supplies to asylum-seeking migrants living unsheltered after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 22, 2022.

Dangerous journeys

Mexico was the most difficult part of their two-month journey. The family said Mexican border authorities harassed them, detained them for three days, and stole their personal belongings. They said they witnessed children being kidnapped off the streets into random vehicles. For added protection, the family continued their journey alongside three other Venezuelan migrants.

The group arrived in Ciudad Juárez three days before the Texas National Guard descended upon the northern bank of the Rio Grande. They watched troops spill out of a parade of Humvees and uncoil reams of razor wire. Wilfor, a 35-year-old cook who was part of the group, said the sight was unnerving.

"We heard that anyone who tried to cross would get shot," he said.

Despite that rumor, the group took their chance at crossing Tuesday night. They picked a spot that involved traversing an irrigation canal known for migrant drownings. They crawled through a hole snipped into a chain-link fence and then sprinted across six lanes of highway where the speed limit was 60 miles per hour.

Some asylum-seeking migrants and others wait on the Mexico side of Rio Grande River while others attempt to cross the border into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 21, 2022.
/ Jim Urquhart for NPR
/
Jim Urquhart for NPR
Some asylum-seeking migrants and others wait on the Mexico side of Rio Grande River while others attempt to cross the border into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 21, 2022.

"Everyone dispersed when two Border Patrol officers started chasing us," Wilfor said. "I hid with one of the children."

The group made it across without getting caught.

"Only God and us know what we've lived through to get here," Jean-Carlos said. "We've suffered immensely to achieve this dream for our children."

The family says an "angel" from a local church took them into her home on Wednesday night.

They weren't sure where they would sleep the following night.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 26, 2022 at 7:00 PM HST
Photo captions in this story originally referred to migrants seeking asylum from Valenzuela. In fact, they were from Venezuela.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
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