By Cindy Ramírez
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser on Sunday issued a disaster declaration over the recent influx of migrants into the city – with many more expected in the days leading up to the lifting of Title 42 at midnight on May 11.
“Effective 12:01 May 1, I am declaring a state of emergency in our community,” Leeser said during a press conference at City Hall. “And the reason why we’re declaring a state of emergency is to make sure that we can stand up and be prepared for May 11.”
Leeser during the press conference said the city will stand up mega-shelters as needed and may have to again provide busing to help get migrants to their destination if they arrive in larger numbers than the region can manage.
But those shelters – and others that operate with federal funds – cannot serve migrants who are in the country without proper documentation. Leeser said the city will enforce local laws that prohibit camping in public streets and sidewalks – essentially tearing down makeshift encampments – but will not enforce immigration laws.
We’re here to work. We know there’s farms and companies and industries that need workers. Aquí estámos.”
Migrant from Ecuador
The mayor did not respond when asked what would happen to those migrants without documentation, only repeating that city police do not enforce federal law.
The declaration, which can be renewed by the mayor every seven days, will go before the City Council next week for ratification.
The declaration allows the city to tap into federal and state funds and partner with the American Red Cross to manage the humanitarian crisis, city leaders said. But when Leeser last invoked a disaster declaration in December, city officials were unclear on what new federal or state services were made available.
More than 500 migrants have crowded around Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Segundo Barrio the past week after crossing the border – some with documents allowing them to be in the country legally to await their asylum hearing and many others without having been processed by the U.S. Border Patrol.
The majority of those on the streets around the church are Venezuelan men, although men, women and children from Guatemala, Ecuador, Cuba, Colombia and other countries have also made their way there.
Many crossed into the United States with the hopes that Title 42, the health policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants, will expire as planned and that they will have a chance to apply for asylum here. The policy is set to expire when the COVID-19 public health emergency under which it was enacted ends May 11.
“They’ve come in with a false pretense that the border will be open on May 11 … and that is an untrue statement,” Leeser said Sunday. “We’re not opening the borders and the borders are not open today and they will not be open on May 12.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said that people crossing after Title 42 ends will be subject to longstanding immigration law that could lead to deportation. However, many migrants are released while courts hear any claims of asylum or other relief from deportation.
The American Red Cross will help the city stand up shelters as needed, including in two closed El Paso Independent School District schools with which it has had standing agreements since the last major migrant influx in December, Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said.
D’Agostino also asked the public to take donations to nongovernmental agencies, food banks, churches and organizations that get food and other essentials to migrants.
“We’re asking the public not to take donations to the streets,” D’Agostino said. “The main thing is we don’t want to start leaving them in the streets because it encourages those large congregations of people to stay in the streets.”
First time around
Leeser last issued a disaster declaration on Dec. 17. The declaration was ratified by the City Council on Dec. 23 and extended through Jan. 17, when city leaders let it expire.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s sent National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to El Paso to patrol the border after Leeser’s initial declaration, part of his controversial initiative called Operation Lone Star. Abbott had previously deployed forces under Operation Lone Star in other border areas, including counties without disaster declarations.
That first time around, the Texas National Guard put up concertina wire and about a dozen shipping containers along the Rio Grande to try to cut off migrants crossing into El Paso and DPS troopers were deployed to patrol the streets in large numbers.
But the state’s intervention did not provide two major pieces of assistance city leaders had hoped for when they issued the first disaster declaration: short-term shelter for the migrants and short-distance travel to cities with large transportation hubs. Operation Lone Star bused just over 300 people, most to New York, in six charter buses in December at the height of the record migrant influx.
Without providing details, Leeser on Sunday said additional help from the state for “public safety” will be needed, saying DPS has been helping the city police department as needed since December.
Despite the first disaster declaration expiring, the guardsmen and troopers remained in the city; the concertina wire expanded by miles. It has done little to hold back the migrants, who walk miles to a point where they could cross the Rio Grande and either turn themselves in to Border Patrol or enter the country through whatever gap in the border wall they can find.
Nearly 3,800 people were in custody under U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Saturday, according to the city’s migrant dashboard. The dashboard also showed border enforcement agencies reported more than 1,500 encounters with migrants daily.
Food, water, a shower and a job
On Saturday, a handful of National Guard troops looked over the crowd of migrants from the corner of Mesa and Father Rahm streets as El Paso police and state troopers patrolled the area.
At least 10 migrants were arrested within an hour that morning for allegedly fighting or smoking pot, some migrants said, though police at the scene would not confirm the allegations. Some of those arrested were taken away by Border Patrol agents and others by city police.
City crews picked up empty water bottles, pizza boxes, cardboard and other trash from the area and emptied out trash cans – at times with migrants lending a hand.
All around the church, people moved around looking for a shaded spot to sit or set up blankets and cardboard into makeshift tents for cover as the cool morning turned warm under the cloudless sky.
Some scoured the streets and sidewalks for coins to buy a 50-cent water bottle at a corner store that also allowed them to charge their phones.
“Alabare, alabare, alabare a mi señor,” blared from a speaker as a small group of migrants gathered to sing in prayer. “I will praise my Lord.”
Holding a Bible, María Maris of El Paso read scripture to the men and women under the now-hot sun. A man in an older model red truck drove by and yelled “go back home!”
All those scenes are commonplace, said one woman from Ecuador who arrived in El Paso 10 days ago.
She said she has spent most of her time on the sidewalks around Sacred Heart and is asking for just four things: Food, water, a shower and a job.
“We’re afraid to cross the street to buy a burrito because we could get arrested. We’re here to work. We know there’s farms and companies and industries that need workers,” she said in Spanish. “Aquí estámos.”
A man from Ecuador said he had a message for the U.S. government: “We don’t want you to give us anything free. We want you to let us work and earn a paycheck. And we want a fast and fair process to earn that right to work.”
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