El Paso, Texas has been tested by an unprecedented immigration crisis

El Paso, Texas — A black SUV pulled up near the Greyhound bus station in this border town to deliver winter clothing to dozens of gathered migrants. Then a red truck appeared carrying watermelon and other fruit for the migrants, many of whom had slept on nearby streets the night before.

Later in the day, a patrol car arrived with pizza boxes. Some hungry migrants rushed to grab a piece. Others continued to lie or sit on blankets and cardboard boxes. The young parents made sure their kids picked out donated jackets, gloves and boots to brave the plummeting temperatures in the westernmost corner of Texas.

The migrants came from countries across Latin America, from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Many were there to collect food and supplies. Others were waiting for a bus to take them to cities in the US.

Food, clothing and supplies distributed by local volunteers and officials throughout the day illustrated El Paso’s long history of welcoming and helping immigrants and refugees. But even El Paso has been tested by the unprecedented situation along the southern US border, where migrants are arriving in greater numbers and from more countries than ever recorded.

Migrants receive supplies in El Paso, Texas, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez / CBS News

ONE spike The influx of migrants to El Paso this month has overwhelmed local resources and shelters, forcing hundreds of migrants to sleep on the city’s streets amid freezing temperatures and prompting its mayor to declare a state of emergency. The city has already converted hotels and homeless shelters to house immigrants and plans to turn a convention center and two vacant high schools into temporary shelters.

The recent border surge near El Paso is part of a broader regional immigration crisis that has driven hundreds of thousands of people into the US over the past two years to escape crushing poverty, unemployment, authoritarian rule and violence in countries across the the Western Hemisphere.

In fiscal year 2022, US federal border authorities stopped immigrants more than 2.3 million times, an all-time high. Record numbers of Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Haitians and other immigrant groups have entered the U.S. border in the past year, testing U.S. enforcement resources and policies traditionally designed to deter illegal immigration from Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America.

Deteriorating economic and political conditions in many Latin American countries – coupled with expectations that US border policies are more accommodating under President Biden, job opportunities in a tight US labor market and a desire to reunite with family members who have already made the journey—have challenged immigrants to find different ways to get to the U.S., even if it means risking their lives.

“It was very ugly and difficult,” said Erick Sandoval, 28, recounting his journey through Panama’s ungoverned Darién jungle, which he crossed with his wife and young children en route to the US. “They are the ones who suffer the most. Sometimes we didn’t eat. He also needed long walks in the mud.”

So far in 2022, a record 228,000 migrants have crossed the Darién Gap, including 148,953 Venezuelans, 21,535 Ecuadorians and 16,933 Haitians, according to Panamanian government data. Arrivals of Venezuelans and Ecuadorians there increased after the US persuaded Mexico to end visa-free travel for those nationalities.

Sandoval said his family left Ecuador more than a month ago because of an increase in extortion and a decrease in economic opportunities. He said his family was robbed in Guatemala and Mexico, where they had to sleep on the street for several days. After crossing the US border, Sandoval’s family was processed and released with instructions to check in with immigration officials. The family was placed in a shelter in El Paso. Sandoval said they don’t have enough money to buy a bus ticket to leave the Texas border town.

The trials of his family’s journey, Sandoval said, will be worth it if he can find work and enroll his children in schools in Paterson, New Jersey, where his brother settled after crossing the southern border earlier this year. His wife, Nicole Conte, 24, said she understands why some Americans oppose helping immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally, but said they should empathize with their plight. Sandoval agreed.

“If we got along, we wouldn’t have to emigrate,” he said, holding his 2-year-old daughter, Genesis. “If we could feed our children, why would we emigrate?”

Erick Sandoval, Nicole Conde and their two children in El Paso, Texas on Tuesday, December 20, 2022.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez / CBS News

As tens of thousands of Cubans have done in the past year, Yocarys, 33, flew to Nicaragua, which allows visa-free travel from Cuba, to begin the journey to the US border. She said it was hard to leave her 13-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter behind. But Yocarys said the dire economic situation on the communist-ruled island prevented her from securing basic necessities for her children.

“The desperation there is real,” Yokaris said as she waited for a 12:40 p.m. bus to take her from El Paso to Houston, where she hoped to catch another bus to Florida. She hopes to find work there to send money back to her children in Cuba.

US border officials have relied on a public health law known as Title 42 to manage the record immigrant arrivals reported under Mr. Biden. The rule, first enacted by the Trump administration as an emergency measure to contain the coronavirus, allows the US to deport immigrants without giving them a chance to seek asylum.

Due to logistical and diplomatic hurdles, Title 42 generally only applies to immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and more recently, a limited number of Venezuelans, as these are the nationalities the Mexican government has agreed to accept in its territory.

Authoritarian governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela place significant limits on or flatly refuse U.S. deportations of their citizens, and U.S. deportations to other distant countries are costly.

This means that most immigrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other countries beyond Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle are not deported under Title 42 and are generally allowed to seek asylum. Often, they are released with a court notice or instructions to check in with immigration officials at their destinations.

Title 42 could also end soon. The Supreme Court is currently weighing whether it will allow a lower court decision annulling deportations to take effect.

The Biden administration has asked the high court to allow officials to end Title 42 after Christmas, saying the policy can no longer be justified on public health grounds. But Republican-led states urged the court to keep the measure in place indefinitely.

In El Paso, local officials have warned that ending Title 42 would further strain the city’s sanctuary system and its ability to relocate immigrants to other destinations, as the federal government would have to release additional immigrants currently being deported. .

However, the Biden administration has said it plans to expand expedited deportations and deportations of some immigrants once Title 42 is lifted. It is also sending additional personnel to the southern border to respond to an expected spike in immigrant arrivals that is projected to occur after deportations are suspended.

In addition, Biden administration officials are considering a regulation that would bar some immigrants from seeking asylum if they did not seek protection in countries such as Mexico before arriving in the U.S., people familiar with the internal discussions told CBS News.

A barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.

CBS News

That asylum restriction will likely be supplemented by expanding a process that has allowed some Venezuelans to enter the U.S. legally if they have financial sponsors here. Officials are considering expanding that process to include Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans.

Milton, 39, said he and his wife, Wendy, 35, joined the mass exodus from Nicaragua earlier this year because they were struggling to feed their family. Milton blamed the repressive government of Daniel Ortega for the country’s economic woes.

“You don’t make enough money there to buy groceries,” Milton said, noting that he had to leave his three children with his family in Nicaragua because he couldn’t afford to bring them during the trip to the US.

Milton and Wendy, who asked that their last names be withheld, were also waiting outside the El Paso bus station to board the bus to Houston at 12:40 p.m. They said their final destination was Florida, but they weren’t entirely sure how they were going to get there.

The couple’s goal is to make enough money in Florida to bring their children, ages 16, 13 and 9, to the US. They have an appointment to check in with immigration officials in two months. But with the huge backlog of cases straining the US asylum system, they likely won’t be able to apply for work permits available to asylum seekers any time soon, forcing them to work under the table.

However, Milton said he is not sure he wants to live in the US permanently.

“We don’t come here for luxury, but because it’s a necessity,” he said, adding that he would love to be able to return to Nicaragua if the economic situation there improves.

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