El Paso, Texas
One-year-old Brenda’s tiny feet are bare on the cold asphalt of an El Paso parking lot as the harsh reality begins to sink in for her parents. They are undocumented. They are homeless. And his daughter narrowly escaped death when they crossed the Rio Grande.
“My daughter would have died because she was super frozen,” said Glenda Matos.
Matos’ pain is clear in her eyes as she remembers her daughter being bathed in freezing cold, crying hysterically. Matos and her husband, Anthony Blanco, say they had nothing to keep their daughter warm, not even body heat, because they, too, were wet and cold.
Matos says she hugged Brenda tightly and ran from house to house asking for help until they finally found a kind El Paso resident who helped them with clothes and shelter.
“I asked God for help,” Glenda said. “God… put these people in my path.”
For Matos, the small red rosary with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, hanging from Brenda’s anchor, saved them. Matos says she wrapped the religious token around her daughter’s tiny body for protection when they left her native Venezuela.
Brenda and her parents are among hundreds of migrants living in squalor on the streets of downtown El Paso around Sacred Heart Parish. The makeshift camp, with its piles of blankets, strollers and tents on either side of a busy street, has city officials expressing concerns about public safety and health, as the area is teeming with migrants who do not have running water or adequate shelter.
The surge of migrants aggregated here began a few weeks ago, when anxiety over the scheduled end of the Trump-era pandemic public health rule known as Title 42 prompted thousands of migrants to surrender to border authorities or cross the United States illegally. in a very short period of time.
Title 42 allows immigration authorities to quickly return some migrants to Mexico. The policy was scheduled to be lifted last week, but a Supreme Court ruling kept the rule in place while legal challenges play out in court.
While the impact of the ruling has caused turmoil across the southern border, the scene in El Paso is unique. It is the only border city in the United States where hundreds of migrants are living on the streets longer than expected. It’s a new phenomenon that city officials say has never happened during previous migrant surges.
It is motivated, in part, by the anxiety created by the uncertainty of Title 42, which has motivated some migrants to cross the border illegally. These migrants have no family or sponsors in the US to receive them. And many also fear that traveling out of town without proper documentation could lead to detention by US immigration authorities.
The misery around the Parish of the Sacred Heart is palpable. Evelyn Palma carries blankets taped and attached to a chain link fence to keep the cold and rain off her five children, ages 1 to 8, some of them shirtless. He has been living on the street for eight days. But Friday was especially miserable because it was 40 degrees and it poured overnight.
“We woke up soaked,” Palma said.
The 24-year-old Honduran mother says she and her children turned themselves in to immigration authorities earlier this month, but were quickly returned to Mexico, likely under Title 42. That’s why he says, a week ago he decided to evade the authorities by crossing the river.
He is part of a growing number of migrants who El Paso city officials say have decided to enter the U.S. illegally and, for a variety of reasons, have not left the city.
“These are people who came to the country in anticipation of the passage of Title 42,” said Mario D’Agostino, El Paso’s deputy city manager.
The living conditions that Palma and other migrants are suffering have officials worried about their safety and public health in general. City spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta says the spread of the disease is paramount.
“We are still in the midst of what is called a ‘triple epidemic,’ with high levels of infection of upper respiratory infections throughout the community,” Cruz-Acosta said.
And while the city has room for about 1,500 migrants in shelters set up at the convention center and a public school, those beds are only offered to migrants who have surrendered to border authorities and been authorized to remain in the United States. pending their immigration cases. These migrants receive documentation from US Customs and Border Protection that allows them to travel within the country.
Migrants who enter the country illegally are not offered city-provided shelter because federal dollars are used to foot the bill. And that money can’t be used to care for people who entered the country illegally, according to D’Agostino.
City officials have been referring undocumented migrants to nonprofits and churches like Sacred Heart Parish, which becomes a shelter after nightfall.
That is why hundreds of migrants gather in the streets around the church, hoping to get one of the 120 to 130 places to enter the church for the night.
Around 6pm, a line of migrants forms outside the church gymnasium. Parents can be seen holding their children in an attempt to keep them warm. Women and men with children have priority, according to Rafael García, the priest who runs the shelter. García says it’s difficult to send people away, but his church has limited resources to meet the growing need.
Angello Sánchez and his 4-year-old son Anyeider were able to spend the night several times this week at the shelter. The Colombian father says he was trying to protect his son from the cold because his little face still had windburn from being out in the elements during the recent freeze.
“I came here from the south of Mexico by train. It was very cold and I didn’t have a jacket,” Angello said.
Palma, a mother of five, says she was offered entry to the shelter with her children, but decided not to accept the offer because a pregnant friend accompanying her was denied entry.
El Paso, which means “The Step” in Spanish, has historically been a gateway for migrants passing through the United States.
“For hundreds of years people have come through and this is just part of their journey,” D’Agostino said. “In normal times the community doesn’t even notice.”
But this migrant surge is different because migrants are staying for days and even more than a week, city officials say.
In addition to not having family or sponsors in the US to receive them, many migrants do not have the money to pay for their transportation out of town. And in the makeshift migrant camp around Sacred Heart Parish, word is spreading about another factor driving some undocumented migrants to El Paso: the fear of being detained at checkpoints immigration located inside the United States.
In the past week, at least 364 undocumented migrants traveling on commercial buses bound for northern cities were detained at these immigration checkpoints, he said. tweets published by the head of the El Paso Border Patrol.
Palma says he heard about the checks and apprehensions and decided to stay longer in El Paso while he figured out what to do.
“If immigration stops me, they’re going to take me back,” Palma said.
Juan Pérez, from Venezuela, was on the street and said that “immigration is on the way out [of the city]”They’re going to take us back and send us to Mexico.”
The U.S. has 110 Border Patrol checkpoints on the southern and northern borders, where vehicles are screened for the “illegal flow of people and contraband,” according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office . Checkpoints are usually between 25 and 100 miles from the border, according to the same report.
Anthony Blanco says he’s not afraid of being caught in these internal checks.
“I’ve walked through many different countries without documents. I don’t think we’re going to be arrested, but if that happens, it was God’s will,” Blanco said.
For days this week, Blanco has been holding a street corner sign that reads, “Help me get a job so I can support my wife and baby,” asking passing drivers for money for bus tickets in Denver .
Why Denver? He says word has spread that there are jobs and that life is more affordable.
On Friday morning, a particularly miserable day because it was cold after a heavy overnight rain, Blanco was all smiles. He says he had raised enough money to continue his journey to Denver.
“Thank God,” Blanco said.