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In El Paso, Migrants With Nowhere to Go Strain a Welcoming City

The city of El Paso, a West Texas way station long accustomed to migrants arriving from Mexico, has begun to buckle under the pressure of thousands upon thousands of people coming over the border, day after day.

The usual shelters have been filled. So too have the hundreds of hotel rooms wrangled by the city to house migrants. A new city-run shelter opened over the weekend in a recreational center, and rapidly filled all of its roughly 400 beds. Another shelter is planned in a vacant middle school.

Mayor Oscar Leeser said over the weekend that the city had reached a “breaking point” and was no longer able to help all the migrants on its own. He welcomed the buses, chartered by the administration of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, that once again began carrying hundreds of migrants out of the city to Denver, Chicago or New York. The mayor said he was seeking millions of dollars in additional aid from the Biden administration.

The strain felt in El Paso, a traditionally welcoming border town, reflected a situation that has become increasingly untenable for communities up and down the U.S. border with Mexico. After months of relative calm, a new wave of migrant arrivals, mostly from Venezuela but also from other countries in South America, Africa and elsewhere, is taxing the available services in cities and small towns from Texas to California.

The city of El Paso, a West Texas way station long accustomed to migrants arriving from Mexico, has begun to buckle under the pressure of thousands upon thousands of people coming over the border.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

In San Diego, the county board of supervisors declared a humanitarian crisis on Tuesday, and city officials said the available federal resources were insufficient to handle the migrant influx. Among other things, the board requested federal personnel and money to help migrants reach their final destinations and avoid having to release them into the streets.

So many migrants have arrived in Southern California in the latest influx that border agents have begun dropping off some of them as far north as Oceanside, Calif., more than 50 miles from the border, to ease pressure on shelters and services in San Diego.

Most of the migrants have pending deportation hearings. But their first court dates may be two years away.

In the past, many arrivals crossed the border with a specific destination in mind, because of family or other connections in the United States. But that has begun to change.

“They’re arriving here with no idea where to go, and with no resources to get them anywhere else,” said Melissa M. Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, which provides legal support for migrants.

As a result, migrants have been sleeping on sidewalks in El Paso, near overcrowded shelters that are some distance from the heart of downtown. Residents of neighborhoods that are unaccustomed to migrants say they are suddenly encountering strangers, many of them carrying plastic bags stretched thin with clothes, near hotels where the city has managed to find rooms for them.

In San Jacinto Plaza in the city center, scores of men sprawled out on benches or sat talking near the marquee tourist hotels on a recent weekday — a notable change from prior surges, when migrants largely remained near shelters. Noticeably absent from the plaza were El Paso residents.

Judith Camacho, a 25-year-old Venezuelan who had crossed the border from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez several days before, said she empathized with the diners at an upscale restaurant across from the plaza as she walked by with her husband and two young children.

Migrants have been sleeping on sidewalks in El Paso, often near overcrowded shelters.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

“I feel terrible for me and my family to be seen like this,” said Ms. Camacho, adding that she had been trying to get a hotel room from the city, to avoid having to stay on the street. Restaurant patrons occasionally glanced through the large glass windows facing the sidewalk, pausing their conversation to watch migrants standing idly nearby.

Like most of the people who make the long trek to the border and cross illegally into the United States, Ms. Camacho hopes to make it eventually to a major city like Chicago or Washington, where she has heard there are opportunities.

“We know they’re coming to the United States, not to El Paso,” Mayor Leeser said at a news conference on Saturday.

Over the weekend, federal border agents were holding about 6,500 migrants at the local processing facility in El Paso, Mr. Leeser said, a sharp increase from several weeks earlier that caught the city by surprise.

By Wednesday, the city’s data showed that the number had grown to 7,600 in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, and more than 1,000 were being released into the city each day.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Abbott said that 15 buses had been chartered by the state in El Paso in the last week, and had transported 640 migrants out of the city.

El Paso officials have been adamant that all the migrants who are released into the community would be offered places to stay, avoiding the kinds of street releases that have been seen in other areas along the border, and city statistics show they have largely met that goal.

Migrants line up in San Jacinto Plaza, the main square in El Paso, to board a bus that will take them to a city shelter. Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

But even with accommodations arranged by shelter operators and the city, some migrants have opted to stay on the streets. Some expressed distrust of the government and bristled at not being able to come and go from shelters as they pleased.

“There are times when they let you in, but they will not let you out,” said Renzo Campos, a 22-year-old man from Venezuela. A fellow Venezuelan standing with him, Carlos Matos, 26, said he had spent time in a shelter and did not want to go back. “God will sustain us out here,” he said.

The men said they were waiting in El Paso because they were not sure where else to go. They and others said they had come to the United States to work.

A block away, Diana Barrientos sat on the sidewalk with her back against the wall of a downtown hotel and her year-old son on her lap. She and her husband had turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents at the border wall, and spent six days in detention before being released on Tuesday. They had run out of money, but were hoping to find a free bus ride out of El Paso. “God willing, we will make it to Chicago,” where she has friends who have agreed to help her, she said.

Ms. Camacho, the mother of two who was outside the restaurant, said she, like many other newly arrived migrants, had tried to register in Mexico for an appointment with a U.S. border officer to gain permission to cross legally, but ran into delays on the U.S. government app. Out of money and fearing for their safety in Juárez, she and her husband decided to cross the Rio Grande illegally.

As they went to the river, she and her family were “chased by a truck full of men in Mexico who wanted us to pay them to cross,” she said. “We were running away, my husband fell into the river, and I almost fell with my daughter into the water.”

Once they reached the U.S. side, they laid blankets over the spiky concertina wire coiled along the riverfront, pushed through the wire and surrendered to Border Patrol agents, who processed and released them.

Like many Venezuelan arrivals, she and her husband have no relatives or connections elsewhere in the United States.

As she spoke, the door of a downtown restaurant opened briefly, as patrons filed in and enticing aromas wafted out into the street.

“Mom, I’m hungry,” her son said.

“I know,” Ms. Camacho replied. “We’ll eat soon.”

Miriam Jordan contributed reporting.

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