Border authorities in El Paso released about 100 migrants near a Downtown bus station on Sunday morning, signaling that Border Patrol facilities and nonprofit shelters have reached capacity.
The release was the first such drop-off by a Department Homeland Security agency since early 2019, when thousands of asylum seekers were arriving to the El Paso area and border authorities began releasing people into Downtown.
The migrants — all single adults, including people from Haiti, Ecuador and Turkey — were dropped off before dawn around 5:30 a.m. The El Paso Times confirmed the release with three sources familiar with the matter but who were unauthorized to speak to the press, as well as migrants who were among those dropped off.
Migrants released have often presented claims for asylum or other immigration relief. Typically, when Border Patrol releases migrants from custody the migrants are carrying removal orders and notices to appear at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in their destination city or region.
Many of the migrants quickly found transportation elsewhere, to local hotels or to their destination cities in the U.S. But others were struggling mid-morning, as last-minute travel reservations were expensive or hard to come by.
Jean William sat on the floor of the El Paso International Airport on Sunday, speaking to his brother Junior Pierre by phone. The Haitian man wore a government-issued green bracelet with his vital information, plastic orange clogs and no luggage. He was among those released Downtown on Sunday, he said.
William hoped to get to New Jersey to reunite with his brother, he said in Spanish, but couldn't find a flight. On speakerphone, Pierre asked a reporter if there were any motels near by; his brother couldn't afford a hotel with the money he was carrying.
"It's really hard," Pierre said by phone. "Flights are expensive or already booked."
Nearby, two men from Turkey paced back and forth by the airline check-in counters. Their tennis shoes were missing their laces, which are usually confiscated by Border Patrol when migrants are taken into custody.
Using limited English and an online translation application on his cellphone, one of the men said he had been dropped off that morning along with others. He was also struggling to find a flight.
The release of dozens of migrants to the street, instead of to a shelter, is likely a harbinger of what's to come when the expiration of pandemic-era rule known as Title 42 puts an end to the quick expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers at the border.
The Biden administration plans to lift the public health order on May 23, pending the outcome of federal litigation.
Border agents have been taking more than thousand people a day into custody in recent days, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Border Patrol's Central Processing Center and an annex in El Paso have capacity to hold about 1,700 people; the facilities have been overcrowded for weeks.
Typically, asylum seekers and other migrants taken into Border Patrol custody are released to El Paso's Annunciation House migrant shelter network. But the numbers have outpaced the organization's ability to host everyone.
"Our capacity is slowly — and I would underline the word slowly — increasing," said Annunciation House Executive Director Ruben Garcia. "But it’s been very, very challenging because of the issue of the volunteers."
Many migrants need a place to rest for a day or two while they book travel arrangements to their destinations in the U.S., he said.
In El Paso Sector — which includes West Texas and New Mexico — Border Patrol agents have encountered or apprehended increasing numbers of migrants in the first three months of the year.
Encounters climbed from about 18,000 in January to 20,000 in February and to more than 25,000 in March. The numbers are larger than a year ago, when Border Patrol encountered about 10,000 people in January, 13,000 in February and more than 19,000 in March, according to CBP statistics.
In March, 62% of migrants encountered by Border Patrol in El Paso Sector were processed for expulsion under Title 42, the Centers for Disease Control public health order that prohibited border authorities from holding people in "congregant settings" to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Pressure is mounting for the city or county to get involved.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego met with Border Patrol El Paso Sector Chief Gloria Chavez on Sunday and toured crowded holding facilities.
After the tour, Samaniego told the El Paso Times by text message that he was "impressed by Border Patrol personnel going over and above their expected duty" but that the current pattern of immigration "will require a collaborative approach between all the stakeholders and most importantly the humanitarian compassion from our community at large."
"We now need local government to step in to relieve Chief Chavez from tasks that are clearly beyond her control," he said.
Asked in March whether the Office of Emergency Management planned to provide assistance to migrants should federal authorities begin releasing migrants directly to the street, then-El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino, now a deputy city manager in charge of public safety, said the city would provide COVID testing and "nominal local transportation and public safety support."
"The bigger lift is led by the federal government and NGOs," D'Agostino said in an emailed response.
Garcia said he believes "the city and county need to look at opening hospitality venues that can complement the shelters."
Two Border Patrol spokespeople declined to immediately answer questions regarding holding capacity or Sunday's migrant release and said they would respond on Monday or Tuesday. An ICE spokeswoman referred the El Paso Times to Border Patrol.
In late 2018, ICE was dropping off hundreds of migrants at the Greyhound bus station before the Annunciation House led the creation of a system to provide migrants with shelter and assistance, looping in numerous area church groups and charities.
At the height of that earlier wave of asylum seekers, churches, nonprofits and government agencies in El Paso, Anthony, Las Cruces, Deming and Albuquerque set up temporary shelters to host migrants and provide cots, warm meals and assistance in booking travel arrangements.
Immigrant advocates say releasing migrants into the care of a nonprofit shelter is preferable to leaving people on the street, because they often have limited resources and little knowledge of where they are. It can also take time to set up travel plans.
Maria Asitimbai Cando clutched a boarding pass for a midday flight to New York City as she headed toward airport security in a pair of sweats and flip-flops. She said she spent nine days in Border Patrol custody before she was left at the bus station on Sunday.
"There were so many people" in Border Patrol custody, she said. "Just in the women's area we were 500 or so."
She had traveled from Ecuador in hopes of reuniting with her husband, with the goal of working to pay for their 7-year-old daughter's expensive medical treatment for a rare condition, she said. She took an Uber to the airport.
Lauren Villagran can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: DHS releases migrants into Downtown El Paso