El Paso, Texas — Migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other Latin American countries stranded in the streets of the U.S. border city of El Paso Thursday prepared to face frigid temperatures that could drop to as low as 21 degrees Friday.
Dozens of migrants were living and sleeping on streets outside El Paso’s Greyhound bus station, a local church and other areas of the city hours before the temperatures in West Texas were set to plummet amid an approaching winter storm.
On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned migrants not to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, saying the “severe weather will force temperatures to dangerously low levels this week.”
Many of those stranded on El Paso’s streets were migrant men, but women and families traveling with minors, including toddlers and other young children, could also be seen on the streets, bracing for the incoming freeze with blankets and cardboard boxes. Most migrants were donning jackets, gloves, hats and other donated winter clothing they received from empathetic local residents and volunteers.
For the past two weeks, hundreds of migrants have been forced to sleep on the streets of El Paso because space in the city’s shelters and churches has been depleted by a sharp increase in migrant arrivals, predominantly from Nicaragua, along this stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Local authorities in El Paso, who declared a state of emergency over the migrant homelessness crisis last week, have started housing migrants in hotels, homeless shelters and more recently, in the city’s convention center. Officials are also planning to convert two vacant middle schools into short-term migrant shelters.
But local shelter officials and volunteers said those efforts will likely not be enough to get all migrants off the streets, either into a shelter or on a bus to their respective destination in the U.S. On Thursday, several migrants said they could not find shelter in the city, and did not have enough money to board a bus to leave El Paso.
John Martin, who helps run several shelters for migrants in El Paso, said the combination of the migrant crisis, plummeting temperatures and the growing needs of the domestic homeless population had created a “perfect storm.”
“With the colder temperatures, and working with our local homeless population, we anticipate a 50% to 60% increase in need,” Martin told CBS News, saying his facilities are all over capacity. “It just seems like everything is hitting at once at this point.”
Nathaly, 25, a migrant from Venezuela, said she has slept in El Paso’s streets for three straight nights alongside her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter, Rose. The young migrant mother said she’s extremely concerned about her daughter’s health, noting Rose has asthma and is suffering from bronchitis.
“It’s been a very difficult experience, especially for people with children,” Nathaly told CBS News in Spanish. “We have blankets, but the cold from the floor goes to our lungs. Sometimes my daughter coughs a lot and wakes up in the early morning.”
“My daughter doesn’t talk much, but her expressions say a lot. I think that when she wakes up and cries, it is because she’s trying to say, ‘Mommy, I’m cold,'” Nathaly added.
Nathaly said her family was going to have to sleep on the street again Thursday night. She has set up a makeshift bed near the Greyhound bus station, alongside a group of Venezuelan migrants, some of whom crossed the notorious and dangerous Darién jungle in Panama with her on their way to the U.S. southern border.
While her family hopes to settle and work in Atlanta to help relatives in crisis-stricken Venezuela, Nathaly said they don’t have enough money to purchase the bus tickets required to get there. She said they heard El Paso officials had started housing migrants at the city’s convention center, but that migrants like them, who had not been processed by U.S. border officials, were being rejected from the facility because of a local policy.
That concern was echoed by a group of young Venezuelan men who were also planning to sleep on a street near the bus station on Thursday night. They said they had gone to the convention center, but were denied entry because they also had evaded U.S. border officials and did not have government documents showing they had been released and allowed to seek asylum.
Since the U.S. started expelling Venezuelan migrants to Mexico under the Title 42 pandemic-era border restrictions, some Venezuelans have sought to evade border officials after entering the U.S. illegally, fearing that they could face expulsion.
Laura Cruz-Acosta, the lead spokesperson for the city of El Paso, confirmed to CBS News that local authorities have a policy of not sheltering migrants who were not processed by federal immigration officials, citing the need to comply with federal laws. Cruz-Acosta said the city was referring migrants who did not have U.S. government documents to local nonprofit organizations and federal immigration officials.
El Paso’s leaders have warned that their city’s ability to house and relocate migrants will come under even greater strain if the Supreme Court allows the Biden administration to end the Title 42 expulsions, as the federal government would need to process and release nationalities that are currently being expelled.
Because of logistical and diplomatic obstacles, Title 42 generally only applies to migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela, as those are the nationalities the Mexican government has agreed to accept. Moreover, the governments in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela place significant limits or outright reject U.S. deportations of their citizens, and U.S. deportations to other far-flung countries are costly.
That means most migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries beyond Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle are not expelled under Title 42, and are generally allowed to seek asylum. Oftentimes, they’re released with a court notice or instructions to check-in with immigration officials at their destinations.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether it will continue its pause on the termination of Title 42, which was supposed to occur earlier this week because of a lower court order that found the Trump-era policy to be illegal.
Republican-led states are asking the court to keep Title 42 in place indefinitely. The Biden administration has argued it should be allowed to end Title 42, because it can no longer justify its stated public health rationale. But it has asked the court to delay the policy’s termination for a few days if it rules in its favor, citing operational concerns.
In El Paso, shelter volunteers don’t believe the current situation is sustainable. Martin, the local shelter official, urged federal, county and local officials to work together to create additional migrant transportation and housing capacity in El Paso.
On Wednesday, Martin’s shelter for families with young children was housing 140 migrants, a number well beyond the facility’s regular 85-person capacity. Martin said there’s one prospect he’s dreading.
“Our goal is not to say no to a single person. We’re doing everything in our power to accomplish that.”
But there’s going to come a point,” he added, “where we will have to turn away people in need.”