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El Paso shelters, city on alert for release of thousands of migrant families

By
Patrick Timmons
Customs and Border Patrol pass out snacks to apprehended migrants as they wait to be processed at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas on March 22. Border Patrol detention centers have soared past capacity, prompting the mass release of migrants. Photo by Justin Hamel/UPI
Customs and Border Patrol pass out snacks to apprehended migrants as they wait to be processed at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas on March 22. Border Patrol detention centers have soared past capacity, prompting the mass release of migrants. Photo by Justin Hamel/UPI | License Photo

EL PASO, Texas, March 22 (UPI) -- This city's already stretched migrant shelters are bracing for a busy weekend because immigration authorities are expected to release thousands of migrant families who crossed this week from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, officials said.

"We are out of detention space," said Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to to media Thursday during a visit to the South Texas border.

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released 24,000 families into El Paso since December, more than one-fourth of the 84,500 family units released along the entire U.S-Mexico border in the same period, an immigration official said in a statement.

The immigration official said the agency "is releasing families to nonprofits that provide assistance with immediate basic needs such as temporary shelter, food, water, clothing and transportation services; however, many of these organizations are overwhelmed due to the ongoing influx of families at the border."

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in statement that its agents have apprehended 62,000 migrants in the El Paso sector since October.

Annunciation House, the city's leading nonprofit migrant shelter, said it expects to receive 1,800 people this weekend at more than a dozen hospitality sites. These shelters are spread throughout the city, and migrants are not gathered at one location.

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The nonprofit's shelter network already has provided temporary housing to more than 2,500 mostly asylum-seeking migrant families released by immigration authorities this week, stretching its limited financial resources and volunteers.

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"People are sending financial donations from all around the world," said Christopher Davis, an Annunciation House volunteer.

"But we also need material donations. We need bread and peanut butter and jelly so we can make sandwiches for our guests' long journeys into the United States. We also need new socks and underwear and personal hygiene items," Davis said.

Friday morning was busy at one of the shelter network's hospitality sites, Caminos de Vida church on El Paso's east side, where a group of volunteers prepared to greet migrant families.

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At 11a.m., a white immigration bus dropped off 45 migrants, all parents and children, mostly from Guatemala and Honduras. Volunteers provided the migrants who had just left immigration detention with egg rolls, beans, hamburgers, macaroni, snacks and sodas. The migrants lined up patiently for food in a subdued mood, with parents and children holding hands.

The shelter's director, Israel Cabrera, said the migrants would stay at Caminos de Vida for several nights while they arranged transportation to friends and families in the United States, often on buses. The shelter relies on volunteer drivers to take the migrants from the church to the bus station located 10 miles from Caminos de Vida.

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Meanwhile, at the downtown bus station, shelter volunteers continually dropped off migrant parents and children for journeys to family and friends in the states. By noon, more than 50 migrant parents and children were waiting patiently for buses, a few bags of belongings at their feet.

Municipal officials said they would hold a special session on Monday morning to address the influx of migrant families and how the city's office of emergency management could coordinate between federal immigration authorities and the nonprofit shelter.

"We expect Immigration and Customs Enforcement to continue to release more migrants," said Laura Cruz Acosta, communications director for the city.

Earlier this week Immigration and Customs Enforcement told city officials they would drop hundreds of migrants at the downtown bus station because Annunciation House had no more room to shelter migrants. The situation forced city authorities to scramble.

"That's the same as dropping them on the street with nowhere to go," Cruz Acosta said.

"We wanted to avoid a repeat of when immigration agents dropped off migrants at the bus shelter in December in freezing weather so the office of emergency management looked at using a city park with a sports center as a place where the migrants could have a moment of respite while the shelters figured out what to do," Cruz Acosta said.

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But Cruz Acosta said the city did not have to use the park because Annunciation House was able to find hotel rooms for 150 people.

At Monday's special council meeting, Fire Chief Mario D'Agostino will brief members about what the city's emergency management services have learned about the migrant influx from immigration authorities and local nonprofits, Cruz Acosta said.

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