Full shelters, living at the bus stop and an uncertain future
This is the humanitarian crisis at the US border
Story by Nicole Chavez, CNN
Photographs by Adriana Zehbrauskas for CNN
Published December 17, 2022
El Paso and Ciudad Juárez — Dina Diaz walked slowly behind her husband on the streets of El Paso, Texas, trying to hide her defeat and frustration from their children. A social worker had escorted them to an emergency shelter only to be denied entry and within the hour, with the sunlight gone for the day, temperatures would quickly dip below freezing.
Moments before, the Nicaraguan mother of three children who is seven months pregnant, couldn't stop her eyes from watering when the social worker burst into tears, apologizing for coming empty-handed.
Diaz and her family are among the thousands of migrants who arrived in El Paso in the past week. They are part of a surge of border crossings overwhelming resources in this community — a crisis that is likely to worsen with the court-ordered end of Title 42 next week.
More than 2,500 people have arrived in El Paso each day in the past week, city officials said, warning that the number is expected to double after the federal policy is lifted.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser has said his city is doing what it can to address the crisis.
"It's something that we're going to have to work with the UN and other countries to work through. It's a situation that again, is bigger than El Paso, and now it's become bigger than the United States," he told reporters earlier this week.
Leeser's comments and a visit from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to El Paso this week have reignited the debate over how authorities should respond to an expected influx of migrants with the lifting of Title 42, the Trump-era public health policy that allows federal immigration agents to swiftly expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries.
A federal judge has ordered the government to end the policy by December 21, and the reality of that looming deadline is weighing heavily on this city, where officials and community organizations already say they're overwhelmed.
"We have a responsibility to meet at this moment," said Marisa Limón Garza, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, a local nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants.
"It (crisis) requires all of us to encourage our elected officials to do more and to really take a stance in this regard. It's not something that we can just turn away from, we don't have that luxury. This is a real phenomenon that people anywhere in the US need to know about," she added.
Like the border's way of life, the continuous arrival of migrants is complex and palpable in El Paso as much as in Ciudad Juárez, its larger sister city in Mexico. On the north concrete banks of the Rio Grande, hundreds of people — many of them Nicaraguans — are lining up for hours, waiting to seek asylum in the US. On the river's south banks, where a camp of migrants living in tents was dismantled last month by Mexican officials, Venezuelans are longing for the day they can do the same without being expelled to Mexico. Numerous nonprofit and faith groups as well as governments on both sides of the border are scrambling because their shelters are quickly reaching capacity.
CNN spoke with people on both sides of the US-Mexico border about the harsh realities that migrant families have experienced since fleeing poverty as well as drug and gang violence in their home countries, and the role that some locals play in the humanitarian crisis.
A journey ‘that marked me for life’
Many migrants who waded into the Rio Grande's knee-deep waters that divide the outskirts of the sister cities' downtown areas, and who were later taken into custody by federal authorities and processed, have been sleeping for days on El Paso streets. They've clustered in the vicinity of bus stations that sit less than half a mile away from the very spot where they reached US land.
For the past week, Misael Aguilera has waited outside the Greyhound station hoping to embark on the final 8-hour bus drive that will reunite him with his brother in Central Texas.
The 35-year-old spent more than two months traveling from Peru to El Paso, but he can't afford his bus ticket yet. He arrived at the US-Mexico border with no more than the clothes he was wearing.
"Traveling to Mexico was horrible, it's an experience that I won't be able to forget — something that marked me for life," Aguilera said about being robbed, hearing about kidnappings and seeing people losing their lives.
Aguilera, who used to work as a clinical nurse specialist in his native Cuba, keeps himself busy by keeping the makeshift camp outside the downtown bus station somewhat organized and clean. As some people leave on buses, he and others collect the larger blankets some leave behind and save them for those who may arrive at any given time.
"We are trying to keep things tidy. Make sure trash is being picked up, keeping this space clean and just creating an environment where we can feel safe," Aguilera said.
"I'll just keep doing it until I'm gone," he said.
Others near the Greyhound station are Diaz, her family and her sister's family. A total of 11 people, including adults and their toddler to teenage children, have been in El Paso for about a week, unable to afford bus tickets for each of them.
Afraid of getting separated, they spent most nights on the streets after shelters wouldn't accept all of them or denied them entry for not having arranged travel out of El Paso. There have been countless times when Diaz's husband Carlos Pavón Flores, can only hold their daughter Esther in his arms, in silence. If nothing, he wants to keep her safe and warm.
El Paso resident: ‘If people can help, please do’
Daniel Banda tends to a once-quiet convenience store and gas station near the edge of downtown El Paso. The building, sitting across the street from another bus station and two blocks from the Greyhound station, has become the first stop for many migrants looking for food and water after being released from Border Patrol custody.
And the 20-year-old, who used to spend his days solely cleaning and restocking shelves, might be the first El Paso resident who is not a government official that many migrants encounter.
Some ask him whether the store would exchange pesos for dollars, if they sell SIM cards so they can call their relatives, for access to a clean restroom or directions to a store where they can buy clothes. At times, the constant traffic could be hectic, Banda says, but he understands the precarious situation migrants are experiencing.
"I come from a modest background and my family has taught me to help in any way I can," Banda said. "And they are very respectful people, very respectful. They are good people, even better than some locals."
"They have even offered to clean or help with chores around the store," he added.
A few feet away from the store, dozens of people are camping on the sidewalk. In the past two months, the number of people in the area has increased considerably, he says. Some have been sleeping there for nearly a week while others arrived no more than a day ago.
Because Banda often talks with his family about what his interactions are with migrants at the store, he says his mother has started collecting blankets to donate and talking with her employers and acquaintances about how they can also help.
"If people can help, please do. They need beds, gloves, hats, socks, food. Nothing goes to waste," Banda said.
‘We don’t want to say no to anybody’
When a white bus dropped 25 men who had just been released from immigration custody at the doorstep of a shelter near downtown El Paso without prior notice, staff members — from social workers, receptionists and maintenance workers — rushed to pick up intake forms and pens to greet them.
The facility is one of five homeless shelters that have been either at capacity or over capacity with the arrival of migrants, said John Martin, deputy director of the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, which runs the shelters.
Martin and his staff are among the dozens of people working for nonprofits, religious groups, immigrant advocates, and other groups that have stepped up to help migrants and are close to reaching their breaking point.
The shelter, which can comfortably accommodate 100 to 120, was housing 190 people earlier this week — a record number in the nearly 29 years ago since the Opportunity Center for the Homeless was established, Martin said. "We don't want to say no to anybody," Martin said.
"We don't want to see the children outside. Even if we have to put a family in my office. I don't care. We'll find a way to make it work."
Martin said migrants who come to the shelter don't want to stay in El Paso and staff members help them arrange travel. While the shelter doesn't cover the cost, it's a process that involves many calls to relatives across the country, bus companies and airlines, and navigating language barriers.
"We may get 30 on their way and all of a sudden, I've got 50 that come in right behind them. We're never going to be able to catch up at this rate," Martin said.
As the days pass and the number of migrants continues increasing, Martin is unsure of the shelter's future and says he worries they would have to make a decision that goes against the shelter's very own mission.
"The Opportunity Center is going to come to a point, and I'm thinking it may be within the next day or two, where we simply don't have physical space to handle them. And we're going to have to say no."
Shelters have reached capacity
Across the border in Ciudad Juárez, shelters have quickly reached capacity even as more and more facilities opened up in recent months. The shelters serve as a point of convergence between people who have been temporarily living in this border city for months after seeking asylum in the US and being expelled into Mexico, and those who reached the border in the past weeks and are waiting for the end of Title 42 expulsions.
Ingrid Matamoros and her family have lived at Tierra de Oro church shelters in Juárez for nearly six months. In Honduras, she had found success selling used plus-size clothing while her husband operated a car shop — but gang violence, extortion and threats made them fear for their and their children's lives, the 28-year-old mother says.
Matamoros says she has gone through phases of desperation and shame of being in so much need, and hopes that they will soon be processed and vetted to enter the US with the support of a sponsor.
"You ask yourself why other people are crossing and you are not, why others have that opportunity and why there are people who waste their chances when there's people like us who are at risk," Matamoros says.
Families who traveled from other parts of Mexico, Guatemala and Ukraine spent the morning at the shelter arranging chairs, hanging up Christmas lights, and cooking food for a posada, a Mexican Christmas tradition that includes the re-enacting of Joseph and Mary's search for a room in Bethlehem. Matamoros says it's something that will make her two sons, 9 and 4 years old, laugh and forget about their demoralizing journey.
“I want this to end soon. I want a stable home for my children so they go to school, have a normal life, go to bed whenever they want and play or watch TV. I don't want them to suffer anymore."
‘It’s our turn to simply wait’
When Emir Eduardo Sanchez Mendez reached the south side of the Rio Grande banks, he put down a metal tray with doughnuts on the ground and took his socks off before picking up the tray again. In a matter of seconds, he managed to dip his feet in the freezing water and step on a series of rocks that led him to US land without dropping the tray.
He's repeated this ordeal dozens of times a day, carrying pizza boxes, packs of water bottles and more knowing he can't go further into the US because of his nationality.
The 30-year-old Venezuelan has been selling food and water to the migrants lining up close to the border wall in El Paso. Venezuelans had been previously exempt from Title 42, but the Biden administration started applying it to them in October.
Sanchez Mendez wants to enter the US and find a job that will allow him to buy medicines for his mother who suffers from psoriasis.
"It's our turn to simply wait and see what happens with us (Venezuelans). In the meantime, we work on this side of the border to survive," said Sanchez Mendez, who has been in Juárez for about a week waiting for the end of Title 42.
He spends most of his day walking down the line of people, his voice echoes as he yells "el agua, el agua se acaba" (the water, the water is running out) trying to sell the water bottles he and his friends bought together. It's their way of making some money or as some Venezuelans say "buscar la moneda" to eat and one day continue their journey up North.
CNN's Catherine E. Schoichet and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.