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Texas border cities scramble to shelter thousands of newly arrived migrants

UPI
A migrant attempts to cross the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas on Thursday, where the mayor has declared a "local state of disaster" after thousands crossed the border in recent days. Photo by Adam Davis/EPA-EFE

EL PASO, Texas, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Thousands of migrants have crossed from Mexico to Eagle Pass and El Paso, Texas, in the past few days, with both cities struggling to find shelter for the new arrivals as immigration officials process and release many of them into the border cities.

In Eagle Pass, Mayor Rolando Salinas Jr., signed an emergency declaration on Tuesday night to allow the city of about 30,000 to get state resources and funding to handle the number of migrants being released by immigration officials. He told The New York Times that on Wednesday as many as 2,500 migrants crossed into Eagle Pass.

"We need the extra help, the funding," Salinas told the Times. "We are losing. Every day the bridge is closed we are losing money."

In July, federal agents encountered an average of 817 migrants each day in the Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, according to government data.

On Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which processes people and vehicular traffic at ports of entry, said in a statement that it temporarily closed one of the three international bridges to traffic so agents could help Border Patrol process hundreds of migrants, many of whom were being held under one of the bridges connecting Eagle Pass and Mexico.

"In response to this influx in encounters, we will continue to surge all available resources to expeditiously and safely process migrants," the statement said. "We will maximize consequences against those without a legal basis to remain in the United States. CBP will continue to prioritize our border security mission as necessary in response to this evolving situation."

Chris Olivarez, a representative of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said in a social media post Wednesday night that the mayor has once again allowed police officers, including state troopers, to arrest migrants crossing the river into the city's Shelby Park.

"Due to the unprecedented influx of illegal immigrants crossing between the ports of entry, DPS Troopers & @TXMilitary will regain control, support local, county, & federal authorities, & maintain an enforcement posture," Olivarez wrote.

The mayor in June declared the park private property to allow state troopers to arrest migrants for trespassing. But that decision came under intense criticism after a DPS medic told his superiors that troopers had been ordered to push migrants back into the river and deny them water, and that the razor wire installed along the riverbank by the state had seriously injured migrants.

The mayor joined the rest of the city council in voting to rescind that decision in July. Salinas Jr. didn't respond to a request for comment by the Tribune on Thursday.

In the months after the emergency health order known as Title 42, which immigration officials used to turn away many migrants at the border, expired on May 11, the number of migrant apprehensions dramatically dropped. But in the past few weeks, the number has skyrocketed.

According to CBS News, which cited unpublished federal government data, immigration officials on average made 6,900 apprehensions per day along the southern border in the first 20 days of September -- a 60% increase from the daily average in July.

The scenes at the border this week are reminiscent of a similar influx of migrants two years ago in Del Rio, where immigration officials struggled to process 15,000 migrants, many of them Haitian. It took officials nearly a week to process or deport most of the migrants, who were held under an international bridge for days.

In El Paso, city officials have opened an emergency overflow shelter to prepare for a rapid increase of asylum seekers being released into the city by federal agents. The city is also looking to buy a vacant middle school building to use it as a shelter.

Many of the migrants rode cargo trains from Mexico City or Chihuahua to the border.

Earlier this week, Ferromex, Mexico's largest rail operator, temporarily suspended 60 train runs in northern Mexico because migrants were getting injured as they tried to climb aboard the freight cars. Ferromex said about six injuries have been reported this week.

As it prepared to end Title 42 -- which the Trump administration put into place early in the COVID-19 pandemic to stop asylum seekers from entering the country -- the Biden administration implemented a series of policies aimed at preventing migrants from crossing the border illegally.

It has asked migrants to make appointments using the government's CBP One cell phone application, but many migrants have said appointments fill up quickly. Other migrants say even when they get an appointment, they still have to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities for weeks or months before they can formally request asylum.

On Wednesday night, the Biden administration announced it will allow Venezuelans who entered the United States on or before July 31 to receive temporary protected status, a program Congress approved in 1990 that allows undocumented people to get a work permit and defer deportation for 18 months.

"Temporary protected status provides individuals already present in the United States with protection from removal when the conditions in their home country prevent their safe return," said Department of Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. "However, it is critical that Venezuelans understand that those who have arrived here after July 31, 2023 are not eligible for such protection, and instead will be removed when they are found to not have a legal basis to stay."

Among those who recently arrived in El Paso was Yuralber Alvarado, 36, who left Venezuela with her husband and his brother and mother earlier this month. She was sitting outside a hotel where the city of El Paso has been paying, using federal funds, to shelter some of the migrants. She said they stayed in Ciudad Juárez for a month, trying to make an appointment on the CBP One app, but the appointments filled up before they could get one. She said an El Paso resident offered the family a spare room to stay in until they could get on their feet.

She said she and her family plan to go to Denver as soon as they have the money to get there.

Alvarado said she worked as a special education teacher at a public school, but her monthly salary of $8 wasn't enough to survive. She said because she was a public employee, she was forced to take part in pro-government demonstrations even though she opposes the government's policies.

"There's no freedom even if the government says there is," she said.

Sitting outside the same hotel with one of her grandchildren, Karina, 44, of Ecuador said she didn't want to give her last name out of fear that the men who threatened to kill her husband might retaliate. The family owned a small water-purification business, and gang members initially demanded $500 from her husband as a "safety fee," she said. Then they began demanding $2,000 per month. When her husband refused, she said, the men left notes at their home saying they would kill him unless he paid.

One night in August, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at their home, she said.

"We were comfortable, we didn't need to migrate," she said. "But the danger was just too much, we had to leave."

Across the street, a young couple from Venezuela lingered in a parking lot with their 2-year-old daughter, who was playing with a toy car. The couple declined to give their names, but said that they had been trying to make an appointment on the CBP One app as they trekked north toward the U.S.-Mexico border. When they got to Juárez and they still didn't have an appointment, rather than sleep on the streets, they said they decided to cross the Rio Grande and surrender to Border Patrol agents.

"We're just trying to find a place to sleep until we can get out of here," the wife said.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.