EL PASO, Texas – Elected officials and nonprofit organizations have taken swift action in the face of an overwhelming surge of migrants in El Paso, getting people sheltered or on a bus to other U.S. cities as quickly as possible.
The goal is to avoid having crowds of migrants camped out on city streets again like last week. Staff at one of the nonprofits said the flow of migrants has slowed in recent days, giving them a chance to catch their breath.
"I know we're still expecting to get more because [immigration officials] are planning to start releasing more at a time, I just don't know when," said Nicole Reulet, marketing director for the Rescue Mission of El Paso. "This is a nice little calm, but I feel like there's a storm coming."
The Rescue Mission of El Paso is a homeless shelter that has stretched itself past capacity to care for the influx of migrants. U.S. immigration officials dropped off the first of many busloads of migrants outside the center on Sept. 8 without warning, Reulet said.
"They didn't even come into the parking lot," Reulet told Fox News. "They parked on the side of the street and told them, like, 'The mission's over there.'"
Staff and volunteers scrambled to get food, clothing, toiletries and more for their new guests. In the two weeks since then, Reulet estimates the shelter has received more than 400 migrants.
"It is straining," she said. "I don't know how long we can do it for."
Border Patrol agents at the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, have encountered an average of 1,500 migrants per day this month, according to US Border Patrol. Across the entire southern border, agents have logged more than 2.1 million migrant encounters so far in Fiscal Year 2022, exceeding last year's total of about 1.7 million encounters and more than quadruple the number of encounters in fiscal year 2020.
Last week, photos showed crowds of migrants sleeping in the streets of El Paso, many camping in front of the Greyhound station. The Opportunity Center for the Homeless in El Paso was so full it had to turn people away. The Rescue Mission ran out of beds and cots.
"It's hard to tell them, ‘Hey we don’t have beds right now, but you can sleep on the floor,'" Reulet said. "That's not something you want to have to say to people."
Now, the sidewalks are clear of tents and sleeping bags.
"We offer them hotels, we offer them shelter, and we have a welcoming center," El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser told Fox News on Wednesday. "We'll continue to make sure people are not released into the street."
The City of El Paso has sent more than 60 busloads of migrants to New York City and Chicago and recently approved a $2 million contract to continue bussing migrants to other cities over the next 16 months. On Monday, the El Paso County Commissioners Court approved a $6.8 million contract to open a new migrant support center near the airport. The county hopes the center will be up and running by early October.
Both the city and county are fronting the bill while counting on payment from the Biden administration. A city spokesperson told KTSM 9 News that all expenses incurred since July 1 won't be submitted to FEMA for reimbursement until the end of the fiscal quarter this month.
Neither the city's welcome center nor the county's planned migrant support center will function as shelters, according to the plans laid out by commissioners, leaving that burden on nonprofits like the Rescue Mission. The county commissioners discussed the possibility of opening a new shelter during their meeting this week, but have struggled to settle on a location.
Leeser, meanwhile, said "opening shelters is not the answer."
"This is not set up for permanent housing," Leeser told Fox News. "The answer is to make sure that we decompress and we send people to their destination."
Leeser said the city's goal is to get migrants on a bus to their city of choice within 48 hours unless individuals wish to stay in El Paso.
While some migrants have simply stopped by the Rescue Mission for a shower and change of clothes before heading to the bus station, Reulet said others have stayed for up to a week while planning their next steps. The center often coordinates with the El Paso Office of Emergency Management, letting staff know how many migrants want to continue their journey north. Then the city alerts the center when buses are leaving so staff can inform travelers.
Reulet said she's proud of El Paso for being so welcoming and hopes other cities will follow suit. But she said she didn't want to focus on the politics of the border crisis.
"If you see someone who's hungry and dirty and tired, you have to respond to that as a human being," she said. "Not as a Republican or a Democrat or Independent, just as a human being."