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As lawmakers ramp up 'invasion' talk, migrants in El Paso instead search for places to sleep

Migrants in El Paso .JPG
Julian Aguilar - The Texas Newsroom
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Migrants huddle outside a bus station in El Paso. Several are part of groups that recently crossed into Texas and now have no place to go after being released by federal officials.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are targeting non-governmental organizations they say could be complicit in aiding migrants.

On Wednesday morning just blocks away from the international bridge in downtown El Paso, Henri and Irene, 25 and 24, respectively sat on a park bench planning their next moves — without money or a place to stay.

The migrants, who asked that their last names not be used, said they left their native Nicaragua to look for work and escape poverty.

“We’re trying to figure out what to do right now,” said Henri, who wants to get to Arkansas where he has family. “We don’t have any money, and we’re trying to figure out how to get a bus ticket.”

Even in the West Texas sun, the wind chill dropped the temperature into the high 30s, and it was expected to fall below freezing overnight. Henri and Irene both had only the clothes they were wearing and blankets provided by El Paso charity organizations.

While a record number of migrants like Henri and Irene have poured into El Paso in recent days, Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are elevating their rhetoric about an “invasion” on the southern border by targeting non-governmental organizations they say could be complicit in aiding migrants

In a letter to Paxton made public Wednesday, Abbott cites reports that NGOs may have assisted in helping migrants cross into El Paso. Thousands of migrants have crossed into El Paso from Ciudad Juarez in recent days, which has overwhelmed shelters and forced some asylum seekers to sleep on the street.

“We further understand NGOs may be engaged in unlawfully orchestrating other border crossings through activities on both sides of the border, including in sectors other than El Paso,” he wrote. “In light of these reports, I am calling on the Texas Attorney General’s Office to initiate an investigation into the role of NGOs in planning and facilitating the illegal transportation of illegal immigrants across our borders. In addition, I stand ready to work with you to craft any sensible legislative solutions your office may propose that are aimed at solving the ongoing border crisis and the role that NGOs may play in encouraging it.”

Abbott’s office didn’t respond when asked what specific reports he cites in his request.

Later Wednesday, Paxton said his office is investigating whether recipients of funds from the Texas Bar Foundation was using the monies to “support the border invasion.” His statement adds that three organizations where his office sent “requests to examine” materials and information include American Gateways, the Equal Justice Center and the Tahirih Justice Center.

“Not only has this Administration abdicated its duty to secure the border, but it has also actively encouraged an illegal invasion into the United States,” said Paxton, who is under indictment himself on charges of securities fraud. “What’s more, it seems some Texas groups may be facilitating the invasion. I won’t tolerate it.”

The Tahirih Justice Center is a national nonprofit that aids migrants fleeing gender-based violence, and the Equal Justice Center is an Austin-based organization that represents the interest of workers, regardless of their immigration status. American Gateways is a Texas-based organization that serves migrants in dozens of Central Texas counties.

In a statement Edna Yang, the co-executive director of American Gateways said: “For over 30 years American Gateways has provided high quality trusted legal services that follow all federal, state, and local guidelines. We have received an inquiry from the Attorney General’s office and we are providing the responsive information.”

The Tahirih Justice Center and the Equal Justice Center did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Abbott and Paxton’s actions come a week before the scheduled end of Title 42, a public health designation that allows American border agents to quickly return migrants to Mexico without allowing them to apply for asylum. The Trump administration invoked Title 42 in 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19, and it was kept in place by President Biden despite opposition from Democrats and several immigrant rights organizations.

Last month, a federal judge ruled the policy was “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the Biden admiration to stop enforcing it. The White House has appealed the decision, but without action from the courts soon, the policy will end on Dec. 21.

Nowhere to go

Though they didn’t know what the week – or even the next day – had in store, Henri said he was still grateful to have finally made it to the United States after a near two-week trek.

“I can’t complain about my life. I am where I want to be, where the [Lord] brought me,” he said.

When asked where they would go later or where they would sleep, Henri simply responded: “Where we can. But I am not going to complain.”

Henri and Irene said they were both seeking asylum in the United States, which is legal, though they acknowledged it would be a long and difficult process. When asked about their court hearing before an immigration judge, the first step in what could be a yearslong process, they both shrugged.

“I wasn’t told. They just dropped us off and they didn’t say. But it’s here somewhere,” said Henri, referring to plastic bag holding his documents. “But I haven’t had a chance to” think about that.

Just across the street, where cardboard boxes held more blankets, pillows and clothing free for the taking, Daniel, 19, and Dilon Jose, 20, were in a similar situation.

After traveling from Colombia, they slept under a freeway overpass overnight and hadn’t eaten since early Tuesday, they said.

“We don’t want to stay in El Paso, but we don’t have any money,” Daniel said. “We are waiting to see what happens, or if we’ll be able to find work.”

Both said they weren’t seeking asylum but instead wanted to work for a few years and then return to Colombia. They said they were hopeful that would happen, but their immediate concern was what to do next.

“We’re still frozen, look at my hands,” said Daniel as he held a cigarette with dried and stiff fingers. “We want to travel [north], but we don’t have any money.

Trade woes

In response to the increase in migrants coming into El Paso, the Texas Department of Public Safety said Tuesday it was again conducting “enhanced” safety inspections of tractor-trailers that cross into Texas from Mexico.

The Texas DPS said the agency would not discuss operational specifics but hoped that the inspections “will help deter cartel smuggling activity along our southern border.”

“Cartels do not care about the condition of the vehicles they send into Texas any more than they do about the human lives they cram into tractor-trailers or those lost to a fentanyl overdose,” the agency said in a statement.

In April, Abbott ordered enhanced inspections of commercial vehicles coming into Texas in response to the Biden administration’s plan to end Title 42. The inspections led to delays that exceeded 12 hours at some ports and led to billions of dollars in losses for the state economy. While the scope of the current operation is unclear, frustration is already mounting, the New York Times reported, citing drivers that worried they’d be in line for days.

It was later reported that during the April operation DPS officers found no drugs, weapons or migrants, according to The Texas Tribune. Abbott has maintained the effort was also geared toward vehicle safety.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.