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Migrants who fear deportation could sleep on the streets during winter storm in El Paso

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Julian Aguilar
/
The Texas Newsroom
Migrants who recently crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso have set up make shift sleeping quarters on the streets of the border city.

Shelters have been set up across El Paso to keep migrants from sleeping in sub-freezing temperatures. But many who evaded detection could still be left out in the cold.

Despite efforts to ensure migrants stranded in El Paso have a place to escape the winter storm that will blanket Texas Thursday, some could still be forced to sleep on the streets.

The city announced earlier this week it is using a downtown convention center and two unused public schools to act as temporary shelters for some of the thousands of migrants who have been released onto the city streets over the past weeks. But if a migrant hasn’t been processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents and instead evades detection, they won’t be admitted to shelters.

“We are bound by local, state and federal laws. So as a municipality we can’t violate our own laws,” said city spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta.

Isneidis Celli, 23, was one of several migrants from Venezuela who stood in a makeshift line formed after two good Samaritans passed out stuffed animals and clothing to some of the migrants. She said she didn’t want to risk being sent back to her home country by turning herself into Border Patrol, so she crossed into El Paso with her young son and evaded detection.

“I’m scared because I fought so hard to get here. I don’t want to be deported. I got here yesterday. I slept here. I’ll sleep here again tonight,” Celli said, motioning toward a sidewalk near a downtown bus station where she and her family members spent the night. She said some buses arrived Wednesday but only took people who had been processed by authorities and released.

Celli’s story isn’t uncommon after Title 42, a controversial public health order put in place nearly three years to rapidly expel migrants and prevent them from seeking asylum, was supposed to end earlier this week. Earlier this week the Supreme Court announced it was keeping the policy in place, at least temporarily, while a lawsuit filed by Republican governors, including Greg Abbott, continues to play out in court.

Ruben Garcia, the director of the Annunciation House, which operates a network of migrant shelters across El Paso, said the organization takes in people regardless of their status. What concerns him and others is shelter space.

“The problem is we don't have capacity right now,” Garcia said. “Sacred Heart (a church in El Paso) is opening up in the early evening to let people get off the streets. And then in the morning after breakfast, they ask them to leave. But there's something like 400 people standing outside of Sacred Heart. Many of them undocumented. And so everybody's asking, what can we say to them?”

Garcia added that his and other shelters aren’t supposed to house migrants for months at a time but are instead temporary quarters they can access while they make travel arrangements to move onto other parts of the U.S. But migrants who haven’t been processed don’t have permission to travel beyond U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints or go through security at airports.

“I can't do any of that. I can give [them] a place to stay, meals and a place to shower while [they] go out looking for work,” he said. “But I have to make it clear … this cannot be your six-month home.”

He added that the consequences could be dire if someone should become severalty ill or even die during the cold spell because they couldn’t find a place to sleep or refused an offer of shelter.

“I believe that no one, no elected official, is going to say ‘I want to risk a child freezing to death,’” he said. “And I am going to tell you, a child freezing to death over the next couple of nights, there is going to be hell to pay for that.”

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