EL PASO — This week, a coalition of shelters and immigrants rights groups are helping to house and feed an influx of undocumented immigrants arriving in El Paso from the Rio Grande Valley after federal officials said their resources are too strained.
The surge forced the Department of Homeland Security last week to create a task force to deal with the large numbers of unaccompanied minors entering Texas, though in El Paso undocumented immigrants who need shelter are all family units and not children who have crossed alone, said Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, a migrant and homeless shelter located blocks away from the Rio Grande.
“Immediately ICE contacted us and said, ‘We do not have the ability to detain people and so we’re going to — after we process [them] — release them on their own recognizance,’” Garcia said he was told. “'We need your help and we want your help and want these people to be treated as human beings.'”
Garcia said he was "very impressed with the commitment on a part of the ICE officers that we have been working with."
Leticia Zamarripa, an ICE spokeswoman, would only confirm that ICE field offices contacted the shelters. She was not immediately available for additional comment.
Garcia said he was first contacted on Wednesday about the influx of immigrants. He told reporters that it was his impression that a recent backlash in Arizona against the ICE plan to send immigrants from Texas to that state prompted the government to reach out to his group and others. Other undocumented immigrants who were apprehended last month in Texas were flown to Arizona for processing and then released last month. Garcia said ICE didn't reach out to warn the local officials in Arizona, which sparked uproar from the community.
“A hold was placed on sending more people. What was then decided was, let's send people to El Paso,” he said.
Taylor Levy, the family immigration coordinator at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, said that of the 88 undocumented immigrants she has received, most are from Central America and were in detention for four to five days.
“They are coming in, we are processing them, giving them a change of clothes, giving them a shower, giving them water and dealing with minor medical concerns,” she said. “From there, we have been helping people move on to their family members in the United States.”
Garcia said that when released, the undocumented immigrants are told to appear before an immigration judge near their final destination. So far, none of the families who have been processed and ordered to appear had any intention to stay in El Paso, said Levy, who has helped the immigrants purchase bus or plane tickets to get to their families. The shelters are nonetheless preparing for undocumented immigrants who have no place to go.
Major Mike Morton, the area commander for the Salvation Army, said shelter employees do not act as guards who monitor the immigrants to make sure that they don’t abscond or that they make their court dates. Their roles are in a humanitarian capacity only. Morton said he expects to take in about 10 to 12 families at the shelter and was contacted by El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar.
Escobar said local officials were scrambling to find resources to help the immigrants. She also called the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services to ask whether any medical personnel would be available to offer services.
Morton said he expects to receive mainly category 4 or 5 migrants, whom he described as those with the most urgent needs. Those people, he said, could require as much as two weeks of housing. Though the El Paso operation that began last week has not seen unaccompanied minors, Morton said there are at least 25 youths who were previously apprehended in custody in El Paso.
Patrick Timmons, a researcher on violence in Latin America who lives in Juárez and works on the Mexican Journalism Translation Project, said the undocumented immigrants were likely trying to escape violence. Honduras, he said, is the most violent country in the world with a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000. Assertions that the U.S. immigration debate is driving the surge, he said, are "absurd."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Ruben Garcia's name. The error has been corrected.