EL PASO, Texas (AP) – Several hundred people marched through the streets of El Paso Saturday afternoon, and when they arrived a group of migrants huddled outside a church, they sang to them “no estan solos” – “you are not alone.”
About 300 migrants have sought refuge on pavements outside Sacred Heart Church, some of them afraid to seek more formal shelters, advocates say, amid new restrictions meant to crack down on illegal border crossings.
This is the scene that will confront President Joe Biden on his first, politically fraught visit to the southern border on Sunday.
The president announced last week that Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans will be deported to Mexico if they enter the United States illegally — an expansion of a pandemic immigration policy called Title 42. The new rules will also include offering humanitarian parole for up to 30,000 people a month from these four countries if they apply online and find a financial sponsor.
Biden is scheduled to arrive in El Paso on Sunday afternoon before traveling on to Mexico City to meet with North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday.
Dylan Corbett, who runs the nonprofit Hope Border Institute, said the city is experiencing a growing “climate of fear.”
He said immigration officials have already begun ramping up deportations to Mexico, and he’s noticing a growing level of tension and confusion.
The president’s new policy expands an existing effort to stop Venezuelans trying to enter the United States, which began in October.
Corbett said many Venezuelans have since been left in limbo, putting a strain on local resources. He said extending this policy to other migrants would only worsen conditions for those on the ground.
“It’s a very difficult situation because they can’t go forward and they can’t go back,” he said. Individuals who are not processed cannot leave El Paso due to US law enforcement checkpoints; most have traveled thousands of miles from their homeland and refuse to give up and turn around.
“There will be people who need protection who will be left behind,” Corbett said.
The new restrictions represent a major change to immigration rules that will stand even if the US Supreme Court ends a Trump-era public health law that allows US authorities to turn away asylum seekers.
El Paso has quickly become the busiest of the Border Patrol’s nine sectors along the US-Mexico border, occupying the top spots in October and November. Large numbers of Venezuelans began arriving in September, attracted by the relative ease of crossing, robust lightning networks and bus services on both sides of the border, and a major airport for destinations across the United States.
Venezuelans ceased to be a large presence almost overnight after Mexico, under Title 42 authority, agreed on Oct. 12 to accept those who crossed the border illegally into the United States. Nicaraguans have since filled that void. Title 42 restrictions have been used 2.5 million times to deny migrants a right to seek asylum under US and international law on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
US authorities stopped migrants 53,247 times in November in the El Paso sector, which stretches across 264 miles of desert in West Texas and New Mexico, but sees much of the activity in the city of El Paso and the suburb of Sunland Park, New Mexico. The latest monthly tally for the sector more than tripled over the same period in 2021, with Nicaraguans by far the top nationality, followed by Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans and Cubans.
Many gathered under blankets outside Sacred Heart Church. The church opens its doors at night to families and women, so not all the hundreds trapped in this limbo have to sleep outside in the plummeting temperatures. Two buses were available for people to warm up and charge their phones. Volunteers bring food and other supplies.
Juan Tovar held a Bible in his hands, his 7-year-old daughter hoisted onto his shoulders. The 32-year-old was a bus driver in Venezuela before fleeing with his wife and two daughters due to the political and economic chaos that has consumed their homeland.
He has friends in San Antonio who are prepared to take them in, he said. He’s here to work and educate his daughters, but he’s stuck in El Paso without a permit.
“Everything is in God’s hands,” he said. “We are all human and we want to be.”
Another Venezuelan, 22-year-old Jeremy Mejia, overheard and said he had a message he would like to send to the president.
“President Biden, I’m asking God to touch your heart so that we can stay in this country,” Mejia said. “I ask you to touch your heart and help us migrants have a better future in the United States”
Leighton reported from El Paso and Spagat from Yuma, Arizona. AP writer Claire Galofaro contributed to this report from Louisville, Kentucky.