Dispatch from El Paso: how one city decided to embrace its new migrant influx

Residents and clergy volunteer to help those seeking asylum in historic border town

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The dawning sun shines down on the pavement leading to Sacred Heart Church in El Paso, Texas, slowly warming the desert chill.

The heat is a much needed respite for the hundreds of migrants from Central and South America seeking shelter and protection near the century-old church.

Wrapped in jackets and American Red Cross blankets seen in humanitarian crises the world over, the asylum seekers, many of whom have journeyed for months to reach the US, have been sleeping in the rough in near-freezing temperatures.

They have been coming in record numbers since August, flooding the streets of El Paso, a frontier city bordering Juarez, Mexico. The US city has a higher-than-average poverty rate, which puts constraints on how much support is available.

“Our community is a resilient one,” said Peter Svarzbein, a former El Paso City council member.

“We're not the most prosperous city in the United States or in Texas but we're full of love and compassion.”

Nowhere in the city is that generosity more evident than outside of Sacred Heart Church, which lies a few hundred metres from the border in historic El Segundo Barrio, once known as the “other Ellis Island”.

It is an area of low-slung houses and colourful murals, where Mexican and American culture mix seamlessly. The vibrant area is anchored by the redbrick church that dominates its skyline.

English and Spanish can be heard in equal measure on the neighbourhood's streets.

Church volunteers gather daily to offer warm meals and comfort to the migrants, most of whom have crossed illegally into the US, hoping to seek asylum.

“[It’s been] very challenging,” explained Rafael Garcia, the priest at Sacred Heart.

“We sort of started from zero. We did not have a shelter, we had to start getting volunteers on a day-by-day basis to provide food and clothing.”

At its peak in mid-December, as many as 2,400 migrants were crossing into the city every day.

While the crossings have slowed in recent weeks, the city remains at the forefront of a growing problem for the administration of US President Joe Biden.

Last Sunday, Mr Biden briefly visited El Paso before heading to Mexico for the North American Leaders Summit.

A migrant asylum seeker from Venezuela stands outside the Sacred Heart Church in El Paso. Reuters

Mr Biden toured Bridge of the Americas, the city’s busiest port of entry. He met US Customs and Border Protection agents who have been grappling with the record number of migrants attempting to enter the country.

The Border Patrol apprehended about 2.4 million people in the last fiscal year — which ended in September — the highest number ever recorded.

Before his four-hour trip to the border, the President announced that he would be expanding Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows the US to turn away asylum seekers for health safety reasons.

Under the administration's new immigration policy, migrants from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba will be returned to Mexico if they enter the US illegally.

The administration is trying to discourage migrants from crossing illegally by providing a new, legal pathway for them to apply for a parole programme online from their home countries.

But immigration experts have roundly condemned the new policy.

“The administration is trying to kind of play both sides and appeal to nativists and restrictionists while also trying to present this kind of mirage that the United States is living up to its human rights obligations when it's not,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Many of the migrants are fleeing economic and political instability that have forced them to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Those already in El Paso do not have the option to apply legally through the new programme and are stuck in limbo.

“They're fleeing an oppressive government and they had to leave on probably short notice, like most people that are in forced migration,” Fr Garcia told The National.

“They're here now with a hope of asking for asylum, like you can in most parts of the world, and that option is blocked.”

Fr Garcia said he is committed to helping those outside his church but he worries “what's going to happen to them” now that they have no legal avenue to claim asylum.

During his stopover, the President did not visit Fr Garcia’s Parish.

If he had, he would have seen a community working hard to help those in need and trying to keep a sliver of the American dream alive for those still seeking it.

Updated: January 13, 2023, 9:11 PM
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