In El Paso, the once-great Rio Grande River normally runs dry, or at an anemic trickle, posing less danger than the swifter and deadlier stretch of river 400 miles southeast around Del Rio, where dozens of migrants have drowned in just the past year. That partially explains why, over the past two weeks, thousands of asylum seekers have crossed from Mexico into El Paso each day. The phenomenon of so many migrants arriving at one spot on the border simultaneously, moving in large groups that ebb and flow, is the product of thousands of individual decisions, of late-night family discussions, of difficult strategizing. From this side of the border, however, it looks like fluid dynamics. We see thousands of border-crossers moving in unison, and we use the words more appropriate to natural disaster than to human particularity: flood, inundation, surge, tide.
Right now in El Paso, there’s another reason why politicians and reporters have employed the language of natural disaster. The huge number of arrivals has thrown the city into crisis. El Paso—long known as a welcoming place for migrants—is accustomed to sheltering and transporting them. But the thousands of border-crossers, arriving at a rate of about 2,500 some days in the past two weeks, has overwhelmed the modest-sized city. With the current volume, it doesn’t make a difference that the vast majority of asylum seekers won’t remain in the city, arranging instead to travel elsewhere in the country to join family members. El Paso doesn’t have a large enough airport, or sufficient long-distance bus ports, for everyone to get where they need to go. The city is also remote. It’s an eight-hour drive to Austin, and more than nine hours to Dallas. That means officials don’t have the same options as their counterparts in a place like Del Rio, which is a three-hour drive from San Antonio, where the airport and other services can absorb thousands at a time. In far west Texas, in the arid and empty Chihuahuan desert, El Paso (county population 800,000) is what counts as the big city, the regional capital. And it’s been left to largely deal with the crisis on its own.
El Paso’s deputy city manager, Mario D’Agostino, told Texas Monthly last week that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, unable to shelter or provide transportation to thousands of asylum seekers, has instead released many of them on the streets near bus stations, with no resources or instructions. That process—which CBP calls “decompressing”—has put enormous strain on local officials, shelters, and bus stations. With lines at bus stations backed up by both asylum seekers and holiday traffic, would-be travelers are now waiting days before they can leave the city. Without shelter space, and with a cold front buffeting El Paso, some are sleeping on the streets.
When Hurricane Ian bludgeoned Florida in September, President Joe Biden and Florida governor Ron DeSantis managed to put aside their differences and focus on cooperation, lining up state and federal resources and helping one another to aid those who needed it most. That has not happened in El Paso. The “immigration issue” has grown too polarizing and too toxic for Texas and the Biden administration to even feign collaboration.
Governor Greg Abbott has used the crisis as yet another PR backdrop, and instructed state police to begin “enhanced inspections” on cross-border traffic in El Paso. These inspections, similar to the ones Abbott started and then abandoned in April in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, are little more than a form of protest. State troopers have no jurisdiction to search for illegal migrants or contraband, and instead stop trucks for “vehicle safety” checks. In April, this created days-long traffic and led to hundreds of millions of dollars in lost profit as fruit rotted in trucks; troopers found exactly zero drugs, migrants, or contraband. But that’s exactly the point: Abbott is in essence creating a blockade on the border to protest what he calls Biden’s “open border” policies. That’s not what El Paso needs right now: it needs shelter space and social workers to deal with thousands of migrants already in the city. Instead, last Wednesday, Abbott announced his plans to “investigate” the very NGOs in El Paso that are providing critical shelter and transportation to migrants.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has chosen to work directly with Democratic officials in El Paso. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas flew into town last week to meet with the city’s mayor and other local officials. The feds have promised FEMA aid money to help pay back the millions the city has already spent. However, local leaders have been clear that FEMA money is only a partial solution to a problem that will only get worse. “The funding and sheltering is not the answer, it’s just a Band-Aid to a bigger problem,” El Paso mayor Oscar Lesser said at a press conference on Thursday. (Lesser and the county judge, as well as Congresswoman Veronica Escobar of El Paso, were unable to speak with Texas Monthly by press time.) So far, the federal response has exemplified why the Biden administration’s border plan is a train wreck. Unwilling to feed into headlines about a “border crisis,” the administration has tried to deal with Texas’s border crisis through backroom meetings and quiet policy changes. That has stopped the federal government from marshaling the sort of response necessary to help cities like El Paso deal with what is truly a catastrophe, both for asylum seekers and local residents.
And it’s only going to get worse. In past years, border crossings have almost always gone way up right after the new year, thanks to cooler weather across the deserts in Northern Mexico. Over the next few months, the number of crossers seems likely to break every record left in the books. There’s a second factor that will exacerbate the situation: on Wednesday, the controversial policy called Title 42 is scheduled to expire, and millions of would-be asylum seekers who have been expelled under the policy may try crossing again. (On Monday, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts issued an administrative stay on ending Title 42, pending a response on Tuesday afternoon by the Biden administration. If the court decides to hear an appeal from nineteen states including Texas, the policy will remain in effect until the case is heard.)
Since the early pandemic, both the Trump and Biden administrations have used Title 42, an obscure statute in the federal code, to ignore asylum law and summarily “expel” millions of would-be asylum seekers. Under U.S. and international law, asylum seekers are given a chance to argue their cases in court, and remain in the U.S. in detention centers or on parole pending their hearings. Instead, under Title 42, the government has pushed them back into Mexico or sent them on planes to their home countries; because there’s no legal process, these flights are known as “expulsions,” not deportations. While many anti-immigration hawks have cheered Title 42, politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that, even as a deterrence measure, it’s only a temporary step: those expelled by Title 42 don’t simply disappear. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of those expelled into Mexico have not given up trying to cross the border, and the number of repeat crossers apprehended by Border Patrol in the last few years has skyrocketed. (This goes a long way toward explaining the record numbers of apprehensions along the border.)
When (or if) Title 42 expires, millions of those who have been waiting to cross may try to cross again and plead their case in the country’s asylum system. This is the natural consequence of letting pressure build up in the proverbial kettle, but the Biden administration has announced no plan to help cities like El Paso deal with an even greater surge, and the asylum system has not been expanded to deal with the millions of asylum seekers backed up in Mexico and Central America.
D’Agostino, the El Paso city manager, is accustomed to smoldering disasters; until recently, he was the city’s fire chief. When we spoke on Thursday, he listed the sort of immediate actions he’d like to see from both the state and the feds. He said the city needed extra law enforcement officers, shelter staff, and financial assistance from the state. And he wanted the feds to keep Title 42 in place, at least for the time being. He was clear, though, about what El Paso ultimately needs—serious, long-term solutions at the federal level.
“At the end of the day, we need to address our immigration laws and how people are allowed to come in and seek asylum here in this country,” D’Agostino said. “They have to have a more orderly process that’s good for the nation and good for those that are coming in. We need to give them a successful footprint, or foundation, to actually get to where they want to go.”
The recent arrivals in El Paso are almost all asylum seekers with valid reasons for seeking refuge in the United States. Most of those who have crossed during the last two weeks are from Nicaragua, a country that until recently has not sent significant numbers of people north. But this year, thousands have fled the increasingly authoritarian and dysfunctional nation ruled by President Daniel Ortega, a one-time Marxist revolutionary. Likewise, since 2015, millions more have fled Venezuela, a broken state in which President Nicolas Maduro has used claims to socialism as window dressing for tyranny. These are exactly the sorts of countries that the United States imagined when writing its refugee laws—save, perhaps, one detail: the current asylum seekers are brown-skinned and Latin American, whereas U.S. refugee law largely imagined white Europeans fleeing Soviets. But the situation current asylum seekers have found in El Paso is far from welcoming, and it has put both migrants and local residents at risk.
In a world where politicians were actually interested in dealing with the border crisis instead of scoring political points, Biden and Abbott would likely be making appearances in El Paso together. They’d be outlining a joint plan to help the city manage its crisis. Because, while El Paso is facing a serious problem, it is a solvable one.
In many ways, El Paso has been a model for how the country can manage record migration across the border. The numbers of border arrivals have been high throughout the last year in the city, and, in recent months, El Paso has filled as many as fourteen buses a day with migrants bound for other cities including Houston, Dallas, and Denver. This process is vastly different from the theatrical trips Abbott has organized, as he’s sent buses full of migrants to Democrat-run cities like New York and D.C. without forewarning. By contrast, El Paso coordinates with both migrants and the destination cities to make sure asylum seekers can get to a place where they actually want to go, and their hosts are able to accept them.
But if the current rate of daily crossers continues—or increases—El Paso would need a truly enormous fleet of buses to manage travel. Consider that a full-sized charter bus can only carry about fifty people. It would take fifty buses per day to transport everyone who crossed the border into the city just this past weekend.
It is a shame that Abbott’s bussing scheme has focused on PR instead of functionality. (As you may recall, the first trip of migrants sent to D.C. was tellingly dropped off in front of Fox News’s headquarters in the city, and D.C. officials were not alerted to its pending arrival). Texas could provide charter buses in a way that would help border destinations such as El Paso seek aid from larger cities around the country that are prepared to shelter and transport asylum seekers and migrants. Perhaps understandably, however, local Democratic officials have been loath to participate in a bussing scheme that Abbott uses overtly as a “stick-it-to-the-libs” gambit. And, for much of the past two weeks, Mayor Lesser resisted calls to declare a state of emergency in El Paso, which would have paved the way for the state to offer resources. Lesser, it seems, was reluctant to provide Abbott another soapbox for his antics, but he caved on Saturday and made an emergency declaration.
Politicians such as Abbott would have you believe the pipe dream that we can create a border policy so “tough” that it will deter would-be crossers before they even arrive. That is a lie. They will keep coming. And as long as societies continue to collapse in Nicaragua and Venezuela, asylum seekers looking for refuge in the U.S. will keep coming from those two countries. As crops continue to fail from climate change–fueled drought in the Guatemalan highlands, migrants will keep coming. As El Salvador slips into authoritarianism, asylum seekers will keep coming. As natural disasters and gang violence continue to roil Haiti, refugees from the island will keep coming. As Cuba’s economy faces collapse, migrants and asylum seekers will keep coming. As the Mexican government continues to lose control to the cartels, those fleeing the record violence will keep coming. As government corruption and narco-capitalism continues to assault Honduras, Hondurans will keep coming.
There is no solution in sight, and there will not be one until city, state, and federal officials learn to cooperate and work together to deal with mass migration in the twenty-first century. If they do not, asylum seekers and residents in cities like El Paso will pay the price for this Texan border crisis.