EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Several hundred people marched through the streets of El Paso Saturday afternoon, and when they reached a group of migrants crowding outside a church, they chanted “no estan solo” — “you are not alone.”
About 300 migrants have taken refuge on the sidewalks outside Sacred Heart Church, some afraid to seek more formal shelters, advocates say, amid new restrictions to crack down on illegal border crossings.
This is the scene that will greet President Joe Biden on his first, politically charged 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 U.S. illegally — an expansion of a pandemic-era immigration policy called Title 42. The new rules will also include offering humanitarian parole for up to 30,000 people per 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 and then travel to Mexico City to meet with North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday.
Dylan Corbett, who heads the non-profit Hope Border Institute, said the city was experiencing a growing “climate of fear”.
He said immigration agencies have already begun increasing deportations to Mexico and are sensing a rising level of tension and confusion.
The president’s new policy expands an existing effort to stop Venezuelans trying to enter the U.S. that began in October.
Corbett said many Venezuelans have since been left in limbo, straining local resources. He said extending these policies to other migrants would only make things worse for them on the ground.
“It’s a very difficult situation because they can’t go forward and they can’t go back,” he said. People who are not processed cannot leave El Paso because of US law enforcement checkpoints; most of them have traveled thousands of miles from their homes and refuse to give up and turn around.
“There will be people who need protection who will stay,” Corbett said.
The new restrictions represent a major change in immigration rules that will apply even if the U.S. Supreme Court ends a Trump-era public health law that allows U.S. authorities to reject asylum seekers.
El Paso quickly became the busiest of the nine Border Patrol sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border, taking the top spots in October and November. Large numbers of Venezuelans began arriving in September, drawn by the relative ease of crossing, a robust network of shelters and bus services on both sides of the border, and a large airport to destinations across the United States.
Venezuelans ceased to be a major presence almost overnight after Mexico agreed on Oct. 12 to accept those who crossed the border illegally into the United States under Title 42 authority. Nicaraguans have since filled that void. Title 42 restrictions have been invoked 2.5 million times to deny migrants the right to seek asylum under US and international law to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
U.S. 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 its activity in the city of El Paso and the New Mexico suburb of Sunland Park. The latest monthly total in the sector was more than triple the same period in 2021, with Nicaraguans being the largest 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 of 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 come with food and other necessities.
Juan Tovar was holding a Bible in his hands and his seven-year-old daughter was hanging on 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 financial chaos engulfing their home country.
He has friends in San Antonio who are ready to take them in, he said. He’s here to work and provide an education for 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 stay.
Another Venezuelan, 22-year-old Jeremy Mejia, overheard this and said he had a message to send to the president.
“President Biden, I’m asking God to touch your heart so 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 USA”
Leighton reported from El Paso and Spagat from Yuma, Arizona. AP writer Claire Galofaro contributed to this report from Louisville, Kentucky.
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