EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The U.S.-Mexico border is not at all like Elena expected. The native of Huila, Colombia, had heard horror stories about what happens to migrants when U.S. immigration authorities take them into custody.
But sitting inside an office building along El Paso’s Montana Avenue on Thursday, the Colombian mom had nothing but good things to say about the people of America.
“They gave us clothes, they let us shower and then they took us to a shelter. We never lacked food or medicine,” Elena said. “Here, they helped us book a flight (to New York City) and reserve a hotel because we could not travel today.”
The mother of two was among the first migrants served at El Paso County’s new Migrant Support Center. It is run by a private contractor the county hired through $6 million in advance funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“This is not a shelter. They’re not staying here for long periods of time. The purpose of this center is to help people get to their destination,” said County Commissioner Iliana Holguin. “And an important thing to know is that the travel is paid by the migrant or the migrant’s sponsor. The travel arrangements are not paid for by the county or the FEMA funds.”
The county established the new center, which replaces a smaller facility located near El Paso International Airport, in anticipation of yet another major migrant surge along the border in May. That’s when the Biden administration is expected to end fast-track expulsions under the Title 42 public health rule.
Local authorities in September scrambled to assist hundreds of migrants on the streets after U.S. Customs and Border Protection released them from overcrowded facilities.
That happened the next-to-last time Title 42 was supposed to end. The city dealt with non-sponsored migrants in need of food, shelter and without money to move further inland. The county helped sponsored migrants who could be on their way in hours – with the right assistance.
The region dealt with another, albeit lesser crisis in late December, the last time Title 42 was supposed to end. Local officials’ experience and the structure they put together to deal with released migrants made a difference.
County officials on Thursday gave reporters a tour of the new building where Providencia contractors can assist up to 1,000 released migrants per day. Holguin said fewer than 100 migrants are showing up these days given border crossings have plummeted since early January.
The building has rows of plastic chairs where migrants wait to be called to tables where they meet with facilitators. They go over paperwork, make calls to the migrant’s sponsor – often a relative – and start looking for flights, bus seats or hotels. American flags could be seen on walls and the chairs face a row of clocks showing the time in New York, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles.
“We just help facilitate those travel arrangements because a lot of times their sponsors don’t know where (the migrants) are. So, we have case workers with a private company that helps those migrants make travel arrangements,” Holguin said.
Border Report heard contractors instruct Colombian and Venezuelan citizens to type in “El Paso, Texas” when looking for flights or buses out of town because the migrants didn’t know where they were.
One migrant who found a seat on a bus leaving Thursday afternoon was told to sit near a door and called when a cab arrived to take him to a bus station.
Every migrant screened and released from federal immigration custody tells a dramatic story.
Elena, the Colombian mom, said her entire family is on the run ever since his father and stepmother refused to work for a criminal organization in San Vicente, Colombia.
“They put bullets in my stepmom’s head. They shot my father here (the chest) in front of their two daughters, 5 and 7,” she said. “I’m coming for protection […] I had to leave everything behind. I came here with a daughter but had to leave the other daughter behind because I did not have enough money.”
Her brothers, whom she did not identify, were the first to leave the country, fearing being targeted by the criminal organization. Elena said she tried to start anew by relocating to another province of Colombia, but the criminals found her.
In Mexico, she also recalls unfortunate experiences. Mexican officials say they don’t impede travel by migrants who apply for protection. But someone forgot to tell that to Juarez patrolmen who chased Elena, her daughter and a travel companion near the Rio Grande.
“They chased us. My daughter and I ran and were able to get across but my friend was caught. We had to go across some very filthy water until a (U.S.) immigration patrol received us,” she said.
Elena hopes to travel to New York City with her daughter in the next few days. Her plan is to find a job, work hard and send money to her daughter in Colombia, and for the daughter who came with her, a 20-year-old young adult, to go to school and learn English.
She hopes her daughter can become a productive and educated member of American society for the rest of her life.