Barbed wire separates migrants and the Texas National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the banks of the Rio Grande on Tuesday in El Paso. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / For The Texas Tribune

EL PASO — National Guard members and state troopers formed a line on the banks of the Rio Grande on Tuesday and blocked dozens of migrants who had already crossed the river from surrendering to nearby Border Patrol agents.

About 75 men, women and children stood on a narrow strip of concrete between the river and the guard members, facing coils of razor wire, seven National Guard members holding rifles and two state troopers as a National Guard member holding a bullhorn told them in Spanish that they would not be able to enter the country here and directed them to a port of entry.

Border Patrol agents positioned behind the National Guard and state troopers watched the standoff. A Border Patrol spokesperson on site said Border Patrol agents would not process the migrants.

Under Title 42, the pandemic-era emergency health order that immigration officials have used to immediately expel migrants, ports of entry are closed to migrants seeking asylum.

Starting Monday night, National Guard and state troopers set up a line of about 1,000 yards of razor wire to block what has become a popular crossing point between Mexico and this border city, and positioned Humvees and Texas Department of Public Safety patrol vehicles on the banks of the river where more than 1,000 migrants crossed in a four-hour period earlier this month.

The state sent more than 400 Texas National Guard personnel to El Paso on Monday “as part of the Governor’s enhanced border security effort,” according to a statement, and Gov. Greg Abbott demanded Tuesday that the Biden administration “immediately deploy federal assets” to El Paso and other border cities ahead of the arctic weather.

The Texas Military Department, which oversees the state National Guard, and state Department of Public Safety didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from The Texas Tribune.

The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement on Tuesday that over the past week, agents have moved more than 3,400 migrants by expelling them to Mexico under Title 42 or flying them back to their home countries. Agents have also moved 6,000 migrants from the area to other sectors where immigration officials processed them, according to the statement.

“Average daily encounters have also dropped 40 percent — from roughly 2,500 a day to roughly 1,500 a day — over the last three days as we continue to work with partners in Mexico to discourage disorderly migration and disrupt criminal smuggling operations,” the statement said.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego told CNN on Tuesday that installing razor wire at the border isn’t the National Guard’s role. “I am very confident that it was not coordinated with Border Patrol,” he said. “I have always insisted that any assistance from the state has to be part of our overall strategy and in lockstep with our own enforcement strategy.”

Thousands of migrants either have recently crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso or are waiting to cross the border when the U.S. government lifts Title 42, an emergency health order the government has used since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to quickly expel migrants — including asylum-seekers — at the U.S.-Mexico border without allowing them to request asylum.

Texas was one of the 19 Republican-led states that asked a federal court to keep Title 42 in place beyond Wednesday. On Monday, they asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the policy’s scheduled lifting. Chief Justice John G. Roberts quickly granted the request and asked the Biden administration to respond by 4 p.m. Tuesday.

“The fight to keep Title 42 in place continues. I will continue to do everything I can in court to ensure our border is secure,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted Monday after the court’s decision.

The administration on Tuesday asked the high court to let Title 42 be lifted soon.

“The government recognizes that the end of the Title 42 orders will likely lead to disruption and a temporary increase in unlawful border crossings. The government in no way seeks to minimize the seriousness of that problem,” a lawyer for the Department of Justice said in a court document filed with the Supreme Court. “But the solution to that immigration problem cannot be to extend indefinitely a public-health measure that all now acknowledge has outlived its public-health justification.”

Migrants still sleeping on El Paso’s streets

Before National Guard and state troopers deployed to the river Monday night, hundreds of migrants had crossed and formed a line against the steel fence on the U.S. side, waiting for Border Patrol agents to apprehend and process them. Many have been released into the city after processing, which has filled El Paso’s shelters and forced the city to repurpose various facilities to use as shelters.

In some parts of downtown El Paso, hundreds of migrants are still sleeping on the streets and waiting to get enough money to fly or catch a bus out of town to reunite with their families across the U.S.

Border Patrol officials have also flown and bused migrants apprehended in El Paso to other Texas cities to process them.

El Paso city and county officials have been scrambling to find more space to shelter a steady stream of migrants in recent days — and they know they need to move fast as much of the state is expected to experience days of freezing temperatures later this week.

During a Monday press conference, Mayor Oscar Leeser said local officials are continuing their preparations despite the uncertainty about Title 42’s fate. Leeser declared a state of emergency on Saturday, and city and county officials have also been working with the American Red Cross to potentially shelter up to 10,000 people.

The city and county have also reactivated a program to bus migrants to cities with major airports like Dallas and Houston to help them more easily reach their next destinations.

“We’re continuing to proceed as if [Title 42] was being lifted,” Leeser said Monday. “With the weather continuing to drop and the number [of migrants] continuing to rise, we will continue to make sure we are proactive and have shelters and facilities for people to make sure we take them out of the elements and help them get to destinations of their choice.”

Prior to the Supreme Court’s intervention, the Department of Homeland Security released a plan last week to send more resources to the southwest border — and pledged to help nonprofits that are supporting migrants once border agents have released them. The department said it would also work with other countries to target smugglers and manage increased migration.

Abbott toured the border on Friday and touted the state’s efforts to secure it in recent years, including busing more than 14,500 migrants to Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia since April.

Seeking safety

Outside a church south of downtown, hundreds of migrants idled on Monday morning, sitting against a wall with a mural, some of them asking passersby to help pay for a bus or plane ticket out of the city. Among them was Monica, a 46-year-old Ecuadorian woman who spent four days in the city with her 18-year-old daughter and two nights sleeping on the downtown streets.

Monica, who didn’t want to use her last name, said she can’t afford plane tickets to New York — where her son-in-law lives — so they are stuck in El Paso. Her other two daughters and three grandchildren, who crossed the Rio Grande with them nearly a week ago, were sent to San Antonio by immigration agents and are in a shelter there.

Monica and her daughter found space in a shelter inside a Catholic church but may have to leave soon — shelter staff told them they can stay only three days at a time.

“We want to continue with our trip. It’s not pleasant for anyone to sleep outside in the cold or inside of a shelter floor,” Monica said. “We want to be under a roof where it’s warm and safe.”

On Monday morning — the day before National Guard troops began blocking migrants from crossing — the area where thousands of migrants had waded across the Rio Grande into El Paso earlier this month was mostly quiet, with a couple dozen people stepping on rocks to cross the river.

Once they arrived on the U.S. side, Border Patrol agents told them in Spanish to form a line against a chain-link fence. There were two heaters nearby to help them keep warm in the 42-degree weather.

Migrants who spoke to the Tribune shared similar stories of fleeing instability at home.

Saldaña, a 51-year-old Peruvian woman who wanted to be identified only by her last name, said she flew to Mexico City shortly after former President Pedro Castillo attempted to overthrow his country’s government to stay in power. She then flew to Ciudad Juárez, where she spent a day before crossing the river Monday morning.

A 22-year-old Colombian man who identified himself as Juan Jose said he left Colombia because of the violent conflicts involving a guerilla group, paramilitary groups and the federal government.

Migrants only be expelled under Title 42 only if Mexico or their home country agrees to receive them. Migrants who aren’t expelled under Title 42 must be formally deported and can request asylum during that process. Some migrants are released and instructed to report to a U.S. immigration court; others are held in detention centers if there is enough bed space.

Under Title 42, an untold number of migrants who are seeking asylum have been blocked at the border, said Nicolas Palazzo, a senior attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. Other Trump-era migration policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols, a program the Biden administration ended this year that forced some people to wait in Mexico as their asylum cases made their way through American courts, have done the same.

“There have been many who have been waiting for a very long time, creating a bottleneck on the Mexican side of the border because of these policies,” Palazzo said. “My hope is that they will have an opportunity to seek asylum in an efficient and humane way. That depends very much on the preparations of the U.S. government.”

“A lot of work to do”

Despite the pause to the end of Title 42, local governments and nonprofits have continued hustling to shelter migrants and help them with travel arrangements.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent $8 million to El Paso recently to help pay for lodging and food for migrants. But Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, which has long served migrants in the area, said the federal government could do more by opening a facility to receive migrants at Fort Bliss. The military base was used to temporarily shelter and process thousands of Afghan refugees after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Garcia said.

In Del Rio, the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition is also seeing a rise in the number of migrants coming through its respite center, director of operations Tiffany Burrow said. The increase has started to put a strain on its small group of volunteers and its ability to provide food and transportation connections for migrants.

Burrow said her organization assisted more than 23,300 migrants last year, and as of Friday it’s close to doubling that figure for 2022. She added that this work continues despite the Supreme Court’s decision

“We just really take it day by day,” she said. “If you would have told me last year that we were going to do double the work, I wouldn’t have believed it. I feel like I’m in the same place right now, and it’s really hard to envision what it’s going to look like until we’re actually in the thick of it.”

Farther south in the Rio Grande Valley, U.S. Rep.-elect Monica De La Cruz — the first Republican to represent a congressional district that covers McAllen in South Texas — said the ending of Title 42 could have a big impact on local communities.

“When Title 42 is lifted, it will put tremendous strain on our health care system. It will put tremendous strain on our law enforcement,” she said during a town hall hosted Tuesday by the U.S. Hispanic Business Council.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told the Tribune last week that the county has been working with its Mexican counterparts to prepare for any increase in crossings and to ensure that cross-border trade isn’t disrupted.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, Hidalgo County isn’t changing its plans to respond to a potential increase in migrant crossings. “We simply have more time to prepare,” the county’s public affairs director, Carlos Sanchez, told the Tribune on Monday.

At the town hall meeting, Cortez reiterated his longstanding message that the border’s immigration issues cannot be solved solely through law enforcement.

“America is going to continue to be a land where people want to come for opportunities, just like our early immigrants who came through Ellis Island,” Cortez told the Tribune. “So let’s have a system to accommodate that and do that in a better way than what we have — and whose job is that? That’s Congress.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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Uriel J. García and Alex Nguyen, The Texas Tribune

Uriel J. García is an immigration reporter based in El Paso. Alex Nguyen is a Columbia-Institute for Nonprofit News reporting fellow.