El Paso, Texas
On December 23, at about 9 PM, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dropped off around 200 refugees at the El Paso Greyhound Station. The temperature hovered around 35 degrees, and some of the children had no shoes or jackets. Many were sick; most had fled violence in Central America and had nowhere to go and little or no money.
For the first time in months, ICE had not coordinated with Annunciation House, which helps immigrants and refugees transition to life in the United States. The nonprofit’s director, Ruben Garcia, found out about the stranded migrants only after the El Paso police contacted him. Volunteers scrambled, and by 2 am, all them were housed in local hotels. Then ICE did it again the next day, leaving 250 anxious migrants on the streets of El Paso in near-freezing weather, with Annunciation House again picking up the pieces.
They did it on Christmas, too: Sitting in a hotel room where my wife, who is a nurse, and I were providing medical care, I met a 24-year-old Guatemalan man and his 4-month-old daughter, who was suffering from diarrhea. Three hours earlier, ICE had released, unannounced, the two of them along with about 300 others. Dressed in ill-fitting clothes he had just received and after taking his first shower in weeks, the man told us how had fled Guatemala two months prior, shortly after his wife had been raped and killed by narcotraffickers. He told us he’d traveled with an infant over 2,000 miles to the Texas border because he feared for his family’s life.
This man and his daughter are just two of the more than 4,000 individuals whom ICE has released in El Paso over the last two weeks. This was a major increase, according to Garcia, who says the city typically receives about 500 a week. As a result, El Paso volunteers were struggling to help and house all the asylum seekers—nearly all of whom had coughs and congestion, most of whom were dehydrated. And a number of the children, some as young as 18 months, had the flu.
Volunteers nearly reached their limits. Each site was staffed by only around 10 people, many of whom worked more than 12 hours a day. Some were even hospitalized as a result of overwork. The outreach drained Annunciation House’s resources. In December, the organization had to spend more than $150,000 on hotels for the refugees. Paying for rooms is the last option available when temporary and permanent shelters are full.
Churches and groups like Borderland Rainbow Center, a local queer-outreach organization, gave their time and space to house donations and prepare meals. But with the end of the holiday break, many volunteers have had to go back to their jobs or school. Thankfully, releases have fallen off significantly in the last few days. This week there have been about 900 people dropped off, but ICE’s new tactic showed how it could bring El Paso to the brink of a humanitarian crisis if it just stopped contacting groups like Annunciation House.
The whole asylum system didn’t always rest on poorly funded nonprofits. In 2016, under President Barack Obama, the federal government staffed and maintained a tent community in West Texas where asylum seekers could stay together as families until their case was processed. This was an imperfect, temporary solution, but even most refugee advocates saw it as a humane option.
But early in his presidency, Trump closed the West Texas facility without any alternative to house families. Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from Texas, has said she would even be willing to increase border-security funding if the government built a new shelter for families.
Right now, after detained families pass credible-fear interviews at the border, they are packed into rooms known as “iceboxes” in which numerous individuals must reside, often without any basic facilities. Refugees describe having to ask armed officers to escort them to toilets at some locations, but say that in others they’ve had only a hole in the floor and zero privacy. Federal standards dictate that individuals can only be kept in these facilities for a maximum of 72 hours, though this number is often surpassed. Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, who died in ICE custody on December 24, was kept more than 130 hours in detention.
After a period of detention, ICE releases these families to groups like Annunciation House. During peak release times, Annunciation House operates around 20 hospitality centers in and around El Paso that house people until they can depart on the next leg of their journey, generally to family already residing in the United States. Typically, a family resides in one of these hospitality centers for less than two days. They are housed, fed, and screened for a variety of medical conditions. Most importantly, they are treated like human beings—often for the first time in the United States.
The relationship between ICE and Annunciation House benefits the federal government. If Annunciation House did not exist, ICE would be forced to either house these families until their day in court or just release them on the streets. The former is expensive, and the latter is cruel. But for some reason, ICE stopped cooperating with Annunciation House for three days in December.
Amid a government shutdown caused because the president wants to build his own Maginot Line, the likelihood that any proposal that aims to treat asylum seekers compassionately will pass is exceedingly small. In the current political climate, logic has taken a back seat to rhetoric: The wall is important because, as Trump put it, we “Need to stop Drugs, Human Trafficking, Gang Members & Criminals from coming into our Country.”
But these refugees aren’t carrying drugs, aren’t engaged in human trafficking, and are not gang members or criminals. These families are escaping those things, and a border wall will not stop them. Most of the refugees released in El Paso crossed the border at one of the official border crossings and presented themselves to Customs and Border Protection agents. That isn’t breaking the law; that’s complying with it.
Not once during his nine-minute speech Tuesday night did Donald Trump mention asylum seekers. He continued to fearmonger the horrors of illegal immigration along our southern border. I live and work on the southern border, and the crisis isn’t illegal immigration. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States. The real crisis is how families detained by ICE and Border Patrol are treated. The response that Annunciation House and El Paso put together in December was astounding, but it shouldn’t have been called for at all.