EL PASO, Texas (AP) – Several hundred people marched through the streets of El Paso Saturday afternoon, and when they arrived a group of migrants huddled in front of the church, they sang to them “no estan solos” – “you are not alone”.
About 300 migrants have taken refuge on the sidewalks outside Sacred Heart Church, some afraid to seek more formal refuges, advocates say, amid new restrictions designed to crack down on illegal border crossings.
That’s the scene that will greet President Joe Biden on his first, politically thorny visit to the southern border on Sunday.
The president announced last week that Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans would be deported to Mexico if they entered the U.S. illegally — an expansion of the pandemic-era immigration policy known as Section 42. new rules will also include offering humanitarian parole to up to 30,000 people a month from those four countries if they apply online and find a financial sponsor.
Biden is scheduled to arrive in El Paso on Sunday afternoon before traveling to Mexico City meeting with North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday.
Dylan Corbett, who runs the nonprofit Hope Border Institute, said the city was experiencing a growing “climate of fear.”
He said immigration enforcement agencies have already begun increasing deportations in Mexico, and he senses a growing level of tension and confusion.
The president’s new policy expands existing efforts to stop Venezuelans from trying to enter the US, which began in October.
Corbett said many Venezuelans have since been left stranded, 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 have traveled thousands of kilometers from their homeland and refuse to surrender and turn around.
“There will be people in need of protection who will be left behind,” Corbett said.
The new restrictions represent a major change in immigration rules that will remain in place even if the US Supreme Court strikes down a Trump-era public health law that allows US authorities to turn away asylum seekers.
El Paso quickly became the busiest of the nine sectors of the Border Patrol along the US-Mexico border, taking the top spots in October and November. Large numbers of Venezuelans began arriving in September, attracted by relatively easy transit, robust shelter networks and bus services on both sides of the border, as well as a major airport to destinations in the United States.
Venezuelans ceased to be a major presence almost overnight after Mexico, under Title 42 authority, agreed on Oct. 12 to admit those who crossed the border illegally into the United States. Nicaraguans have since filled that gap. Title 42 restrictions have been implemented 2.5 million times to deny migrants the right to seek asylum under US and international law on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
US authorities stopped migrants 53,247 times in November in the El Paso sector, which stretches 264 miles of desert in West Texas and New Mexico, but sees much of its activity in the city of El Paso and suburban Sunland Park, New Mexico. The latest monthly result for the sector is more than three times the same period in 2021, with Nicaraguans the most popular 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 caught in this limbo have to sleep outside in the plunging temperatures. Two buses were available for people to warm up and charge their phones. Volunteers come with food and other supplies.
Juan Tovar held a Bible in his hands, his 7-year-old daughter was lifted on his shoulders. The 32-year-old was a bus driver in Venezuela before fleeing with his wife and two daughters as the political and financial chaos engulfed their home country.
He has friends in San Antonio willing 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.
“It’s all in God’s hands,” he said. “We are all human and we want to stay.”
Another Venezuelan, 22-year-old Jeremy Mejia, heard and said he had a message he wanted to send to the president.
“President Biden, I’m asking God to touch your heart so we can stay in this country,” Mejia said. “Please touch your heart and help us migrants have a better future in the USA”
Layton reported from El Paso and Spagat from Yuma, Arizona. AP writer Claire Galofaro contributed to this report from Louisville, Kentucky.
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