Hundreds of asylum seekers have been left in El Paso, Texas after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents began releasing them this week without giving advance notice to local organizations.
Without contacting local shelters in advance for assistance, ICE officials have reportedly deposited at least 400 asylum seekers at an area adjacent to a Greyhound bus station in the Texas border city since Sunday. That number could exceed 800 on Wednesday as the drop-offs continue, despite a prior pledge from ICE not to mass-release migrants in the city unannounced.
The asylum seekers were released after arriving in the United States and making contact with U.S. officials. A number have relatives or other contacts elsewhere in the country who they plan to stay with while they await their immigration court dates to address their respective cases. However, those left in El Paso seem to have been abandoned with minimal information or resources and many told volunteers they did not even know which city they were in.
According to El Paso Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) and other local officials, ICE agents reneged on an October promise to coordinate releases of migrants with area nonprofits and organizations able to assist. Instead of doing so, the agency began depositing hundreds of people in the city’s downtown area, where temperatures have typically averaged around 40 to 45°F this week.
That left many of the overwhelmingly Central American migrants with nowhere to go, and some seem to have spent Christmas Eve in the parking lot according to local media reports as volunteers rushed to provide food, water, and supplies to keep them warm. Many shelters in the area are at capacity and temporary shelters require an advance notice, something that seemingly did not occur this week.
In a Twitter video on Christmas Eve, O’Rourke explained the situation and commended El Paso’s “amazing volunteers” for assisting during the holiday.
“We’re trying to ensure that ICE gives the community notice when they know there’s not going to be space,” he said, adding that the city expected to see 200 more releases on Christmas and that it is “very possible we’ll see another 200 releases the day after Christmas.”
By afternoon on December 25, ICE had reportedly resumed its contact with local organizations and it appeared that migrants being dropped off were subsequently transported to shelters. It was unclear, however, how many migrants might still be outside and exposed to the elements. Complicating efforts to ascertain a comment on the government’s actions is an ongoing partial shutdown, sparked by President Donald Trump’s demands for more funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In response to ThinkProgress’ request for comment, ICE sent an automatic email noting that the shutdown has furloughed a number of its employees.
“All of ICE’s public affairs officers are out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown,” the email read. “We are unable to respond to media queries during this period because we are prohibited by law [sic] from working.”
El Paso area organizations also appear to be stretched thin as they work to accommodate the influx of newcomers. Annunciation House, a nonprofit Christian organization working to help migrants, wrote on the group’s Facebook page on Christmas Eve that it is seeking financial donations as well as volunteer service from the public.
The organization did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment when reached by phone on Wednesday morning but noted on Facebook that the unplanned releases this week have come “in addition to our ongoing work with planned refugee releases.”
Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar (D), who is set to replace O’Rourke in January, blasted the Trump administration in a statement and expressed concern that Annunciation House is largely shouldering the cost of caring for the migrants, rather than the government. Calling the situation a “terrible crisis,” she encouraged the public to make donations to the nonprofit.
Elsewhere near the border, tragedy struck on Christmas Eve when an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala died in U.S. custody after crossing the border with his father. Felipe Gómez Alonzo is the second child to die in U.S. custody in a month after making the journey from Central America to the United States; 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died two weeks ago after leaving her home in Guatemala.