El Paso migrant shelter closes as 'humanitarian crisis' at border continues

seitz El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz prepares to escort Celsia Palma, 9, from Honduras, before they cross a Port of Entry bridge towards the U.S. on June 27, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. | Mario Tama/Getty

A Catholic aid agency in El Paso, Texas, has closed a temporary shelter for migrants and asylum seekers released from federal custody, as more asylum seekers are required to wait in Mexico for court dates, and after concerns have been raised about the detention conditions of would-be migrants in government custody.

Fernando Ceniceros, communications specialist for the Diocese of El Paso, told CNA that changes in border patrol policy have likely led to the decrease in migrants entering the United States at El Paso, but the humanitarian crisis is no less severe- the difference is that many would-be migrants in need of aid are required to remain in Mexico, rather than crossing the border.

"They're not letting them cross over anymore," Ceniceros said. "We think that the decline was the reason we had to shut down [the shelter]."

The Department of Homeland Security announced new Migrant Protection Protocols in January, providing that migrants arriving illegally or without proper documentation "may be returned to Mexico and wait outside of the U.S. for the duration of their immigration proceedings, where Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay."

The Diocese of El Paso's shelter, which Bishop Mark Seitz opened in October 2018, was part of a larger consortium of aid agencies, Ceniceros said, led by Reuben Garcia at the Annunciation House, a shelter for migrants that has been operating in El Paso for over 40 years.

"We were receiving anything between 40-80 migrants a day," Ceniceros said.

"They were coming into the shelter, we were helping them clothe them, give them a warm shower, give them something to eat. And they were in and out of our shelter within 28-48 hours...we helped them connect with their families here in the United States."

The migrants that the Diocese of El Paso was assisting had already been cleared by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and had been dropped off in the city, in need of basic necessities. A recent government report indicates that in some regions, migrants in federal custody have endured prolonged detention in overcrowded conditions and awaited processing and release for periods of longer than one month.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, apprehensions of "unaccompanied alien children" has risen by nearly 75% from May 2018 to May 2019. The rise in apprehensions is led by El Paso, which has seen a 323% rise in that period period.

The rise in apprehensions of  families is higher- 463% across the board. El Paso's rate of apprehension of families rose 2,100%.

"We've never seen the kind of influx of migrants that we have in the last year and a half," Ceniceros commented. 

"And just as a point of reference, we were just receiving single men usually. They were just looking for work, they were coming from Mexico. Mostly now, you're looking at families from Central America. Really very [few] Mexican nationals are coming [now]. But we were seeing even migrants from as far as Africa come through here and seek asylum."

He said the Diocese of El Paso continues to provide legal services for migrants and asylum seekers.

The federal Office of the Inspector General reported this week overcrowded, squalid conditions at some migrant detention facilities along the US/Mexico border, including standing-room-only cells, children going without showers and hot meals, and detainees clamoring desperately for release.

"What you're seeing on television as far as conditions are concerned is that's what we've heard...really terrible conditions. And we're asking for prayers that we're able to step in and help these people," Ceniceros said.

"We are in contract with the Diocese of Juarez [Mexico] and their migrant shelter there. And we're working to set up a plan to send over supplies, find a way to send over supplies to them. Because they're inundated [with migrants]."

"This 'remain in Mexico' protocol protection is really very alarming to us and it really will create a humanitarian crisis. And I think that's really what we want to bring attention to, is the humanitarian crisis on the other side of the border...We're called to serve here in the Church, and serve the poorest of the poor. And that's really what our message is."

The bishops on either side of the Rio Grande, where several migrants recently died, expressed last week their sorrow over the deaths.

Bishops Daniel Flores of Brownsville and Eugenio Andres Lira Rugarcia of Matamoros wrote June 28 to "express with much pain the sorrow of the whole community upon hearing of the parents and children that have recently lost their lives upon crossing the Río Grande River, seeking a better life."

The six Catholic bishops of Washington state issued a joint statement June 28 calling for immigration reform that "honors the dignity of those seeking a better life in the United States, while also addressing the legitimate need for safe and secure borders."

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"Worsening conditions that fuel the Latin American refugee crisis, combined with domestic policies that disrespect the dignity of human beings, risk causing even greater suffering for those fleeing peril and threaten the domestic tranquility promised to Americans," the bishops said.

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