The Christmas week surge of migrants released by ICE into El Paso was somewhat to be expected. However, to understand what happened this week, you have to understand the process.
For the last three months, Annunciation House, the non-profit organization that houses migrants after their release from ICE custody as they work their way to their final destination, has seen a record number 2,000 releases a week.
Late on the night of December 22, ICE officials dropped off 211 immigrant families who had passed through custody at a Downtown Greyhound station without notifying Annunciation House, which is the procedure that has been honored in the past by the government.
Currently, asylum-seeking migrants are turning themselves in to Border Patrol in mass numbers. The San Diego Border Patrol sector is still holding a tight line on entries after the highly publicized “migrant caravan” made its way to Tijuana in early December.
In contrast, the El Paso Border Patrol sector has been allowing what they call ‘metered entry’ at local ports of entry.
Typically taking about 60 asylum seeking migrants into processing per day. Other migrants will turn themselves in to Border Patrol in desolate areas where ports are not accessible for hundreds of miles.
Once in custody, adults are vetted to ensure they have no prior removal orders from the U.S. Government, and have no known criminal ties to gangs in Central America. Those who are suspect because of tattoos or other markings are separated from the asylum-seekers and kept in long term detention at area prisons, jails or Border Patrol custody.
Single men are also separated and detained in this manner.
Those who are entering with children, whether they are men or women, are allowed to be released into the custody of a “sponsor” after they are fitted with ankle monitors. The sponsors are everywhere in the country and are typically family members or close friends.
On one recent visit to an Annunciation House shelter, the Herald Post met with Honduran and Guatemalan families who were heading to Nebraska, South Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, and other locations across Texas.
Typically, the asylum seekers are held in ICE detention for a maximum 72-hour period before being released to a local Non-Governmental Organization (NGO); in El Paso, that’s Annunciation House. In recent weeks, the population has surged in ICE detention centers and migrants are now being held anywhere between 4-8 days.
In the case of Felix Alonzo-Gomez, the 8-year-old Guatemalan child who died in ICE custody Christmas Eve in Alamogordo, the El Paso-area detention centers were so overpopulated that his family was moved to a Border Patrol Station outside of Alamogordo, NM.
Once released by ICE, the migrants are housed anywhere from 24-48 hours by Annunciation House in El Paso while their sponsors can secure bus or plane tickets to get them to their final destination. Once there, they will check in with a local office and await court proceedings. It acts as a sort of an underground railroad through the Sun City.
The hospitality sites are known to many, but revealed by few. Safety is a top concern to Annunciation House and their volunteers.
What became apparent in El Paso this week is the overwhelming number coming in to seek asylum is overwhelming ICE at their detention facilities and local NGO partners like Annunciation House, who are struggling to get migrants on to their final location before more are released the following day.
Ruben Garcia with Annunciation House said they received 522 migrants on December 26, an all-time record number for the center in his 40-plus year history with the organization. Thursday, Annunciation House received an additional 322.
In a statement to the El Paso Herald Post, ICE blamed inaction by Congress and attempts to stay in compliance with federal laws for detaining families as a reason for this sudden action.
“After decades of inaction by Congress, the government remains severely constrained in its ability to detain and promptly remove families with no legal basis to remain in the U.S. To mitigate the risk of holding family units past the timeframe allotted to the government, ICE has curtailed reviews of post-release plans from families apprehended at the southwest border. ICE is redoubling its efforts to work with local and state officials and NGO partners in the area so they are prepared to provide assistance with transportation and other services,” the statement read.
Congresswoman-elect Veronica Escobar has been in contact with ICE officials, including several phone calls on Christmas Eve to help coordinate transfers from ICE into Annunciation House custody. In the past, she said ICE worked to locate additional emergency detention space in order for NGOs to have room for the released family units. That practice is no longer an option, ICE told her.
As a result, more than 1,600 migrants have been released into the streets of El Paso since Sunday afternoon, with more expected in the coming days. Annunciation House has activated 15 hospitality sites including four hotels in El Paso and an additional 5 hospitality sites in Las Cruces, according to Garcia.
In an effort to mitigate the high population in detention holding cells by ICE, Garcia is working to increase capacity to 3,000 per week in El Paso. The increase represents a 50% increase in population housed by Annunciation House in the El Paso area.
During one of this week’s massive releases of migrants in Downtown El Paso, the Herald Post encountered many children who were battling colds or fevers. One child had pink-eye. Organizers on the ground tell us they have been seeing an increase in these sorts of illnesses when migrants are being released.
Most of the children had been in ICE custody for over a week before coming down with illnesses. Annunciation House is working with volunteer nurses and doctors to provide basic medical care and screening at each hospitality site.
Annunciation House operates 100% off of donations and is not funded by any government funding. Anyone wishing to make financial donations is asked to do so on their website.
At this time, Annunciation House is asking local organizations or church groups who are able to volunteer as a group to feed migrants at one of their hospitality sites contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.