EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – With temperatures just above freezing and wind gusts chilling his skin, Santos Ismael Najera built a shelter inside a Downtown El Paso garage by taping the side of cardboard boxes to a concrete pillar.
“The cold took us by surprise. We did not know it would get this cold,” said the Nicaraguan migrant who found himself homeless after U.S. immigration authorities released him from a processing center Monday afternoon.
A few feet away, other migrants huddled under donated blankets, some bearing the logo of the American Red Cross. Not far away on Leon Street, another group of migrants slept over blankets on the sidewalk and some huddled on a mattress a local resident dropped off in a pickup.
They were among the 798 paroled migrants U.S. Customs and Border Protection released onto the streets of El Paso between Sunday and Monday as nonprofit shelters are full and federal processing facilities are way above capacity. The latest humanitarian crisis unfolds a few days before Title 42 expulsions of migrants on public health grounds end on Dec. 21 and just as Homeland Security Secretary is supposed to visit the city on Tuesday.
Since last Saturday, hundreds of asylum-seekers have come over from Juarez, Mexico, to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents. Hundreds lined up on the U.S. bank of the Rio Grande early Tuesday waiting to be placed on white, unmarked buses that will take them to a CBP processing center.
Most of the new arrivals are Nicaraguans, but other migrants interviewed Tuesday in Juarez prior to crossing the border said they were from Guatemala, which border agents say are still amenable to Title 42 expulsions. Almost all of those interviewed on both sides of the border say they are fleeing poverty and corrupt governments.
“In our country we did not have what we need. We came looking for that in this country so that our family can have a better life and things change,” Najera said. “My dad is dead. I only have my mom, my children and my brothers. I left a 4-year-old boy and two sons (ages) 12 and 16 who are in school. That is why I’m making this effort, so they get ahead and become better people.”
Najera said he felt slighted in Nicaragua because of his Christian evangelical religious views.
“There is no freedom. That president (Daniel Ortega) thinks he is God,” he said, recalling how government officials disbanded an outdoor event by his congregation because a government march was to take place that Sunday. “They do not respect your freedom. The economy is shot, and things are difficult. They took away scholarships from young people and now they are threatening to take away benefits for the elderly.”
Bismar Centeno Benavidez huddled with his wife and sister against a wall inside the garage late Monday. He brushed away the cold by focusing on the positive aspects of his situation.
“We are grateful now that this country is giving us this opportunity. We feel good. It’s a blessing,” the Nicaraguan migrant said. “The purpose is to help our family get ahead. I have my daughter back home and my sister also has her children there, too. We will take this opportunity to work and earn money honestly.”
Centeno said members of nonprofit groups in El Paso approached his family earlier in the day and gave them jackets and food. His family plans to settle in Houston as soon as they get the funds to travel out of El Paso.
The migrant said he decided to leave Nicaragua after losing his job. “There is no work in our country. The economic situation is bad. Businesses have closed and they have laid us off from our jobs …. and now we are here,” he said.
David Garcia, another Nicaraguan shivering in the cold, said being outdoors was an inconvenience, but nothing compared to the horror he and some travel companions endured in Mexico. Garcia was part of a large group of Central and South Americans held for ransom by a drug cartel in Durango, Mexico, last week.
Garcia said his captors demanded he call his family and instruct them to wire hundreds of dollars to them so he could be released.
“They kept us in three houses, all crowded, one on top of the other. They gave us (instant) soup and water once a day. It was a bad experience,” he said, adding that two women who were being kept in separate quarters managed to escape and called Mexican authorities.
The smugglers left when they saw police approach, and the migrants regrouped, formed a caravan and crossed into the border state of Chihuahua last Friday. They were bused to Juarez on Saturday, and Garcia wasted no time in making his way to the American side of the Rio Grande.
“It was a nightmare going through Mexico, but we are safe now. I am grateful to the president (Biden) and to the people of the United States for giving us this opportunity,” he said with a half smile amid the chill.