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El Paso scrambles to move migrants off the streets and gives them free bus rides as shelters reach capacity

Posted at 3:04 PM, Sep 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-20 16:04:21-04

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Soon after a Border Patrol van dropped off Albeleis Arteaga, his wife and 4-month-old baby downtown on a recent Monday evening, it began to rain. Arteaga and his family didn’t know where to go, so they joined dozens of other migrants, most of them fellow Venezuelans, who have been sleeping outdoors next to a charter bus station.

The couple had spent nearly two months traveling with their baby from Chile to the Texas-Mexico border, passing through the treacherous Darién Gap in South America. Now they were using borrowed bed sheets to cover themselves from the rain as they tried to sleep. But the drenched sheets made it hard to rest, Arteaga said.

“If I had any money right now, I wouldn’t be out here putting my family through this,” said Arteaga, 29, wearing sweatpants and a black T-shirt as he sat on a sidewalk, leaning against an abandoned brick building. “My head throbs not knowing what to do next or how to get out of here.”

Less than two weeks before the end of the federal fiscal year, encounters between migrants and Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border have already surpassed 2 million — a new record. According to federal government statistics, immigration agents encountered nearly 154,000 Venezuelans along the U.S.-Mexico border in the first 11 months of this fiscal year — a 216% increase from the entire previous fiscal year.

In recent weeks, Venezuelans have arrived in increasing numbers to the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. Shelters are so full in El Paso that Border Patrol officials have released migrants on the street. Migrants who are apprehended or surrender at the border are processed and held while agents determine whether they can be sent to Mexico under the emergency health order known as Title 42.

But Venezuelans can’t be sent across the border because they’re on the list of nationalities Mexico won’t accept. And they can’t be deported back to their country because the U.S.severed diplomatic ties with Venezuela in 2019. Instead, they are released to local shelters.

But with no space at the shelters, for the past two weeks, dozens of migrants have slept on the sidewalk next to the bus station, many of them wearing sweatpants, dirt-covered T-shirts and sandals. Some have tents where they can get out of the sun and rain. The area, just south of a baseball stadium where the El Paso Chihuahuas minor league baseball team plays, smells of body odor, of urine and “like someone took a shit,” as Arteaga’s wife put it.

Good samaritans and volunteers with local aid groups go to the site to give bottled water, sandwiches, bags of chips and clothing to the migrants.

The growing numbers have sent the city scrambling to respond. El Paso opened a welcome center nearly a month ago to help some migrants find lodging at local hotels until they can get transportation to their final destination.

Since Aug. 23, the city has chartered at least 60 buses to take nearly 3,000 migrants to New York City and Chicago. El Paso has a $2 million contract with a charter bus company to provide up to five buses per day to transport migrants out of the city. It will seek reimbursement from the federal government for the bus trips.

“What we’re doing here at the city of El Paso is we continue to take care of the individual,” El Paso Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said at a news conference last week. “These are human beings, they’re passing through our community, and it’s just part of their journey.”

Hundreds of migrants crowded inside the welcome center late last week, charging their cellphones so they could call family members or lining up to board charter buses. Angel Morano, a 21-year-old who also fled Venezuela, anxiously waited outside for immigration officials to drop off two friends who had traveled with him to the border. He said he left his country because it’s hard to make a living, but he missed his parents.

“It was hard to say goodbye because it’s not easy leaving family behind knowing you won’t be able to see them for a long time,” he said.

Venezuela has been going through social unrest and political turmoil since 2014, when the country’s economy — which depends heavily on oil revenues — began to collapse. What was one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America has fallen into chaos because of falling oil prices, political corruption, and American sanctions against the country’s oil and mining industries and the Central Bank of Venezuela. The sanctions are aimed at ousting the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, who has been accused of election fraud, human rights violations and running an authoritarian government.

As a result, 7 million Venezuelans have fled, more than a fifth of the country’s population — the largest displacement of people in the Western Hemisphere — to seek jobs and safety in other South American countries and the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies “continue to work with Mexico and other countries in the region to address migration challenges throughout the Western Hemisphere,” said Carlos Rivera, a spokesperson for U.S. Border Patrol. “In El Paso, CBP [Customs and Border Protection] is encountering a significant number of Cuban and Venezuelan migrants who have fled the repressive, authoritarian regimes in those countries.”

Bodies on the jungle trail

Growing up in Venezuela, Arteaga said, life was stable. His mother worked cleaning houses and his father operated a street sweeper, while he played basketball on his high school team, traveling across the country for tournaments. He played shooting guard and was a Chicago Bulls fan.

As an adult, he got a job as a construction worker, building houses. He then met his wife, Daniela Arias, 25, who like him had a child from a previous relationship. After the economy crashed in Venezuela, the couple moved to Chile, where he continued to work in construction and where their son was born. Arteaga was able to save up $1,500, money he planned to use to return to Venezuela and open a small grocery store.

His family in Venezuela dissuaded him, telling him the country was still struggling and he shouldn’t come back. In early August, the couple decided to go north with the baby, who was 2 months old at the time. They decided to leave as Chile’s economy worsened, he said.

“Thank God he made it out alive,” Arteaga said as he held his son, who had been sleeping on a pillowcase beneath a tree next to the bus station.

After leaving Chile, the family traveled through seven countries over a month and a half to get to El Paso. They walked through Peru’s deserts into Colombia, he said, then hiked through the Darién Gap, a 66-mile roadless stretch of jungle, mountains and rivers between Colombia and Panama. He said they didn’t hire a guide and followed a group of what he guessed were 200 other people.

Arteaga said he saw disoriented people who got left behind or separated from their family members. He saw two bodies, which he assumed were migrants who died on the journey. Throughout the trip, he carried a 5-liter jug of water and a backpack filled with bread, canned tuna and instant soup that he made by starting a fire to boil water. Arias carried the baby, who was 2 months old, throughout the trek.

At night, the family would sleep in a tent and continue to walk early in the morning through the jungle heat over slippery, muddy ground.

“You couldn’t get tired,” Artega said. “You had to find the will to continue, otherwise you’d get left behind and die.”

It took them seven days to get through the jungle and reach a road in Panama.

Not every country accepted their Venezuelan passports, so in some cases they snuck past immigration checkpoints, he said.

The family eventually got to Mexico, where they used what little money they had left to catch buses until they arrived in Ciudad Juárez. They crossed the Rio Grande and surrendered to Border Patrol agents, asking for asylum.

After two days in Border Patrol custody, they were released on that rainy Monday night last week. The next morning, they went to a local shelter that helped them get on the list for an El Paso-funded charter bus to New York City, where the couple had friends from Venezuela who migrated earlier this year.

On Tuesday, they spent most of the day in the makeshift migrant camp.

The next day, Arteaga said, they joined dozens of other migrants on the charter bus at the city’s migrant welcome center.

On Friday night, they arrived in New York City. For the past few days, he said, he’s been walking around the city, looking for a job.

Arteaga said he’s looking forward to starting a new life. He said he’s going to take whatever job is available and hopes to send money to his family in Venezuela. He’s pinning his hopes on being given asylum — he wants to raise his son in the U.S. so the child can get a good education and play basketball like he did as a boy.

“I just can’t picture myself returning to Venezuela,” he said.

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