Small towns in Texas and Arizona are seeing dozens of migrants arriving each day, in some cases straining local resources. More are coming, federal officials warn.
EAGLE PASS, Texas — Immigration agents are releasing so many migrants in small towns along the Texas border these days that Laura Ramos, who owns a store near the international bridge in Eagle Pass, said she was worried about the safety of her business and her children.
“It’s horrible and very dangerous,” she said.
But Tohui Valero, who sells sunglasses and perfume at a shop about a block away, said he was not concerned about the dozens of new migrants arriving every day. They are harmless, he said, and, in any case, there is a substantial new law enforcement presence in town. “There are so many police and Border Patrol here, it’s very safe,” he said.
As the Biden administration thaws an immigration system that had largely been frozen over the past year, towns along the 1,954-mile border are bracing for what federal officials are warning will be a sharp increase in releases of migrants in their communities in the coming weeks.
It is already happening in some places, prompting some mayors and other local officials to appeal for federal help. Aide workers who are operating shelters to help migrants along their way say they are feeling the strain on medical resources and their own facilities, though they discount fears that the newcomers are a threat. Most, they say, are eager to reunite with their family members elsewhere in the country and do not want to get in any trouble that would delay them.
Eagle Pass, a town of 29,000 people, is seeing as many as 100 migrants arriving every day, largely from Haiti, Cuba and Ecuador. In Yuma, a city of 96,000 in southwest Arizona, Mayor Douglas J. Nicholls said border authorities had released more than 1,300 migrants in his city since mid-February. Del Rio, Texas, a town of 36,000 about 145 miles west of San Antonio, has had more than 1,300 migrants arrive so far in March, up from fewer than 500 in February.
Del Rio was rocked by news this week when eight undocumented immigrants were killed outside of town after they were involved in a high-speed chase with the authorities and the pickup truck they were riding in struck another vehicle head-on.
“I have only four deputies working for a 3,200-square-mile county and 110 miles of border,” said the Val Verde County sheriff, Joe Frank Martinez, whose department patrols the borderlands around Del Rio. “It’s just unsustainable.”
Officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been informing elected officials and nonprofit leaders along much of the border that the agency is preparing for even larger releases of migrants, basing assessments on shelter capacity in larger cities and on rules that require the agency to release migrants near where they are arrested and processed.
The warnings have prompted many to fear a repeat of the mass releases that strained border communities in 2019. The Trump administration largely shut down the processing of new asylum claims along the border during the pandemic last year, and officials in cities along the border worry that the latest plan to get the system going again will present them with burdens they are not ready to take on.
“I would call it a crisis with an exclamation point,” said Don McLaughlin Jr., the mayor of Uvalde, a town of 16,000 about 60 miles northeast of Eagle Pass. “We changed administrations, we changed the policies and it’s like the floodgates have opened.”
Mr. McLaughlin said about 100 to 200 migrants were being released by the Border Patrol every other day in Del Rio, about a one-hour drive from Uvalde. In his town, Mr. McLaughlin said, he has noticed an increase in what he believes are undocumented migrants traveling through as they circumvent Border Patrol checkpoints.
Still, the mayor said Uvalde had seen only one migrant released in town by the Border Patrol — a man who was dropped off at a local convenience store during the snowstorm that hit Texas last month.
“They let one guy out at the local Stripes,” he said, referring to the retail chain.
The man was temporarily housed at a shelter that had opened for local residents at the civic center during the storm. “We bought him a bus ticket,” the mayor said. “He wanted to go to Houston.”
Federal officials have said they are doing the best they can to smoothly handle the growing number of migrants at the border and are working to expand the available space in federal shelters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency this week made $110 million of funding available to local nonprofit and government organizations that have helped to care for released migrants at the border.
“The situation at the southwest border is difficult,” the homeland security secretary, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, said in a statement this week. “We are working around the clock to manage it, and we will continue to do so.”
The overall numbers of released migrants are still relatively small, but volunteer groups along the border are preparing for a bigger influx after Mr. Mayorkas warned that the administration is expecting the largest number of migrant apprehensions in 20 years.
Most single adults and families are being quickly expelled under an emergency health order invoked by the Trump administration as a protection against the coronavirus. Migrant families, Mr. Mayorkas said, are being allowed to enter the United States when Mexico does not have the capacity to house them at its shelters — a situation that accounts for most of the releases in border towns in recent weeks.
The numbers could go far higher when, as expected, the Biden administration eases the pandemic-related border restrictions and a much larger number of migrants are able to pursue asylum petitions.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas raised an alarm this week about the Biden administration’s separate decision to admit thousands of children and teenagers who arrived at the border without a parent or guardian, cautioning that the children could spread the coronavirus.
“The Biden administration is completely not prepared for the number of children coming across this border,” he said, adding, “How long will these children be here? What countries have they come from and what Covid variants have they been exposed to? Are they being tested for Covid and if so, how is the administration handling those who test positive?”
Local officials and federal contractors counter that the infection rates for migrants are lower than for Texas as a whole. Children are not being released into border towns, but the large numbers are straining federal government facilities that have been set up to shelter them.
More than 9,500 children and teenagers were in federally managed shelters this week, according to Biden administration officials. More than 4,500 young migrants were still stuck in border detention facilities and had yet to be moved to shelters, including more than 3,200 who were held longer than the maximum 72 hours allowed under federal law. Children and teenagers are spending an average of 129 hours in the border detention facilities, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
Most of the adults being released into border communities have been scheduled for court appearances to review their petitions to remain in the country. All are screened for infection, and most stay in the towns where they are released only a few hours or a day or two.
But the numbers are already proving to be challenging.
A center run by the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio has recorded about 1,325 migrants so far in March, more than three times the number in February, said Tiffany Burrow, its director of operations. About 70 percent of them are Haitians, she said, with many others coming from Africa, “from Ghana down to Angola plus the Congo.”
In Eagle Pass, a center run by Mission: Border Hope, a nonprofit organization, was assisting about a dozen people this week, mostly families from Ecuador and Cuba.
Yaritza Cruz Gamboa, 32, a Cuban who is eight months pregnant, said she was taken into custody three weeks ago with her brother and 15 other Cubans. She said her brother was fined $5,000 and sent to a detention center with other single men, while she was released.
Ms. Gamboa, who had plans to go to Houston, said she was at a loss over what to do now with her brother still detained. “I can’t travel to Houston alone,” she said. “I’m pregnant. I don’t know anybody.”
The migrant releases are spurring debates in towns along the border. Erika Garcia, 28, who lives in Eagle Pass and helps her father run car repair shops on both sides of the border, said some of her neighbors who have objected were being hypocritical, especially those with family ties in Mexico.
“Our folks came here before these policies — they crossed illegally,” Ms. Garcia said. “I don’t see why these migrants can’t be let in. Eagle Pass is racist. They’re racist among each other and racist toward immigrants.”
In McAllen, Texas, which has been one of the main centers of migration into the United States, Border Patrol agents have eased the effects of newly arriving migrants by coordinating releases with local officials and nonprofit groups. The numbers have been increasing in recent days.
The mayor, Jim Darling, said migrant families were being driven by the Border Patrol to Laredo or put on planes to El Paso, so that the local immigrant services system in McAllen was not overwhelmed.
The daily numbers in McAllen recently are far lower than in 2019, when for a time local officials were dealing with more than 1,200 released migrants per day.
“It may be a crisis at the river, and I know it is for the poor Border Patrol people, and it’s a crisis in Washington because they can’t solve it, but we’re handling it in McAllen,” Mr. Darling said. “I don’t want to criticize Border Patrol. They’re doing their darnedest.”
Elsewhere on the border, Mr. Nicholls, the mayor of Yuma, said he was encouraged two weeks ago after he reached out to the White House about the arriving migrants and had a meeting set up within 24 hours — “actually a very quick response,” he said.
He is pleading with federal officials to reconsider dropping off migrants in places that are already stretched thin.
“It doesn’t make any sense if you release in small border communities that don’t have the infrastructure, the nonprofits, to adequately address the humanitarian issues for their own communities,” Mr. Nicholls said. “This is a national issue that needs to be addressed with a national solution.”
At the shelter in Del Rio, Ms. Burrow said most migrants now being dropped off by the Border Patrol had money for transportation from family members already in the United States; many take buses to San Antonio or Houston before continuing to other locations.
But she worries that this is only the beginning. For now, shelter volunteers in Del Rio are able to give each family a backpack with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, towels and a comb.
“We don’t have enough resources for the numbers we anticipate,” she said. “The numbers are projected to double, triple, quadruple.”
James Dobbins reported from Eagle Pass and Del Rio, Texas, Simon Romero reported from Albuquerque and Manny Fernandez reported from Los Angeles. Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting from Washington.