ICE Put El Paso on the Brink of a Humanitarian Crisis

El Paso, Texas

On December 23, at about 9 PM, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dropped off around 200 refugees at the El Paso Greyhound Station. The temperature hovered around 35 degrees, and some of the children had no shoes or jackets. Many were sick; most had fled violence in Central America and had nowhere to go and little or no money.

For the first time in months, ICE had not coordinated with Annunciation House, which helps immigrants and refugees transition to life in the United States. The nonprofit’s director, Ruben Garcia, found out about the stranded migrants only after the El Paso police contacted him. Volunteers scrambled, and by 2 am, all them were housed in local hotels. Then ICE did it again the next day, leaving 250 anxious migrants on the streets of El Paso in near-freezing weather, with Annunciation House again picking up the pieces.

They did it on Christmas, too: Sitting in a hotel room where my wife, who is a nurse, and I were providing medical care, I met a 24-year-old Guatemalan man and his 4-month-old daughter, who was suffering from diarrhea. Three hours earlier, ICE had released, unannounced, the two of them along with about 300 others. Dressed in ill-fitting clothes he had just received and after taking his first shower in weeks, the man told us how had fled Guatemala two months prior, shortly after his wife had been raped and killed by narcotraffickers. He told us he’d traveled with an infant over 2,000 miles to the Texas border because he feared for his family’s life.

This man and his daughter are just two of the more than 4,000 individuals whom ICE has released in El Paso over the last two weeks. This was a major increase, according to Garcia, who says the city typically receives about 500 a week. As a result, El Paso volunteers were struggling to help and house all the asylum seekers—nearly all of whom had coughs and congestion, most of whom were dehydrated. And a number of the children, some as young as 18 months, had the flu.

Volunteers nearly reached their limits. Each site was staffed by only around 10 people, many of whom worked more than 12 hours a day. Some were even hospitalized as a result of overwork. The outreach drained Annunciation House’s resources. In December, the organization had to spend more than $150,000 on hotels for the refugees. Paying for rooms is the last option available when temporary and permanent shelters are full.

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