More than 3 years ago, during a time of lockdowns, face masks, and social distancing, then-president Trump invoked a provision of federal law known as Title 42, ordering the rapid deportation of migrants entering the U.S. due to coronavirus concerns.
Critics have long said the policy was a pretext for a larger immigration crackdown. Tonight, all those discussions become moot. After a series of court battles, Title 42 is finally coming to an end and already, President Biden predicts that immigration around the border will be, “chaotic for a while.”
In the weeks preceding this big change in policy, U.S. border towns and cities have reported anywhere from hundreds to thousands of new migrants arriving every day – putting a massive strain on local resources in towns like El Paso, where there’s a state of emergency now in place.
Blake Barrow is chief executive director of Rescue Mission in El Paso and he joined Texas Standard to talk about how things look at the border for non-profits. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Rescue Mission in El Paso is an organization that’s historically focused on the issue of homelessness. But accommodating migrants crossing the border – how much of that has now landed on your plate?
Blake Barrow: Well, they’re homeless, too. They’re just from a different country. So we’re just here to love on all of God’s people. So it’s basically a whole lot more customers and more opportunities to help people out.
What about your resources? Are you feeling the strain there?
It’s stretching us thin. Now, of course, FEMA has a formula, the Federal Emergency management operation, that will reimburse shelters for providing care. They pay $12.50 per day per person and then $3 a meal. Now, all that having been said, we’ve been doing this work since Sept. 9 – the first day that an immigration bus rolled up to the front of the rescue mission and let about 50 people off the bus and just said, “Walk over there, they’ll take care of you.” And we have not yet received any money at all from FEMA. I’m told it’s forthcoming.
What are your days looking like right now?
Well, we’re busy, but we’re having fun. We’re folks who enjoy taking care of people. And I’ve got to tell you, the crowd that we have right now, Venezuelans primarily, are the nicest, most polite, most grateful people that I’ve met. It’s a joy taking care of them.
What about your staff and their workload right now?
Well, a lot of them are picking up overtime that they wanted. As I say, it has swelled expenses, both the food budget and the payroll. I got to give hats off to Albertson’s grocery store. They just pitch in and give us a lot of food. So they’re helping tremendously with that. And then we now have a group of Red Cross volunteers that are here. So they’re helping out quite a bit.
Are you bracing for when things, you know, officially change?
You know, that’s a really good question. And we’ll know come Friday, see what happens. The strange thing is that if you read the policy that Biden has announced – you know, “this is what we’re going to do with the order” – if I read that and I’m thinking, “okay, this is what Immigration Department is going to do,” then we should not have very many migrants at all.
But of course, there are a lot of people on the other side of the border that are laboring under a lot of, well, “misinformation” is what it’s been described as to me by some reporters. They say that a lot of migrants are thinking that the doors are just going to open and that there won’t be deportations. And that’s not accurate, of course.
You’re correct. And it’s been quite a challenge. Well, from my perspective, I don’t have the opportunity to tell folks, “no, this is the law and this is what we’re looking at.” By profession, I am a trial lawyer. But, you know, they’re already over here. If you look at what the immigration law really is and the standards for applying for asylum, a very small percentage of the asylum cases will be granted.
I know that El Paso’s mayor, Oscar Leeser, declared the city to be in a state of emergency, and that opens up some doors for federal funding to support things like shelters. Will you benefit as a result of that change or no?
No, we’re a privately-funded operation now. What the mayor is intending to do, and I don’t know if obviously declaring a state of emergency allows him to tap certain sources of funding, he intends to open up the civic center that we have, which once before they set that up with Red Cross cards. And you can probably fit 1,500 people in there. And then there are a couple of schools that we have that have been closed. We built new, better schools and he was going to open two of those schools and allow people to sleep in the gymnasiums and so forth. So to my knowledge, that’s where the money is going. It will not be coming to the rescue mission.
Interesting. Of course, that is not sustainable for the long term, clearly. I mean, you can’t have people housed up in those sorts of situations for extended periods of time. And I know that President Biden has also sent U.S. troops to the border. What do you make of the government’s response overall?
Well, and it’s interesting with the troops coming in. The information that we’re told is they will not be doing law enforcement. They will not be deporting people. So I’m kind of scratching my head going, “okay, what are they going to be doing?”
They’re thinking about freeing up border Border Patrol officers who might otherwise have to do paperwork.
Well, and I don’t know how much paperwork that is, but if that’s the case, that’s a great thing. Obviously, we do not have enough Border Patrol officers.
This week, President Biden said he expects immigration to be chaotic for a while as Title 42 is wrapping up. Is that how you see it? Being chaotic for a while where you are?
Well, it’s been chaotic. I don’t know what’s going to change because, as I say, if the policies were being followed the way that I read them, then we would not have very many migrants at all. And yet we’re seeing quite the contrary. Back on Dec. 20, we opened a separate shelter just for migrants across the street from the rescue mission. It’s property we’re leasing from the water department, and the water department was using it as a maintenance garage so that they’ve got some big bays in there and we can put about 180, maybe even 200 people in that building. We opened that on Dec. 20.
I remember the first night there were 158 people. By the end of that week, there were 80. And then a couple of things happened. The Supreme Court punted on ruling on Title 42. And then about a week later, Biden came to the border. And when Biden came, then the Border Patrol just shut the border entirely. And then he announces this policy as to what immigration was going to be looking like in the future. And that’s the policy that I read. And I’m thinking, “oh, well, great, I just opened an immigration or a migrant shelter. We’re going to be out of business by the first of February.” And sure enough, about the second week in February, we had gone from 180 people in December down to about 24.
And then about the middle of March, the numbers just started blowing through the roof. And in fact, in April, we had to make the decision to change the focus of the migrant shelter to just take care of families with children. And in order to have any space, we needed to evict the single men. And we’re not talking luxurious beds. We’re talking cots and a mattress thrown on the floor. Maybe we’re at about 250. And we’re going to fill that up with taking care of families with kids.
If you had a message for the federal government at this juncture, what would it be?
You know, the burden is on Congress to put forth some immigration laws that actually work. Let’s get something that works. And yet the Congress that we have, we can’t even agree on passing a budget bill that will let us pay for immigration judges and Border Patrol officers. So that’s pretty frustrating how dysfunctional our government is.