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El Paso Declares Emergency Over Influx of Asylum Seekers Amid Freezing Weather

The federal government needs to provide massive resources for migrants at the border, says one human rights organizer.

The Democratic mayor of El Paso, Texas, has declared a state of emergency over concerns the city won’t be able to provide shelter and resources to the thousands of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. This comes as the Biden administration is expected on Wednesday to stop enforcing Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic policy that has been used by the U.S. government to block over 2 million migrants from seeking asylum in the country. Many asylum seekers now at the border are sleeping outdoors in freezing temperatures while the infrastructure to welcome them is sorely lacking, says Fernando García, the founder and executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights based in El Paso. “This is what I consider the perfect storm happening right now at the border,” he says. “If we don’t have long-term fixes, if we don’t have immigration reform fixing the asylum process, which has been broken and damaged by the previous administration, I think we are going to continue seeing these crises.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Texas, where the Democratic mayor of El Paso has declared a state of emergency over concerns the city won’t be able to provide shelter and resources to the growing number of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. An average of over 2,400 migrants are now being apprehended daily by border authorities along the border near El Paso. Local shelters are beyond capacity, with many asylum seekers forced to sleep on the streets under freezing winter temperatures. This is El Paso’s Democratic Mayor Oscar Leeser.

MAYOR OSCAR LEESER: As we see the increase in asylum seekers into our community and we see the temperatures dropping and we know that Title 42 looks like it’s going to be called back on Wednesday, we felt that it was proper time today to call a state of emergency. And the reason why we’re doing it is because I said from the beginning that I would call it when I felt that either our asylum seekers or our community was not safe. And I really believe that today our asylum seekers are not safe, as we have hundreds and hundreds on the streets. And that’s not the way we want to treat people. And by calling a state of emergency, it gives us the ability, today, to be able to do things we couldn’t do until we called it, and that’s our shelters, and put people in shelters and make sure that they’re safe. But we have ordinances that keeps us from putting a lot of people in certain buildings. We can do that now, if we can do it in a safe way with the fire department and proper personnel.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mayor Oscar Leeser of El Paso, Texas, speaking Saturday. During his remarks, he referenced Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic policy that’s been used to block over 2 million migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. The Biden administration is expected to stop enforcing Title 42 on Wednesday. But the fate of the policy may be decided by the Supreme Court. On Friday, a group of U.S. states with Republican attorneys general lost in their latest legal attempt to keep 42 in place. The states are expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court today. On Saturday, El Paso’s Mayor Leeser talked more about the ending of Title 42.

MAYOR OSCAR LEESER: We know that the influx on Wednesday will be incredible, that it will be huge. Talking to some of our federal partners, they really believe that on Wednesday our numbers will go from 2,500 to 4,000, 5,000 or maybe 6,000. And when I asked them, I said, “Do you believe that you guys can handle it today?” the answer was no. When I got an answer of no, that meant we needed to do something and do something right away.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to El Paso, where we’re joined by Fernando García, the founder and executive director of the El Paso, Texas-based Border Network for Human Rights.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Fernando. Can you explain what’s happening on the ground and what needs to happen? I mean, it is getting cold there, maybe even colder than New York. We’re talking 20 degrees Fahrenheit?

FERNANDO GARCÍA: Hey, good morning, Amy.

Definitely, yes. I mean, this is what I consider the perfect storm happening right now at the border, specifically here in El Paso, because we have two crises coming together. The first one is a humanitarian crisis. I mean, we have thousands, hundreds of members of refugee communities and asylum seekers in both sides of the river, in Juárez and El Paso, in the streets, at the river, exposed to these freezing temperatures. Right now we have like 32 degrees right now, and it’s going to go lower. So, we have, the other day, actually, visited some of these families in El Paso and who had children without winter clothing. I mean, most of them come from Venezuela and Ecuador and Nicaragua, and they are not used to this kind of weather, but they are not prepared to deal with it.

So, I think what we’re seeing is the failure, a dramatic failure, of multiple systems, both in Mexico and in the United States. So, this is a desperate situation. In the other hand, though, we have also the crisis of the lack of fundamental welcoming infrastructure. And we’ve been talking about that for years, and nobody did anything, so that’s how we come to be in this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what’s happening on Wednesday, the Title 42, to explain it more fully, and the possibility that the Supreme Court will insist it remain?

FERNANDO GARCÍA: Well, let’s remind ourselves what happened with Title 42. For more than, I would say, almost three years already, this was a strategy implemented first by the Trump administration as an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee strategy, where, actually, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers looking for protection, they would expel right away when they were caught at the border, so with no due process, no hearings, no legal support. So people were sent back mostly to Mexico to very dangerous conditions. So, that created a lot of pressure on these refugees and migrants and asylum seekers. As a matter of fact, last year was one of the worst years for migrants dying at the border. Almost 1,000 migrants died while crossing the border. It’s a human rights crisis. But much of that is in connection to Title 42.

Unfortunately, the administration, the current administration, Biden administration, continue with it. We did not understand, up still today, why they make the political decision to continue with something that was so bad, so illegal in many ways. When I say “illegal,” it’s because it was breaking international law. It was rejecting refugees and asylum seekers. It was not guaranteeing basic due process for people. And, however, this administration refused to end it. And to be honest, I don’t know if at the end of the day we’re going to be having a full repeal of Title 42, because including this administration, through the Department of Justice, appeal the elimination of Title 42. So, we’re in a very uncertain situation, but, however, we have all of these families, all of these children, women at the border in a very difficult condition.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s hear the voices of some Nicaraguans near El Paso seeking refuge in the United States.

ASYLUM SEEKER 1: [translated] After going through so many things, we will finally be fine, after being kidnapped and going hungry. We hope to be better.

ASYLUM SEEKER 2: [translated] After what happened to us, we are afraid. I feel that I will not be able to live in peace. I want to stay here in Mexico working, but I won’t be able because of what happened to me.

ASYLUM SEEKER 3: [translated] We want the United States government to help us, to help us as they have helped us so far my colleagues and all the people who are here, because we need that help. We are asking President Biden, because he is the only president who will help us. We know he will open the door for us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think, Fernando García, should be happening right now? Do you expect, as the networks have been reporting, that if this were lifted on Wednesday, that we’re talking about 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 people coming over the border a day? And also, can you talk about what is the crisis? Are the migrants the crisis, or is the lack of U.S. immigration policy the crisis?

FERNANDO GARCÍA: Yeah. No, no. Well, you know, we already have an increase of migrants coming to the border, independently of Title 42. Title 42 has created a lot of pressure on many of these migrants, on the whole system itself. So, it is unfair to say that now there are going to be more people, while they were coming already. Actually, most of the Venezuelans were coming, in transit, when the Biden announced the new Venezuelan policy that they could apply from Venezuela for asylum, while many of them, tens of thousands of them, were in transit and they were stuck in Mexico. So, they are getting their way to the border.

I was talking to them the other day in Juárez precisely, and they were telling the story about how they are fleeing their countries, either by economic depression but also because of what they consider political repression, and in violence, in persecution. So, most of the people that are coming to the border, they are not trying to sneak into the United States. They are being — actually, they are turning over to Border Patrol themselves, actually, voluntarily. They cross the border to say, “I’m here. I want to apply for asylum.” And still, in those cases, many of them, actually almost a million-and-a-half, maybe more, [inaudible] expelled in the last three years.

So, no, I mean, the answer is, we don’t have an invasion, the way that some Republicans and some white nationalistic people is talking about. What we have is a fundamental failure of the immigration system. It’s been broken. No administration in the past, not this one, has done anything to fix it.

But I think I wanted to talk about what is happening right now and what do we need. I mean, we talk about, yes, ending Title 42. We agree with that. And also, two years ago, we talked to this administration to start putting welcoming infrastructure, building welcoming centers — and we call it the new Ellis Island welcoming centers — along the border so they could handle situations like this. They’re centers where they could provide shelter, legal support, to provide transportation, and maybe guidance and information, where all of these people don’t have to be in the streets looking for a bus ticket in the middle of the cold weather. So, the fact is that this administration didn’t do it. And actually, they decided to stick to Title 42 as the only strategy, and right now there is no strategy to deal with it. So, I think we’re very concerned that they’re expecting that local communities and local officials and local cities will resolve this, which that is not the case. It is unsustainable. The federal government should stop right away, with massive resources, with a lot of people here in El Paso but also in the rest of the border.

AMY GOODMAN: El Paso’s deputy city manager, Mario D’Agostino, said the emergency declaration will give El Paso options to transport migrants to other locations. This is what he said.

MARIO D’AGOSTINO: The communications we have, we’ve had with the state, is they’re willing to bus people to locations, to whether it’s New York City, Chicago, whatever that destination is. We’re working on them to add locations, so we can work with those NGOs, so we can move people to a travel hub. Right now I can tell you that as we’re working through the community, we’re working with the NGOs, and we’re working with the migrants themselves. The only people we’re referring to the state is somebody who’s going that direction. So that’s how we’re doing that. We’re doing that piece to make sure that it’s individuals who are choosing to go to that next city, wherever it may be, to get their transportation from there.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, again, you know, we’re talking about a Democratic administration in El Paso. I think just down the road from us today at Port Authority, scores of migrants will be coming off of buses. Fernando García, can you comment on this busing policy? And, overall, what has to happen right now?

FERNANDO GARCÍA: So, listen, I think I agree with the declaration of the sheriff of El Paso, which is not an invasion declaration. I need to be very clear about that, because in Texas another declaration is being promoted, and that being the Governor Abbott’s declaration, that he’s pushing cities and counties along the border to declare that there is an invasion of criminals, and therefore, he’s putting a lot of resources, like the state resources, to actually detain and arrest and deport people, which is clearly illegal for the state to do. So, the El Paso declaration is not linked to that governor’s declaration.

However, I’m very concerned about the cities that are connecting with the resources of the state, because Greg Abbott is going to use it politically. I mean, he’s been using the issues of immigration since before the elections and right after the election, because he has political goals and aims. So, he’s using immigrants as a scapegoat, since he continues calling them criminals and a threat to the United States. So I don’t believe that the state’s solution is a solution. I believe that the city, it is trying to do something better.

But I think if there is any busing of migrants, I think that should be optional, and that should provide alternatives for migrants. So they need to go where they need to be, with their family members, with the sponsors, not where politicians want to send them. So, overall, I think we have said it in the past: If we don’t fix it right now, we don’t put massive resources, we’re going to have a lot of people suffering. But also, in the long term, I mean, this wave of immigration is going to go up and then down again and go up again. So, if we don’t have long-term fixes, we don’t have immigration reform, fixing the asylum process, which has been broken and damaged by the previous administration, I think we’re going to continue seeing these crises, so-called crises, in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando García, founder and executive director of the El Paso, Texas-based Border Network for Human Rights. The mayor of El Paso, a Democratic mayor, has declared an emergency, a state of emergency in El Paso.

Coming up, supporters of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal are hailing a decision by a Philadelphia judge to order the local DA’s Office to share all its files in the case. Could this lead to a new trial? Stay with us.