National News

As Migrant Numbers Swell, El Paso Institute and Diocese Ready to Boost Capacity

Venezuelan migrants squeeze in to grab a rosary from the hands of Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, during his visit to a tent camp on the banks of the Rio Grande on the Mexico side close to El Paso Oct. 29, 2022. (CNS photo/courtesy Hope Border Institute)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A faith-based humanitarian organization in El Paso, Texas, is working with the local diocese to consider expanding its hospitality sites to accommodate 200 more migrants per night, as the head of the organization remains confident they can sufficiently respond to higher numbers.

“The Hope Border Institute is working closely with [Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso], as well as our local government partners, to see if we need to open up additional spaces, and if we do, we will,” Dylan Corbett, the organization’s executive director told The Tablet. “I’m confident that our community can meet the need, and that our local church can play a meaningful role in welcoming those who are arriving at our border.”

“I’m not daunted by the challenge,” Corbett added. “It’s significant, and I don’t want to minimize it, but I know that our community is pulling together and I’m confident that we can meet the moment.”

Founded in 2015, the Hope Border Institute describes its mission as bringing “the perspective of Catholic social teaching to bear on the realities unique to our U.S.-Mexico border region.”

The Tablet spoke to Corbett on Sept. 18, following comments from El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser on Sept. 15 that the city could soon run out of capacity to house migrants as numbers continue to grow.

“Our number one priority is the safety of our community and the safety of our asylum-seekers also because we don’t want them out on the streets, but at some point we will run out of capacity … and we will have to activate that emergency shelter declaration,” Leeser said.

Bishop Seitz, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration Committee chair, as well as the diocesan spokesperson, did not respond to a Tablet request for comment.

Leeser explained that the city has 400 rooms allocated to house migrants on a nightly basis across four different hotels. For context, the mayor said that recently there were 1,700 migrants who crossed the border into El Paso, of which they were able to house about 700. Corbett said the diocesan hospitality sites currently shelter more than 300 people per night. There are other organizations involved as well.

Corbett said in general there are about 1,000 people or more a day coming to El Paso.

The impetus for Leeser’s comments and what has him and city officials most concerned are the prospects of street releases, when migrants who are processed by Border Patrol get released into the community even when the city’s housing operation is strained. The practice has strained other border communities, but Leeser said they’ve been able to manage in El Paso through coordination with border authorities.

“We’re continuing to be proactive,” Leeser said. “This is a daily operation that we’re operating, and every day we see the need to continue to add a little something to make sure we get it done.”

Corbett said he took the mayor’s comments on a potential capacity shortage as “encouragement” for all those involved in the response — the city, the county, federal partners, and nongovernmental organizations — to make sure that doesn’t happen and coordinate their response.

“[Street releases] are not something that happens on a regular basis here in El Paso because we’re able to come together and meet the needs of those who are processed out of U.S. government custody,” Corbett said. “There may be times when we have street releases, and I interpret the mayor’s remarks as an encouragement for all of us to get to work to make sure that doesn’t happen, but I’m confident that over the medium and long term, despite the numbers, that we’ll be able to meet the need.”

Corbett, who is also an official at the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section and a migration consultant for the USCCB also highlighted that there’s more the federal government can do.

The calls from Corbett and others for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation and for the Biden administration to move away from largely ineffective deterrence policies are well documented. However, he said in the immediate timeline there’s more the federal government can do to coordinate arrivals and ensure there’s an orderly process at the border.

“The administration could do much more to coordinate arrivals. That’s an area that’s lacking right now and frankly the federal government has to do more to ensure that the reception is orderly,” Corbett said.

“I’m proud of our county, working with Catholic partners, to work on humane pathways where people can transport to other major cities here in Texas and be received by Catholic agencies on the ground,” he continued. “That work is happening, local governments are doing that, NGOs are doing that, but this is really the work of the federal government. This is an area the federal government has to step in.”

That said, as difficult as the present situation is, Corbett said they’ve “dealt with increases in arrivals in the past so it’s not new to us,” and that the coordination in recent years between the federal government, local and county governments, and NGOs has been an important development.

“I think we’re all trying to row in the same direction to ensure there’s a safe and efficient system here at the border to deal with arrivals, and I’ve been very pleased with the commitment of our federal agencies and our local governments to make sure we get the job done,” Corbett said.