EL PASO, Texas – A white Customs and Border Protection bus pulled up behind a nondescript warehouse-style building in northeast El Paso. The doors opened and dozens of men poured out, holding processing papers and small plastic bags containing cell phones and money. They walked single-file into the building where they joined hundreds of men, women and children inside the city’s Migrant Welcome Center.
Over the next 90 minutes, four more CBP buses would repeat the process.
The orderly scene at the welcome center stands in stark contrast after crowds of border crossers were left to sleep in the streets of El Paso earlier this month. CBP agents apprehend around 1,700 migrants each day in the El Paso sector alone, according to El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego. City officials and Samaniego told Fox News they were caught off guard when CBP started releasing hundreds of those migrants — mostly from Venezuela — directly into the streets of the city.
"We didn’t anticipate the Venezuelans completely," Samaniego said. "It sort of caught us a little flat footed."
Border Patrol and the city of El Paso are now working more cooperatively, according to Samaniego and Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino. In many cases, CBP transports migrants straight from the border to other federal detention centers in Texas, Arizona or California in a process officials refer to as "decompression."
"They're just processing them at other locations instead of processing them all right here, because once they're processed, they have to release them," D’Agostino told Fox News.
The city’s welcome center can accommodate 400 migrants a day, D’Agostino said. The center opens at 7 a.m. Inside, migrants sit down in a neat grid of folding chairs until it’s their turn to check in with staff. Then they can get food, first aid and assistance getting to their final destination.
"They're not choosing to stay here," D’Agostino said. "We're just a path for them to get to where they're going. Their destination was the United States. El Paso was just a doorway they came through."
About 70% of the migrants coming into El Paso are from Venezuela, D'Agostino said, a nation that has suffered from hyperinflation for years.
Daniel, who arrived in El Paso last week after a months-long journey, told Fox News he left his home country because of the crushing poverty and lack of employment opportunities.
"Thank you for welcoming us to the United States," he said in Spanish, adding that he hopes Americans know that "not all Venezuelans are bad."
Daniel hopes to join family members who migrated to Georgia about five months ago.
Around 50% of the migrants have sponsors in the U.S. who can arrange and pay for travel, D'Agostino told Fox News. The other 50% may end up on one of the city’s chartered buses to either New York City or Chicago. As of Saturday, the city has sent 102 charter buses to New York City and Chicago, carrying a total of 4,815 people.
The city aims to get migrants on their way to another community within 24 to 48 hours, Mayor Oscar Leeser told Fox News.
"That's our goal, to make sure that they're not here any longer than that unless they want to be in El Paso," Leeser said.
Republican governors such as Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis have come under fire for sending migrants to other states, but the blue city of El Paso has largely been spared from criticism. The difference, Samaniego said, is that El Paso is coordinating with the communities to which it is sending migrants.
"We're not just putting them on a bus and then getting the other community to figure it out," he said. "We're not willing to politicize it in any particular way."
Samaniego added that El Paso isn’t accepting help from Abbott with bussing migrants because "then it becomes a political issue instead of a crisis."
The welcome center closes at 7 p.m. each night. If migrants haven’t made it onto a bus by then, the city takes them to a local shelter or hotel.
D’Agostino said El Paso can operate its welcome center as long as reimbursement from FEMA continues.
"We got heart," he said. "It’s not our normal. This isn’t. But it’s what’s needed to be done for the community."
The county recently approved a $6.8 million contract to operate another migrant support center near the airport. The lease for the building will cost an additional $11,000 a month. The county maintains that, while El Paso taxpayers will have to foot the bill upfront, all costs will be reimbursed by FEMA on a quarterly basis.
Samaniego expects the new center to open within two weeks and have a capacity of up to 600 migrants. The county is also exploring the possibility of opening an overnight shelter in anticipation of Border Patrol releasing more individuals in El Paso, he said.
"One of the things that I’m anticipating is that eventually we don’t have the [decompression flights] because they’re going to get saturated at the other detention centers," he said.
A government-run shelter would offer an area where migrants could stay for a couple days while the county gets them processed, Samaniego said.
"I feel that we should have another sort of a stopgap and instead of them being under the bridge," he said.