‘The other Ellis Island’: the US border area that sees the whole of global migration

<span>A woman carries her baby and a box of donated donuts while camping outside the Sacred Heart shelter in El Paso, Texas, on 21 December 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Andres Leighton/AP</span>
A woman carries her baby and a box of donated donuts while camping outside the Sacred Heart shelter in El Paso, Texas, on 21 December 2022.Photograph: Andres Leighton/AP

It was just past 10am, but the west Texas sun already burned high above the border fence, a serpentine steel line slicing the Chihuahuan desert in two. On the US side, a short distance from the Paso del Norte International Bridge, the Sacred Heart shelter stirred with activity.

Children giggled and shrieked as they chased each other in circles around the converted gymnasium, decorated with brightly colored piñatas, a mural of the Virgen de Guadalupe and a string of plastic flags, a small reminder of the countries they left behind: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico. Their parents, who carried them across jungles, rivers and entire countries, rested on mats. A mother breastfed her son. A woman braided hair.

This shelter is located in the heart of El Paso’s Segundo Barrio, a neighborhood that has served as the entry point for so many generations of immigrants arriving in the United States that it has been called “the other Ellis Island”.

It is here the newest arrivals find a moment of respite – a hot meal, fresh clothes and reliable wifi – suspended briefly in the crucible between a long, perilous journey and an uncertain future in the US; between the troubled places that pushed them out and a nation increasingly determined to keep them out.

Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos,” a volunteer said, welcoming a group that had assembled for his presentation on the asylum process, a portal into the labyrinth of immigration codes and policies that holds their fate.

Diana, 26, listened carefully.

Five months ago, she and her partner, José, 28, fled Venezuela, where a spiraling political, economic and humanitarian crisis has plunged millions into poverty.

Together they crossed the Darién Gap, an inhospitable stretch of rainforest between Colombia and Panama. They waited months in Mexico trying unsuccessfully to make an asylum appointment with the US. But Mexico was a dangerous place to be, Diana said, pulling her knees tightly to her chest. They eventually ran out of money. “Despair” crept in, José said, and they decided to continue.

The pair surrendered to US authorities on a Sunday in early June, days before Joe Biden issued an executive order essentially suspending – at least temporarily – the country’s longstanding promise that anyone who steps foot on US soil has the right to seek asylum.

While political leaders hundreds of miles away in Austin – Texas’s capital – and in Washington clash over the “crisis” at the border, the people of El Paso are grappling with the human side of an unprecedented wave of global migration, driven by economic hardship, extreme weather, conflict and political instability. Though the border city has strained under the weight of receiving hundreds of thousands of migrants in recent years, it has also modeled compassion and resilience, rooted in a tradition of caring for those who flee north.

Opinions here are divided over Biden’s election-year asylum crackdown. Many are skeptical, jaded perhaps by claims that the border can be sealed and a mass movement of people stopped.

“From what we see at our shelter, people are desperate,” said Rafael Garcia, pastor of Sacred Heart parish, the church adjacent to the shelter. “They’re fearful to death, and so they’re going to continue to take risks, which they are doing right now.”


As migration has reached historic levels in recent years, El Paso, a liberal corner in conservative Texas, has intermittently been a central crossing point from Mexico. Local officials say they are proud of the city’s response to what it defines as a humanitarian and public safety “crisis”. But the sheer scale has taken a toll.

Earlier this month, Oscar Leeser, the city’s Democratic mayor, traveled to the nation’s capital to stand with Biden at the White House as the president formally unveiled his controversial asylum order.

“We’ve been asking for help for many years,” Leeser told journalists in El Paso, after returning from Washington. The president’s action was “a start,” he said, but Congress still needed to act.

Leeser, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, before moving to El Paso as a child, speaking no English, said the city strives to be a welcoming place for asylum seekers while remaining a safe place for residents.

Having adopted a “no street release” policy, he said local officials work to connect people with shelters and transportation before they depart to other cities, often Denver, Chicago or New York. When shelters are full, the city has opted to pay for hotel rooms. The city is also in the process of building an animal shelter in a vacant middle school now used as a shelter, part of the mayor’s vision to offer pet therapy as a mental health resource.

“We really want to make sure people are treated with respect and dignity,” Leeser said.

But the status quo is unsustainable, he said. During a peak last year, the number of arrivals rose as high as 1,700 people in a single day, leaving city resources stretched thin.

The number of people crossing has plunged since then, but remains historically high. Since October, the start of the fiscal year, there have been more than 204,000 encounters in the El Paso sector, which includes west Texas and all of New Mexico, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data, a 39% decrease compared to the same period last year.

Leeser expects the asylum policy will work as a deterrent because “the consequences are greater now”. While the restrictions are in effect, people who do not establish a “reasonable probability” for asylum will be removed and subject to a “five-year bar” for re-entry, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

It’s the mayor’s hope that the harsher penalties will encourage people to use the government’s preferred pathway, by requesting an asylum appointment through its smartphone app CBP One. Roughly 1,450 appointments are available each day via the app, but there is a months-long backlog that immigration advocates fear will worsen under the new policy, which opponents are challenging in court.

According to preliminary CBP figures released on Thursday, encounters with people at the border have fallen 25% in the two weeks since the asylum restrictions were implemented.

“Every time the federal government makes a change, we see a dramatic drop in the flow,” Jorge Rodriguez, the emergency management coordinator for the city and county of El Paso, told journalists, hours after the policy took effect.

But he said the situation can change abruptly, spurred by factors beyond Washington’s control – for example, the conditions in the countries people are fleeing, and the smuggling networks that profit mightily from global migration.

US enforcement tells only part of the story. Mexican authorities, under intensifying pressure from the US, are aggressively cracking down on people trying to reach its northern border, blocking their advance and busing them hundreds of miles in the opposite direction, towards its southern border with Guatemala.

As the route becomes more difficult to traverse, human rights advocates say people will be forced to stay in Mexico, where they risk extortion, kidnapping and violence. Already, shelters are beginning to fill in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city opposite the border from El Paso, as people hoping to claim asylum are turned back.

“Nothing’s going to stop the migration,” Juan Acereto Cervera, an adviser to the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, told journalists as part of the same panel in El Paso. “Nothing.”


In the baking Santa Teresa desert, a few miles west of El Paso, the hulking, rust-colored border barrier snakes through sand and shrubs. A day after Biden’s asylum policy took effect, the US side was desolate, save for scattered pieces of clothing, empty water bottles and a photograph of a little girl with big brown eyes. “Valeria” was printed neatly on the back, with a note, in Spanish: “You’ll always be my queen.”

For decades, the vast majority of those who crossed without authorization were Mexican men looking for work. Now people come from all over the western hemisphere. Families traveling with children make up nearly 40% of those who have crossed the southern border so far this year, while tens of thousands of young people have come alone. Rather than hide, they increasingly seek out authorities to surrender and request asylum.

On a tour with journalists, CBP officials declined to discuss the new asylum order, issued after Republicans blocked a bipartisan border security bill – at Donald Trump’s behest – that would have sent a surge of resources to the agency.

The policy remains in place until the number of illegal crossings drops below 1,500 for seven consecutive days. The last time the figure fell that low was in 2020, during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the most restrictive action yet from the Democratic president, who recently invoked his own family’s journey from Ireland two centuries before to emphasize his compassion for the plight of immigrants.

But the southern border has become a defining feature of the November presidential election – and a major liability for Biden, whose “carrot and stick” approach mixing policies that expand legal pathways into the US while tightening border restrictions – has left few satisfied.

Voters strongly disapprove of Biden’s handling of the border, polls show, while attitudes toward undocumented immigrants living in the US appear to be growing more hostile.

Trump, the Republican nominee who as president enacted a policy that separated children from their parents at the border, has stoked those fears, promising to carry out “the largest deportation in history” if re-elected.

Imelda Maynard, an attorney with the El Paso-based Estrella del Paso Legal Aid, called Biden’s action a “gut punch”. She feared the asylum clampdown would make people more desperate. They may attempt to cross in more remote areas to avoid detection. Or parents may attempt to send their children alone because unaccompanied minors are one of the few groups exempted under the new restrictions.

There are also questions about how evenly the policy will be enforced along the 2,000-mile border, particularly if the number of arrivals begins to rise again.

Inconsistencies, certain to be amplified on social media and messaging platforms, could send the message that it’s still possible to come, Maynard said, because: “You can’t battle hope, right?”


For many in El Paso, portrayals of the borderlands as wide open and consumed by chaos are worlds apart from the reality of their everyday lives.

In this predominantly Hispanic community, conversations slip easily between Spanish and English, and the border is a dividing line traversed daily by students going to school​ and relatives visiting family. Its ports of entry process tens of billions of dollars in trade annually.

“If one more politician says the border is broken,” said Jon Barela of the Borderplex Alliance, an economic development organization in El Paso, shaking his head. “The border is not broken.”

Barela blamed Washington for repeatedly failing to overhaul an immigration system nearly every elected official has declared broken, despite the country’s need for more workers. Modernizing guest worker programs and expanding pathways to citizenship for the long-term undocumented – once pillars of comprehensive immigration reform, left out of this year’s border security deal – would help power the US economy, he argued. His preference is a bipartisan immigration plan introduced by El Paso’s representative in the US House, Veronica Escobar. But Congress has shown no interest in an election-year immigration consensus.

As a border-state Democrat and a co-chair of Biden’s re-election campaign, Escobar has carefully navigated the choppy politics of the president’s immigration policies. This month, she signed on to a letter asking the administration to reconsider its asylum rule. Then, last week, the congresswoman joined the president at the White House to celebrate a suite of new executive actions aimed at opening a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of immigrants living without legal status in the US.

Escobar is also sounding the alarm on growing anti-immigrant vitriol.

Right-wing talk of an immigrant “invasion” stir fears among residents, nearly five years after a white supremacist who railed against a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso.

“We have seen the way that they have targeted communities like this one, like El Paso,” Escobar said during a speech at the Texas Democratic convention, held in the city earlier this month. She accused Republicans, led by Trump, who has said undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country, of furthering the “demonization of vulnerable migrants who are seeking a better life”.

“All of that,” she said, “hangs in the balance in November.”


Near the remote border community of Sunland Park, New Mexico, temperatures swelled to 107F on a recent Thursday.

Agents often act as first responders for people suffering heat-related distress as they attempt to cross the border, a CBP official said. They provide water and administer medical care, the official said, adding that he anticipated rescues – and deaths – would continue to rise throughout the summer.

The day before, agents had recovered the bodies of two people found in the desert, believed to have died of heat-related injuries. Since then, two more bodies were recovered in the area and two people suffering heat-related injuries were rescued, according to the Sunland Park fire department.

“Last year, we had a record [number] of border deaths in our community, and with policies like these that is just going to increase,” said Aimée Santillán, a policy analyst at the Hope Border Institute, based in El Paso.

“It’s a very human issue that unfortunately has been dehumanized,” she said. “Migrants have become something else – a problem that needs to be fixed instead of people that need to be helped.”


At the Sacred Heart shelter on a recent Friday, volunteers sorted pairs of boxer briefs and other donated items. A woman from Venezuela chopped garlic in the kitchen. Preparing for the next group of arrivals was Michael DeBruhl, who now serves as the shelter’s director after a 26-year career with the border patrol.

More than 50,000 people have passed through since it opened the parish gymnasium as a shelter, practically overnight, in December 2022, as winter temperatures plunged and local officials scrambled to accommodate a sudden spike in migration.

There are fewer people these days. The night prior, the shelter had housed 74 people, well below its capacity of 120.

Many arrive here with children, mostly fleeing the crisis in Venezuela. DeBruhl, who is Mexican American, quips that he now keeps a bottle of Tabasco sauce with him to add spice to the milder Venezuelan dishes served at mealtime.

In his time with the shelter, DeBruhl has tried to provide a sense of uplift. When he started, people were sleeping on cots, which couldn’t be stacked and stored, so he procured mats that could be folded and tucked away in the morning. “Even the illusion of space, I think, is better for the soul,” he said, surveying the gymnasium, where José and Diana were preparing to depart for Houston.

DeBruhl said it would probably take several weeks to fully grasp the impact of Biden’s asylum order. Like others, he worries about the people toiling in Mexico – the more hostile side of the border, in his experience, by far.

But so long as it was better to leave than to stay, DeBruhl was sure people would continue to try. That is his mission now: to care for those who come.

“We didn’t want to leave our country,” José said. But he couldn’t afford to buy school supplies for his seven-year-old son or medication for his elderly mother. He came to the US, like so many before and after, to give his family a better life. If that had been possible in Venezuela, he would have stayed.

  • This story was reported through a fellowship on US immigration policy in El Paso organized by Poynter with funding from the Catena Foundation