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Desperate migrants are met with cold, no room at shelters after crossing the border

“There is no capacity in El Paso” shelters, said Fernando García, executive director for the Border Network for Human Rights. “We have been talking about this the last two years."

EL PASO, Texas — At a downtown convenience store, María paced anxiously in the cold scanning people arriving at a nearby bus station to find her husband.

María, who would not give her full name, wore a short coat not meant for at or near freezing temperatures, black jeans and sneakers. She kept her bare hands in her pockets for warmth. A light American Red Cross blanket sat folded at a perch she'd taken up to keep her eye on the bus station.

“I’m waiting for my husband. I haven’t heard from him in three days," she told NBC News.

The couple had traveled 21 days from Nicaragua and were among the hundreds of men, women and some children who have crossed the Texas-Mexico border in recent days.

The two were picked up by border officers. María was processed and then released. But she had no information on the fate of her husband. Because their country is not accepting back its citizens, Nicaraguans are generally able to enter the country and seek asylum.  

There are projections of more migrants arriving, as the Biden administration is expected to shift from using a pandemic-era health law, Title 42, back to the previous immigration law, Title 8. The pandemic law has allowed Border Patrol agents to swiftly expel people and deny them asylum consideration, but it does not include the penalties under Title 8, which discouraged repeated unauthorized border crossings.

Sleeping on the streets

As political and legal wheels churn on the issue of Title 42, people fleeing desperation are arriving to another sort of misery in the U.S.

Migrants are bused from the Border Patrol processing center and left near Annunciation House, in El Paso. Its director, Ruben Garcia, and his volunteers have been caring for migrants crossing the border for decades.

This time, the numbers are higher.

Like María, other migrants are waiting, sleeping on streets. Men and women are seen shivering in blankets, if they have them, while they try to figure out how to reach relatives or friends far from the border. There is some relief in finally reaching the U.S., but also confusion and fear about what is next. Many of the migrants stay with others who they traveled to the border with; they help one another.

Advocates look for children to make sure they are with family and not out in the cold. Some of the newly arrived have been able to get money wired to them for tickets and wait for flights at an airport or buses to other parts of the country where they have family or friends.

Migrants who have crossed the border and have been released by Border Patrol wait at the airport in El Paso, Texas
Migrants who have crossed the border and have been released by Border Patrol wait at the airport in El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday. Those with family or friends have money wired to them so they can buy tickets to other parts of the country. Erika Angulo / NBC News

“There is no capacity in El Paso” shelters, said Fernando García, executive director for the Border Network for Human Rights. “We have been talking about this the last two years. We’ve insisted to the administration that it was crazy and out of touch with reality to think local nongovernmental organizations would have the capacity to deal with something systematically broken."

Ruben Garcia said it has been painful to have to turn away people. In the past, Annunciation House has provided hotel rooms, but that is costly. Annunciation House operates four buildings and oversees operations at a fifth. The most they can fit in a day is 700.

Ruben Garcia noted that when Afghan refugees came  to the U.S., facilities were opened to house 10,000 "and they did that overnight."

Border Network for Human Rights launched a campaign to solicit coats and winter clothing from area residents to help keep the migrants warm outside. He said the situation deserves the sort of response from the public seen after a natural disaster.

Texas' Gov. Greg Abbott has focused state resources on enforcement, spending billions in station highway state police and National Guard along the border and using state criminal trespassing laws to arrest people caught crossing the border illegally.

It's unlikely the state will steer resources to humanitarian aid in the state. He recently announced investigations of groups assisting the migrants, accusing them of aiding and abetting the migrants.

Abbott has essentially shifted responsibility for humanitarian aid to other cities for thousands of migrants, sending them on buses paid for with state tax dollars to Democratic-run cities. He has said he is bringing relief to border communities as he's faced criticism that he's using migrants to make a political point.

'Can I walk there?'

Teresa Perez was at Annunciation House this week, having arrived after a monthlong trip from Nicaragua. But she was hit with the grim reality of limits to charity beyond community groups, when she contacted family already in Texas.

“Once you are here, the family members, they close the door on you,” she said, becoming emotional. A friend offered her a place to stay, but she didn’t have money to make the trip.

When they are processed by Border Patrol, migrants are given paperwork with instructions to show up in 90 days at a specific immigration court.

NBC News met a man who has family in the Bronx, New York. His instructions were to show up in Indiana. When asked if he knew where that was, he said he assumed it was close to New York.

“Can I walk there?” he asked.

Gabe Gutierrez and Erika Angulo reported from El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and Suzanne Gamboa reported from San Antonio, Texas.