Anticipating a surge in border crossings amid cold temperatures, El Paso declares a state of emergency

Hundreds of migrants wait in line along the banks of the Rio Grande to seek asylum in the U.S. on Dec. 12. On Saturday, days before Title 42 is lifted, El Paso's mayor declared a state of emergency citing an increase in migrants and cold weather. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre For The Texas Tribune, Ivan Pierre Aguirre For The Texas Tribune)

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El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser issued an emergency declaration Saturday night to address the increase in migrants crossing the southern border, citing the dangerous winter conditions and shelters lacking the capacity to meet the demand next week.

With the federal health order known as Title 42 — which was used during the COVID-19 pandemic to quickly expel migrants — set to expire Wednesday, El Paso officials hope to leverage the emergency declaration to unlock additional resources and expand available shelters for migrants as evening temperatures are forecast to drop below freezing in the coming week.

Leeser said the influx of migrants has strained the city’s resources, and his decision to make the declaration came as a response to protect those seeking asylum.

The declaration is in effect for seven days, after which the City Council will decide whether to extend the order beyond Dec. 24.

“I said from the beginning that I would call [a state of emergency] when I felt that either our asylum-seekers or our community was not safe,” Leeser said at a press conference on Saturday at El Paso City Hall. “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.”

The city announced it will also create an emergency operations center and implement emergency management plans to protect the health, safety and welfare of the migrants and the community.

Leeser noted that the city has ordinances that prevent use of certain facilities as shelters, but by declaring a state of emergency, El Paso officials can provide temporary housing for migrants. Officials did not provide specific examples of what facilities will be used.

Prior to the declaration, the city and El Paso County requests of the Texas Division of Emergency Management were limited to the agency’s current operation and budget. The declaration gives city and county officials the power and flexibility to receive support from the state.

Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said issuing the emergency declaration also enables the city to make requests of the state for additional staffing to feed and house migrants.

D’Agostino added that the city has asked for assistance in the forms of additional law enforcement and transportation to bus migrants to other parts of the country.

Both the city of El Paso and Gov. Greg Abbott have bused migrants to major Democratic-led cities in the last year, but Abbott’s buses have often arrived in cities with little to no warning, while buses sent by El Paso officials have coordinated with organizations at their destinations to meet the new arrivals.

On working with the state, Leeser said he spoke with the governor’s office, which assured him, “‘We will never do anything without talking to you first, and we won’t impose anything without talking to you first.’”

Leeser said the mass migration of people seeking asylum Wednesday is expected to be “incredible.” He added that federal estimates provided to him indicate that the number of migrants crossing the border could go from 2,500 per day to potentially 6,000.

“Our border community is facing an extraordinary humanitarian crisis,” said state Sen. César J. Blanco, D-El Paso, in a statement. “Our office has been working with community leaders from the local, state, and federal levels to address this crisis and support local requests for additional resources from the State of Texas.”