West Texas diocese calls for volunteers, donations as Title 42 immigration restrictions expire

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted May 10, 2023

Migrants gather on May 10 between primary and secondary border fences as the United States prepares to lift COVID-19 era Title 42 restrictions that have blocked migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border from seeking asylum since 2020, near San Diego, California. Photo: Mike Blake via REUTERS

[Episcopal News Service] The Plaza de Paz Respite Center in San Antonio, Texas, is facing a shortage of volunteers, food and supplies to serve the hundreds of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving every day. The shortage is anticipated to worsen as a large influx of asylum-seekers is expected to cross the U.S. border when Title 42 restrictions and the federal public health emergency end on May 11.

As of May 10, an estimated 155,000 migrants and/or asylum-seekers are waiting in northern Mexico to cross the U.S. southern border, and an additional 28,000 migrants are in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody. Although the terms migrants and asylum-seekers are often used interchangeably, not all migrants are asylum-seekers.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration issued Title 42, a policy that blocked land entry for migrants at the U.S. border. The policy has allowed federal authorities to expel more than 2.8 million migrants from the United States. Government officials said the policy was intended to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. While many migrants returned to their home countries, many others stayed in Mexico and waited for another opportunity to cross the border.

Flor Saldivar, director of the Diocese of West Texas’ immigration and rescue ministries, told Episcopal News Service she’s met “tons of people” who’ve tried several times to cross the border, only to be sent back to Mexico every time.

“With regular media, there’s this very damaging narrative being pushed. ‘Oh, there’s a surge at the border and all of these immigrants are trying to get into the U.S.’ But really, what’s happened is this Title 42 policy that made it so that many people who would normally qualify for asylum, [who] would seek asylum in the U.S., they were just getting kicked back into Mexico,” Saldivar said.

Now that the Biden administration is ending Title 42, asylum-seekers will once again be able to make asylum claims through Title 8, which is existing U.S. immigration law that allows for asylum claims based on criteria including a “well-founded fear” of future persecution in their home country.

There’s a misconception regarding what the end of Title 42 means. “It does not mean that every single person will be allowed to enter the United States,” Lindsey Warburton, a policy adviser in the Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations, told ENS.

In fact, she said, reverting to Title 8 means that the Biden administration is going to increase the use of expedited removal.

“Title 8 is not incredibly equipped to handle a lot of asylum-seekers,” Warburton said. “That means [U.S. officials] are going to process migrants and deport anybody who’s ineligible for asylum.”

Asylum-seekers and refugees leave their homes for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to war, violence and persecution over race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Nearly 1.6 million people currently have open asylum claims in the United States, and the federal government’s backlog is now more than 8 million applications, with 5 million of them pending past their deadlines.

Plaza de Paz normally has three or four volunteers assisting migrants and asylum-seekers every day, though Saldivar said the need is now twice that because the daily number of people in need of assistance has recently doubled from 150 to at least 300 even before the upcoming policy change.

“Thank God these people are going to be able to come through and actually seek asylum,” Saldivar said. “But now the issue is how do we humanely care for all of the people that are coming through when there aren’t enough resources? And our systems aren’t built to handle the capacity that’s going to need support, and that’s been the real big issue.”

The federal government doesn’t have a coordinated humanitarian response in anticipation of the expected influx of migrants on May 11; however, about 2,500 military personnel are currently at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Biden administration is deploying an additional 1,500 active-duty troops ahead of Title 42’s expiration. The troops won’t carry out law enforcement functions or interact with migrants, but instead will fulfill administrative duties, such as data entry and warehouse support, to assist DHS and CBP officials while they conduct fieldwork, according to news reports.

Once asylum-seekers are granted entry into the United States, they typically travel by private bus from immigrant detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border to transitional centers like Plaza de Paz in San Antonio.

The respite center, which is a collaboration between the West Texas diocese and the Southwestern Texas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is a day shelter. West Texas Bishop David Reed told ENS the diocese is currently requesting additional grants to expand Plaza de Paz and accommodate more people.

“We’re trying to respond in helpful ways with love to seek Christ in those we meet, and to address immediate needs,” he said. “Migrants and asylum-seekers are people that have been through unimaginable hardship to even get into our country, and a lot of what we offer is in tangible form, for them to enter a safe place where they can rest as they prepare for the next step of their long journey.”

Upon arrival, volunteers welcome asylum-seekers to the United States and give them food, clothes, personal hygiene products and other necessities. The migrants typically spend six hours at the respite center, where they rest, eat, shower, charge their phones, connect to Wi-Fi, receive assistance in organizing immigration paperwork and connect with family or the person sponsoring them while their claim is processed.

“We already have a good staff helping migrants, but we’re also trying to stay competent and continue doing this very difficult work without wearing ourselves out,” Reed said. “We’re having a hard time accommodating so many migrants, not to mention all the pressure volunteers are under and the craziness of what they and asylum-seekers are trying to do with so much conflicting information and policies that keep changing every day.”

Most asylum-seekers arriving at the border lately are coming from Latin America, West Africa, the Caribbean and Sri Lanka, with many from outside of the Americas knowing how to speak Spanish because they’ve already spent a long time in Latin America trying to head to the U.S. border. Because of this, volunteers with Spanish-language skills are especially needed, Saldivar said.

Volunteers need to provide their own transportation and housing, as well as pass a background check and sign a code of conduct and confidentiality form. Plaza de Paz also has links to donate money for food and supplies online, including Walmart and Amazon wish lists for those who want to help but cannot volunteer. Migrants especially need food, personal hygiene products and undergarments.

“[Our immigration and rescue ministries’] focus has been to try to just serve people as Christ calls us to,” Reed said. “And if people really take strong issues with us helping migrants and asylum-seekers, just tell them to take it up with Jesus, because we’re trying to do what he’s asked us to do, as he told us in the parable of the Good Samaritan.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.