After walking around downtown for hours, two young Colombian men stood across from the El Paso Chihuahuas baseball team’s stadium, looking for a shelter that immigration officials had mentioned.
A security guard who didn’t speak Spanish grasped their need and pointed towards the convention center.
“We went to a bus station, but there’s no tickets available for three days,” Duvan Avendaño said, hugging his arms to his chest in the freezing temperatures.
He and his fellow migrant, both from Bogotá, walked over to the Judson F Williams Convention Center, a facility the city on Wednesday transformed into a temporary 1,000-bed shelter, after thousands of people have been crossing the US-Mexico border and ending up on the streets of the west Texas city as an Arctic storm spread across the US.
Workers at the door of the convention center asked the Colombian men if they were migrants and if they, in fact, had any documents.
Since Avendaño and his compatriot had surrendered to US federal border officials after wading across the waters of the Rio Grande, which marks the border, they were processed and released 10 hours later with documents showing they were now legally seeking asylum – so the convention center verified their papers.
Avendaño and his friend waved goodbye, as the media were not being admitted to the facility, and they were welcomed inside.
A few steps away, a man in a red hoodie and black beanie hat showed one of the workers a piece of paper with the convention center’s address, but was told he needed to be processed by border officials to be admitted. Angel Madehivis, 30, from the northern Venezuelan state of Carabobo, said he feared border officials would deport him.
He had also crossed the river but had neither handed himself in nor been apprehended.
“In Ciudad Juarez, people confirmed what we were told in the Darien [Gap], that [US federal border agents] won’t let us in,” Madehivis told the Guardian after being denied access to the convention center.
“But we can’t go back to Mexico, it’s really dangerous there,” he added.
In October, Madehivis and his mother were struggling across the treacherous mountains of the ungoverned Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, en route to Mexico and then the US, when the Biden administration abruptly announced it would expel most Venezuelan migrants back to Mexico under the controversial immigration restriction known as Title 42, with a legal pathway only for some.
Madehivis made it to Juarez, the Mexican sister city to El Paso, then America.
But later on Thursday an exhausted Madehivis sat on the ground 500ft from the convention center and rested his head against a metal fence. He didn’t know then that he was out of options, but he would sleep there that night, as the mercury plummeted below 20F (-7C).
City authorities sent a statement saying: “All individuals must abide by local, state and federal laws. We also must follow the same policies. So staff at the convention center are verifying that the migrants using shelter services have the forms DHS [Department of Homeland Security] provided once they have been processed at the ports of entry.”
Less than a mile away, a shelter operated by the Opportunity Center for the Homeless has been receiving migrants of all nationalities since August. In a large living room, several women, mostly from Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela, were sitting on the floor, with children running around.
“I’ve seen people dying because they don’t have anything to eat,” Genesis Del Valle said of her dysfunctional home country of Venezuela, briefly pausing as her young daughter whispered something in her ear.
“I saw mothers jumping into the [Atrato] river trying to rescue their children when they fell in the water,” she added of the hazardous river near the Darién Gap.
When she finally reached Juarez, with her three children, she crossed into El Paso but immigration officials expelled them back to Mexico. Many have simply been told to walk back across the international bridges at various points along the border, where thousands wait in Mexican border cities, often in makeshift camps and in severe danger, for a slim chance to get on a list to seek asylum or for a change in US policies.
The Biden administration has admitted that the US immigration system is broken, while migration is increasing for many reasons.
But, amid political peril where the right wing has been allowed to dominate a divisive narrative with misleading and xenophobic rhetoric, legislative fixes seem far away. This despite decent compromises available on Capitol Hill, labor shortages in many US locations and industries, tragic scenes at the border all too often and what a New York Times editorial referred to as “the shambles of the asylum process” undermining public belief that “immigration is a vitalizing force in the nation’s cultural and economic life”.
Del Valle had been detained, expelled and transported not to a border town but to Mexico City. But weeks later she had made her way back to Juarez then across the river to El Paso. Evading border agents meant she was deemed ineligible for the convention center, so she joined 140 others at the Welcome Center in a facility meant for 85.
Her next challenge, she said, was to find work so her kids can get a better education than she had received back in Venezuela.
John Martin, deputy director of the opportunity center for the homeless, said he’d heard people were being turned away from the convention center.
“I’ve been disappointed with what the city is doing … we receive everyone, no questions asked. But we are running out of space,” he said.
Early on Friday afternoon, a city bus was parked downtown and had been running its engine since 4am, according to the driver, who declined to give his name as he was not authorized to discuss such matters. He confirmed that his task was to welcome unhoused migrants onto the bus with the sole purpose of keeping them warm, at least for a little while, amid the dangerous deep freeze hitting the US right before Christmas.
El Paso is a Democratic stronghold that leans away from Texas’s hardline Republican governor, Greg Abbott. In the bustling city of almost 700,000, more than 80% identify in census returns as Hispanic or Latino Americans. Being a destination for immigrants and a gateway for migration is nothing new here. Numbers always fluctuate, but the city is currently under strain with a spike in arrivals.
On Thursday, El Paso resident Gabriel Gaytan and his friend Francisco Mendoza set up a grill and distributed 680 hot dogs to migrants. On Friday, Gaytan, 48, and his seven-year-old son handed out 400 cups of comfort food in the form of elote en vaso – toasted corn dressed with butter and chili powder.
“A lot of people are saying that the shelters need help. But there’s also people in the street that need our help. You gotta get organized and open your truck,” Gaytan said, while people formed a line, enthusiastically asking what was inside the big metal pot.
He added: “I also hear a lot of people against them, but they don’t understand. We should all come together for these people, they are good, come and see it for yourself.”
On the opposite street corner, a woman pulled up in her car and asked a police officer where she could park to hand out breakfast burritos.
A week ago, city mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency, since extended, in an effort to increase funding and facilities, including from the federal government, to help those stranded.
Abbott, meanwhile, responded with National Guard troops with armored vehicles and razor wire, gripping their rifles in the faces of migrants, the El Paso Times reported.
On Christmas Eve, many migrants were still huddled on cardboard in the streets or at the bus station.
Ruben Garcia, 71, an important local figure and director of Annunciation House, who has helped thousands of migrants in dire straits over many years, told the Guardian how his network of church groups continued to work overtime in the Biden administration, as they had under Donald Trump.
But his organization’s Casa del Refugiado, which had been the largest shelter in the city, closed in July because of staffing shortages, the poor condition of the rented building and difficulty finding volunteers as arrival numbers swelled again, he said.
“Let’s put the politics on one side. [For] just the humanitarian [situation], you need four players at the table, Garcia said.
“One player is the city of El Paso. The city can bring 200 cots to the table. The second is the county. Let’s say the county can bring 1,000 cots. Then the NGO network can probably bring 700 cots. And what’s the fourth player? The federal government. They can bring 5,000 cots,” he said.
He arched his eyebrows and said: “Do you believe that would be a very respectable response to a humanitarian need?”
Joanna Walters contributed research