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Pandemic border restrictions were extended, but El Paso is struggling to keep up

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Thousands of people are waiting in cities along Mexico's northern border, waiting to cross into the U.S. The hope for many who've come in recent weeks was the expected end of Title 42. That is the pandemic-related restriction that has allowed U.S. authorities to quickly expel migrants without giving them a chance to seek asylum. It was supposed to expire tonight at midnight, but the U.S. Supreme Court has extended the restriction.

Angela Kocherga with KTEP is in El Paso on the border with Texas. She joins us now. Hey there.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Let's start with where you are because thousands of migrants have already crossed the border, are already in El Paso. What is the scene there?

KOCHERGA: Well, shelters are at capacity, and people are only allowed to stay a day or two until they can make travel arrangements. So that means hundreds of people have ended up on the streets, like a woman I talked to, Wilmari Camacho. She was holding her baby outside the bus station.

WILMARI CAMACHO: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Well, she says if they can't find another shelter, they'll have to spend the night on the streets. And temperatures are below freezing at night and about to dip dangerously lower as a winter storm arrives. Now, those who are able to get flights are sleeping at the small airport, which is also crowded with holiday travelers right now.

KELLY: Sure. What about across the border in Juarez, Mexico? What is the situation there? What are people saying?

KOCHERGA: Well, people are keenly aware of what's happening, and they're following every single announcement. The news that migrants knew within minutes was that the Supreme Court decided to extend Title 42, at least for now. And that means they're in limbo again. A large group of several hundred migrants have gathered on the banks of the Rio Grande just sort of waiting to see what happens from the Mexican side. And the mayor of El Paso says as many as 20,000 people in Juarez are just waiting to cross the border.

KELLY: Well, and his city, El Paso, had already declared a state of emergency over the weekend in anticipation of that possible influx. Now that it's looking likely that Title 42 stays in place, at least for now, what else is the city doing?

KOCHERGA: Well, El Paso says it's preparing as if Title 42 is going to be lifted and still trying to manage the large influx of people who are here right now. As many as 2,500 people a day were arriving last week. The city's looking for a place, a large warehouse or some other building, to add 10,000 temporary beds for migrants. But the idea is to help people get out of the city quickly. So nonprofits are bussing some migrants to airports in other Texas cities that have more flights. The governor of Texas is still bussing, too, but reportedly only to so-called sanctuary cities like Chicago and New York. And those cities are bracing for a surge in arrivals.

KELLY: And let me turn you, Angela, to where these people are arriving from. All these people we're talking about who were hoping for an end to Title 42, where are they traveling from?

KOCHERGA: Well, many had been coming from Venezuela until the Biden administration made a new policy requiring most Venezuelans to apply for asylum from abroad. Now we're seeing more from Nicaragua and Ecuador.

I met Alfredo Vargas in El Paso. He said he fled Ecuador because there were car bombs in the streets and gangs were asking for protection money. And it's really hard to make a living. He and his family were separated as they were processed by U.S. Border Patrol. Now, this is happening a lot - to a lot of families. And Vargas and his wife were later reunited.

ALFREDO VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: He said it was like the end of a movie. Vargas said when they found each other in downtown El Paso, they embraced in the middle of the street. Now they're waiting for their daughter-in-law and grandchildren to be released so they can all join family in San Antonio.

But it's not clear how much longer this situation will go on. We're waiting for the Supreme Court to decide whether to extend Title 42 or lift it. And the Biden administration has not yet announced any long-term plan for asylum, either.

KELLY: And do we have any idea in terms of timing how long we might be waiting for the Supreme Court to decide what to do?

KOCHERGA: At this point, we're not really clear. And so it's all in limbo. And cities like El Paso and cities all along the border are really preparing for a large influx of people.

KELLY: Angela Kocherga reporting from El Paso. She's with KTEP. Angela, thank you.

KOCHERGA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DONNIE TRUMPET AND THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT SONG, "PASS THE VIBES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Angela Kocherga