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El Paso prepares to move migrants ahead of winter storm

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Texas, cities are now racing to move migrants off streets and into shelters. Temperatures are expected to plummet below freezing overnight. The situation is especially urgent in El Paso, where thousands of migrants have crossed from Mexico in recent days. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Carlos Areas pushes a yellow plastic broom on a sidewalk near the Greyhound bus station in El Paso. The streets here are lined with blankets and makeshift bedding. Dozens of migrants try to keep warm at night.

CARLOS AREAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "I woke up this morning in unbearable cold. And I saw litter everywhere," he says. "I got up and started sweeping, so it looks nicer." Areas and his friend traveled together from Nicaragua. They have bus tickets to Dallas to meet his cousin, but they don't leave until Saturday.

AREAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "We sleep on leftover cardboard pizza boxes inside layers and layers of blankets," Areas says. Shelters in El Paso are overflowing as thousands of migrants arrive in the city anticipating the end of pandemic border restrictions. It was already cold at night. Now temperatures are expected to plunge into the low 20s. City leaders have been scrambling to open up more shelter beds as quickly as they can.

MARIO D'AGOSTINO: We wanted to make sure that we were able to get everyone who was on the street, off the streets before this cold weather hit.

ROSE: Mario D'Agostino is the deputy city manager in El Paso. He says the city has set up a thousand cots in its convention center, a block away from the bus station.

D'AGOSTINO: It's a safe facility. It's warm. We're providing meals. There's snacks. We have televisions that they have stuff for the children to keep them occupied.

ROSE: But there's a catch. The city's emergency shelter is only open to migrants who have immigration paperwork after turning themselves in to the Border Patrol. The city says that policy is set by the federal government, which is helping to foot the bill, but it's leaving potentially hundreds of migrants out in the cold.

ADDA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "We're not permitted inside the shelter because we crossed without permission," says a woman named Adda. We're not using her last name because she and her family entered the U.S. without detection. She's from Venezuela, traveling with a group of seven family members, including her pregnant daughter.

ADDA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "Yesterday, we went to ask if we could stay in the shelter because my daughter is pregnant," Adda says, "but they told us, not without a permit." There are other shelters in town run by churches and nonprofits where undetected migrants can go, but they're crowded. City officials hope by opening up emergency shelters, they can relieve some of that crowding.

ADDA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "We didn't turn ourselves in to the Border Patrol for fear they would send us back. After all, we've suffered to get here," says a woman named Gabriela. She's hoarse from being out in the cold. Gabriela and her husband, Jean Carlos, crossed undetected with their four young children this week. They've also traveled from Venezuela and were separated for a while in the dangerous Darien Gap jungle in Panama.

JEAN CARLOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "Only God and us know what we've lived through to get here," Jean Carlos says, "we've suffered immensely to achieve this dream for our children." The family says an angel from a local church took them into her home last night. Tonight, they don't know where they will sleep. Joel Rose, NPR News, El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.