As the Title 42 COVID-19 Order Ends, Houston Aid Groups Prepare To Help More Migrants

Migrants waiting at a chance to gain approval to enter the country, may have an opportunity as Title 42 ends this Thursday.
Migrants waiting at a chance to gain approval to enter the country, may have an opportunity as Title 42 ends this Thursday. Screenshot
Houston-area legal aid officials and nonprofit groups need to gear up for the possible arrival of about 30,000 to 40,000 migrants awaiting the ability to enter the country as the pandemic era immigration policy ends.

That is the opinion of Dr. Sergio Lira, the president of the Greater Houston area League of Latin American Citizens, who anticipates an increase in immigration case numbers and more demand for resources from migrants attempting to arrive or who will be sent to the area.

Houston is an international center and for many of those going through the immigration process, is considered a stop along the way to seek legal assistance, he said.

Lira said despite trying to cross in droves – only this amount of those attempting to get into the country may be able do so. But they face more of an opportunity now that Title 42 – a COVID-19 order, expires on Thursday.

This policy was put in place three years ago and allowed the U.S. government to expedite deportation of migrants attempting to enter the United States under public health concerns of spreading the virus.

“I do see a huge uptick of immigrants coming to this country,” Lira said. “They’re just waiting for some sort of green light because they’re in desperate situations and this provides an opportunity to seek asylum or some sort of legal residency, so they’re going to take advantage of it.”

According to Lira, this will be the first of many waves of asylum seekers who have been waiting in border-towns like Laredo, Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros – among others, he said.

Edna Yang, the co-executive director of American Gateways, one of the largest immigration legal service providers in Texas, said while in many ways the end of this policy does create opportunity – the federal government’s recent decision to deploy 1,500 service members to the border will inhibit the process for many.

“We’re concerned with the increased militarization, that the interviews and processing they are conducting will be done in ways that will not preserve the due process and rights of the migrants to seek protection under our laws,” she said.

Lira shares Yang’s concerns and said he anticipates that despite these migrants’ best attempts, many of these law enforcement officials will be turning them away in droves.

He also could see the possibility for these officials to further impede the legal process, “We’re almost more concerned with any form of abuse that could take place, this is a human rights issues – so we’ll be on the lookout for that and advocating that all migrants are treated judiciously and fairly.”

According to Lira, education and advocacy organizations like the League of Latin American Citizens need to look out for migrants’ rights as many who are coming from countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Panama and more are unfamiliar with United States law and the rights they are entitled to.

Terry Cody, legal director of the Charities of Galveston-Houston, Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance providing legal, said in an effort to get this information to those who are in need their center hosts “Charla” three times a month – meetings where those who are seeking asylum or are at any stage of the immigration application can be educated on the process.

“We’re trying to make sure that people don’t become subject to prey by people trying to take advantage of people here who are looking for immigration,” she said.

Through their services, Cody has assisted unaccompanied minors, those seeking asylum whether through defense or merit basis, those eligible for temporary protected status and DACA recipients, she said.

The Cabrini Center, League of Latin American Citizens, and American Gateways all provide legal resources through staff or partnered attorneys in each of these stages of the immigration process – mostly for low or no costs as many of these migrants wouldn’t otherwise be able to have access or afford it.

There are other ways that those seeking these services can be assisted, outside of legal aid. The Cabrini Center is the legal aid arm of the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston – which provides alternative assistance.

Betsy Ballard, director of communications for the charity, said one of these provisions is their Houston Transfer Center which was opened in October of last year.

This center provides a “way station” for these migrants who are traveling to their immigration sponsors in other areas of the state or outside of Texas – giving them access to a place to stay while on the way to their next destination.

“We give them access to hotel rooms, so they can shower and freshen up; a lot of these folks have not been able to access anything like this for an undetermined number of days,” Ballard said. “We also give them food, clothing, and then send them on their way.”

Since opening, they have assisted 2,900 migrants from facilities in El Paso and Eagle Pass.

Although organizations are preparing for a potential influx, there are still challenges that they will face when catering to these populations – especially as they are increasing, Cody said.

And much of what will occur once Title 42 does end is still relatively undetermined.

“The first thing we are trying to do is understand exactly what will be happening on the ground, we don’t know if they are going to go through the expedited process or how we will get information to migrants who may be going to detention centers,” Cody said. “So, we'll just have to wait and see based on regulations that will be coming back and more information about what we’re getting into.
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.