Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect how courthouses and churches are usually exempt from immigration enforcement actions.

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Border agents in the past few days have apprehended hundreds of unvetted migrants trying to get out of El Paso, mostly aboard commercial buses.

The U.S. Border Patrol reports 420 encounters since Christmas involving either private vehicles engaged in human smuggling or foreign nationals who got on buses the with the intent of traveling deep into the United States without authorization. Border agents detained at least 304 of them at highway checkpoints along Interstate 10 in Las Cruces and other cities considered gateways to the interior of the country.

“If (residents) are planning to assist migrants in exiting town, in facilitating transportation to migrants, they are committing a crime and could be processed under (U.S. Code) 1324, which is harboring and alien smuggling,” said Carlos A. Rivera, acting supervisory agent for the U.S. Border Patrol. “If people in El Paso want to assist these migrants, there are several non-government organizations they can volunteer at.”

The spike comes as groups of Venezuelans and Central Americans who came over the border wall in recent weeks now find themselves stuck in El Paso. Several migrants gathered on Wednesday in front of the El Paso County Courthouse asking to be allowed to continue on to jobs in Florida and New York.

“We are asking for help with a permit to get to our destination,” said “Manuel,” a Venezuelan taking part in the protest. “To join family members or friends and be able to establish a new life because in our country we cannot have that.”

Manuel said he and other demonstrators fear being subjected to Title 42 expulsions if they try to leave El Paso. The Venezuelans said they were already on their way to lawfully petition for asylum in the United States when the Biden administration on October 12 came up with a new remote application process for up to 24,000 citizens of that South American country. It made any who cross the border without authorization amenable to Title 42 expulsions.

“We know they’re letting some people in and not some. Every country has good and bad people. But not all of us are bad. They should do (vetting) and let in those of us who are just here to work,” said Manuel.

The demonstrators said several Venezuelans who’ve tried to leave the city have been apprehended and expelled to Mexico through cities far from El Paso.

“A friend left yesterday at 7:15 in a bus to Denver […] They (border agents) got him off the bus, he ran to the mountains, they sent three drones after him and we still haven’t heard from him,” said “Harold,” another Venezuelan at the gathering. “We don’t feel safe. That’s why we haven’t left the church – out of fear. Fear that they will grab us, put us on a bus and send us to the other side. In Juarez (Mexico), things are more difficult.”

Sacred Heart, a Catholic church in South El Paso, has become the gathering place for hundreds of Venezuelans and Central Americans who have been unable to get in at shelters that require immigration documentation from their guests.

Federal agencies consider churches “protected areas” generally exempt from immigration enforcement actions. This also applies to schools, hospitals and facilities that provide essential social services.

Venezuelan and Central American migrants stand on the sidewalk behind Sacred Heart Catholic church in El Paso, Texas. (Border Report photo)

Courthouses are not considered protected areas, but an April 27, 2021 memo from the then-acting commissioners of U.S. Customs Enforcement (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) mandated immigration enforcement actions in or near courthouses to be executed only if the individual represents a public safety risk. Such enforcement is preferable outside of buildings and should not lead to the arrest of non-targeted individuals, according to the memo.

The purpose of such policies is to not discourage the public, regardless of immigration status, from seeking essential services.

Legal migrant questions U.S. immigration policies

Migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol who claim asylum and pass a screening and credible fear interview are placed on parole and given a notice to appear (NTA) in immigration court for a process that could last years. That’s a document those who came into the country avoiding contact with authorities lack.

Sara Isabel Pantoja, an El Paso resident who splits time in her native Panama, said she is uncomfortable with some aspects of the historic migration at the border.

“The international airport is a charter. What is going on in El Paso, Texas?” she asked as she encountered the protest at the county courthouse. She believes President Biden allowed more immigration to please Democratic voters and now the administration doesn’t know what to do with the surge.

“My question (to the migrants) is, why the United States? If they have the opportunity to stay in any country in Central America, why the United States,” Pantoja said. “In Panama we don’t have welfare, food stamps, medical benefits. If they stay in Panama, they have to work, they have to do something. In the United States, they get everything free.”

A number of pro-immigration activists also showed up at the protest in support of the Venezuelans. An artist brought three large wooden crosses where some of the Venezuelans agreed to pose on.