El PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, El Paso nonprofits struggled to assist, house, feed and eventually send asylum seekers to destinations inside the United States.

Local nonprofits in late 2018 were serving up to 1,000 migrants per day. Shelters were full and on Christmas Eve, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents dropped off hundreds of asylum seekers at the El Paso Greyhound bus station.

That went away after the Trump administration applied hard-line measures like the Migrant Protection Protocols program and strict metering of new claims. Now, as Guatemalan authorities push back a new 7,000-strong migrant caravan and many expect President-elect Biden to roll back Trump-era immigration enforcement, advocates are calling for resources and clarity for asylum seekers already in the system and those on the way.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and it certainly makes things more complicated for our shelter system,” said Melissa M. Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services. “There’s a need for social distance, make sure people have a safe space where they can stay while arrangements are made for them to get to their final destinations.”

Lopez said detention centers aren’t the answer for a new influx of asylum seekers, as their confined quarters are a “Petri dish” for COVID-19 to thrive. As of Tuesday, ICE reported that 8,848 migrants in its custody had tested positive for the coronavirus and eight had died since the start of the pandemic.

“The most important thing is a real clear message of what the process will be for those already in the system to enter if President Biden follows through with his promise to end (Remain in Mexico),” she said. “There has to be a process that needs to be communicated very clearly so they know when and how they can enter the United States.”

The same holds true for migrants fleeing the economic ravages of COVID-19, two recent hurricanes and crime in Central America, she said.

“They need to know what they can expect when they arrive at the ports of entry. We still have Title 42 that’s restricting entry due to the pandemic,” Lopez said. “It’s not clear whether Title 42 is going to be lifted. If it’s not, that means anybody arriving at the ports of entry will be turned away. […] We need to be very careful with our messaging that goes out to our refugees and make sure they understand the circumstances under which they can enter so we don’t give people false hope.”

Title 42 is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emergency rule that allows immigration authorities to deport as soon as possible people caught crossing the border without authorization to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Church-based groups decry violence against migrant caravan in Guatemala

Meantime, a network of faith-based and grassroots organizations on Tuesday condemned the violent repression in Guatemala of a migrant caravan and called on the Biden administration to take their asylum claims.

“The exodus of more than 7,000 refugees from Honduras is the first test of President-elect Biden’s promise to break from inhumane Trump policies that punished migrants and destabilized Central America,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso. “We call on the new Administration to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees, denounce the use of force against them, and allow people fleeing to apply for asylum and refugee resettlement.”

Coalition members said the caravan is but a small fraction of an estimated 4.6 million people in Honduras whose livelihood has been disrupted by back-to-back hurricanes that struck the region late last year. The groups quoted UN reports stating that nearly 300,000 people are still homeless in Honduras, nearly a million acres of crops and hundreds of roads have been washed away.

“Telling people who have lost their homes and possessions to return home is tone-deaf. Confronting people fleeing violence, extortion, and corruption with more violence is inhumane. We urge Guatemala and Mexico to provide care and protection to the refugees, especially those who are most vulnerable, refrain from the use of force, and respect the right of migrants to seek asylum,” said Brenda Peralta, of Familia Franciscana in Guatemala.

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