EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Carlos Marentes has been a farmworkers’ rights leader for more than three decades and an outspoken critic of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial Operation Lone Star.

He believes the governor is using the law enforcement initiative along the Texas-Mexico border to score political points with his conservative base by “demonizing” and detaining unauthorized migrants on criminal charges such as trespassing.

So, when he learned that a tenant of the Border Farm Workers Center building that he oversees had allowed members of the Texas State Guard to go inside to assist in busing migrants to cities in the interior of the United States, he called a meeting.

“When the Opportunity Center requested a space, we reached an understanding because we don’t want homeless people sleeping on the street. They opened a ‘Welcome Center’ to house people until they find an appropriate space,” Marentes said. “On Thursday, we learned the city had asked them to house migrants as well. We said ‘yes,’ but we were surprised to learn (on Monday) that the Guard was there. To us, that is unacceptable, and we let them know that.”

Members of the Texas State Guard on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, are seen outside a community center in Downtown El Paso that has served as a staging point to bus released migrants released by DHS to New York City. (Shelby Kapp/KTSM)

On Tuesday morning, the members of the Texas State Guard that could be seen a day earlier assisting local officials and the Texas Division of Emergency Management set up transportation for dozens of Venezuelan migrants released from detention were nowhere to be found. The City of El Paso Office of Emergency Management vehicles also were gone from the parking lot, and no buses loaded with migrants were coming or going.

Marentes said he made two “recommendations” to the tenant late Monday, to which the tenant promptly agreed.

“We don’t want the Guard there for any reason. We don’t want any uniformed (officer) inside the building so as to avoid creating fear among the farmworkers or the refugees. Also, we don’t want refugees sent (from the center) to other cities,” Marentes said.

Opportunity Center spokeswoman Aracely Lazcano told Border Report that the Texas State Guard left the farm workers center around 5 p.m. on Monday because not enough migrants volunteered to board a bus to the destination offered. She didn’t say what that destination was, but migrants interviewed at the center told Border Report they were being offered a free ride to Chicago.

Marentes said the Opportunity Center, which is a nonprofit that assists the homeless population in El Paso, will continue to operate at the farm workers center as per a signed contract.

“If the city of El Paso wants to negotiate with the Opportunity Center or any other organization (for the busing of migrants), they can do that – but not here,” Marentes said. “We cannot play that game with something so valuable as the farm workers center’s reputation. We must ensure that the farmworkers or anyone who comes to us feel safe.”

Earlier, Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights had visited the farm workers center to express his opposition to the presence of the Texas State Guard in the heart of El Paso.

“These are the same units used by Gov. Abbott along the border in counties that have issued emergency declarations against the (migrant) invasion. And that’s what this represents,” Garcia said after meeting with Opportunity Center officials late Monday afternoon. “There is no invasion. What we have here is a humanitarian crisis, families coming across the border, people looking for shelter, looking for refuge, asylum seekers …. they are not enemies!”

Garcia said he was surprised and “betrayed” by El Paso city officials who all along have been reassuring him that they would not welcome Abbott’s Operation Lone Star or use state resources for immigration enforcement or to bus migrants from El Paso to other cities.

City of El Paso officials on Tuesday afternoon said they have kept community partners informed about efforts to assist migrants released from immigration custody. They said the busing was an effort to avoid the migrants from being released onto the streets and to help them reach their preferred destination. They said the Guard remains in El Paso but there are no plans on Tuesday to call for additional buses.

Lazcano acknowledged that Marentes expressed his stated concerns to the leadership of the Opportunity Center, and that officials there passed that on to all parties involved.

She said the Opportunity Center would continue operating its “Welcome Center” from the farmworkers’ building, but that there are no plans as of now for the Guard to return there or for buses to transport migrants from that location out of the city.

She called on the community, which has shown a willingness to help migrants passing through El Paso, to donate supplies to the migrants, such as backpacks. “You saw some of them carrying their belongings in plastic bags. Maybe the community wants to help,” she said.