EL PASO — Hundreds of migrants, part of a caravan of people mainly from Nicaragua, crossed en masse into the United States at El Paso on Sunday, among the largest single crossings along the West Texas border in recent years.
The group of about 800 to 1,000 people was one of several in recent days that have flooded border facilities in the region with thousands of new arrivals, federal authorities said.
It was the second time in recent months when large migrant crossings threatened to overwhelm the resources of the impoverished border town and the federal immigration authorities who are already strained by what has been a steady arrival of migrants throughout the year.
“A very large number of people arrived — a huge, huge number,” said Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, a nonprofit that provides shelter to asylum seekers after they have been processed and released by U.S. authorities.
Mr. Garcia said many of the migrants arriving on Sunday were still being processed on Monday.
On Monday, migrants, most of them from Nicaragua, could be seen huddling on street corners or waiting for the bus station to open.
“I have five people staying with me right now in my place, and I opened my truck up for another three to sleep there,” said Almaraz Saucedo Isidro, who lives in the apartments across the street from the station. “It’s cold, and they don’t have food or warm clothes, and they were just dropped off.”
The region around El Paso has seen a sharp increase in the number of people attempting to cross from Mexico in recent months, with 53,000 encounters recorded by border agents there in October, the most recent month for which data is available. That is more than on any other section of the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal agents have recorded a record number of encounters along the entire southern border, nearly 2.4 million in a yearlong period.
The secretary of homeland security, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, was expected to travel to El Paso on Monday for a previously planned trip.
The images of large numbers of migrants, wading across low sections of the Rio Grande in El Paso, immediately recalled previous moments of crisis at the southern border, most recently in the small city of Del Rio, Texas, where more than 9,000 migrants, mostly from Haiti, crowded in squalid conditions in a temporary camp under a bridge along the river last year.
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The scenes provided a potential window into the situation that border authorities have been bracing for as early as next week, when a pandemic health policy known as Title 42 is set to expire. The policy, put in place by the Trump administration and continued under President Biden under a court order, has allowed U.S. authorities to rapidly expel migrants, even those seeking asylum, in order to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
However, the United States is limited in its ability to expel Nicaraguans under the public health authority for diplomatic reasons. Mexico will not accept them, and the Biden administration cannot send repatriation flights. As a result, most of the Nicaraguans apprehended are released on a short-term parole with a tracking device or sent briefly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, where they are typically released after a few days.
Eventually, they will face removal proceedings in immigration court. Border officials could also issue a warrant and a date to appear in immigration court, but that is a process that can take about two hours for each person and lead to significant backups, contributing to overcrowding.
The group arriving on Sunday included migrants who had been traveling from several Central and South American countries, as well as Haiti, and who had been granted temporary legal status in Mexico that allowed them to travel freely in that country for 180 days, said Santiago González Reyes, the head of the human rights offices in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso.
The government in the Mexican state of Chihuahua had bused a caravan of about 1,100 migrants into Juarez on Sunday afternoon, Mr. González said. The buses, about 19 of them, were paid for by the Mexican government, he said, which had reasoned that the migrants would have walked north anyway and provided a police escort to keep them safe.
The group did not stay long in Juárez. Around 4 p.m., the migrants decided to cross the border en masse, he said, and hundreds more joined them. “They left on foot and crossed the river,” Mr. González said.
The processing center in El Paso is currently over capacity, according to an administration official familiar with the situation, a circumstance that border officials there have managed previously.
Felix Acuna, 41, who arrived on Sunday at the border after a 25-day journey from Nicaragua, was detained by federal authorities for seven hours before being released and told to call for a court date in two weeks. Mr. Acuna said he was trying to connect with his family in Miami and eventually get a bus ticket there.
“It’s very difficult right now in Nicaragua — there is no work. I came here to find work because I have four daughters back home,” said Mr. Acuna, who speaks some English.
Until recently, El Paso had been paying to bus migrants out of the city to destinations in the north and east. By September, the number of crossings had been as high as 2,000 a day on some days in the city, mostly by Venezuelans.
Local officials halted their busing program — which took nearly 14,000 people out of the city, including 10,000 to New York — in October after the Biden administration changed its policy and began applying the Title 42 health order to the large number of Venezuelans who were then arriving at the border, most of whom had previously been allowed to stay and pursue asylum claims.
The spike in the number of Nicaraguans crossing the border illegally is likely the result of smugglers switching their customer base, as officials have seen previously. In the case of El Paso, the Nicaraguan crossings follow the decrease in Venezuelans crossing after they began to face penalties in October.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly, said the administration had been responding to these situations on a country-by-country basis and had not yet developed an overall strategy.