Omaha group poised for role in helping asylum-seekers crowding southern U.S. border

Nov. 18, 2022, 12:16 p.m. ·

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Migrants who had arrived from Venezuela after crossing from Mexico in late September waited to be assigned a hotel room provided by the City of El Paso, Texas. The Venezuelans stayed for a day or two at a hotel before being sent on to a city where their sponsors live. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

OMAHA — A team of Omahans is preparing to offer temporary refuge to a busload of asylum-seeking migrants crossing the Texas border at a rate that has overwhelmed shelters and has had some sleeping on the streets.

Calling it a humanitarian outreach, the local volunteers have formed a nonprofit organization and dubbed their effort Omaha Welcomes the Stranger.

They’re answering a plea for help by a faith-based shelter in the Texas border city of El Paso, where some of the Omahans have volunteered.

Short-term stays expected

At this point, about 50 migrants, including families with kids, are expected to arrive in December. Others could follow, depending on circumstances.

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Migrants board a Border Patrol bus after being processed on May 21, 2022, in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

“We believe Omaha is a very welcoming community with a generous spirit,” said Margaret Hoarty, who, along with husband Tom, is helping lead the local effort. “We see this as a mission that is important and to serve our fellow men and women and children in need.”

Arrangements are underway to secure local lodging, meals and personal items for the migrants, primarily from South and Central America, who cross into the U.S. with few belongings after fleeing instability in their homelands.

Stays in Omaha should be short-term, as those coming are said to be on their way to sponsors and immigration court hearings elsewhere in the country, said Tom Hoarty, a retired Omaha lawyer.

Asylum applicants who are processed and released by federal immigration officials at the border have been vetted and have standing to be in the U.S. pending court proceedings that will determine whether they’ll be allowed to remain legally in the country.

With border shelters overcrowded, the Hoartys said Omahans are providing a secure layover for such migrants to arrange travel and connections with sponsors elsewhere.

Sudden border surge

The effort puts Omaha among cities like New York, Chicago and Denver that have received migrants from El Paso, a border city whose local government between late August and mid-October chartered nearly 300 buses to take asylum seekers to places where they could connect with sponsors.

El Paso has directed nearly $9 million toward transportation, food and lodging to help smooth the transition for the foreign-born trying to escape oppression or devastation in countries such as Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba.

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After crossing the U.S. border from Mexico in September, South American migrants wait in line for dinner at an El Paso shelter provided by the Annunciation House. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

El Paso’s financial investment went as far as to also open a welcome center and launch a public dashboard that tracks migrant-related numbers. Its official website features a video explaining a  migrant’s journey from crossing the border to apprehension by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and, in many cases, provisional release into the community while they await immigration court hearings. 

The city website says that while the area’s “migrant crisis” has been ongoing since 2018, the sudden swell began in late August, when the number of people federal authorities apprehended and released to the city and local humanitarian agencies grew from about 250 per day to more than 1,000 on some September days.

City government officials closed the welcome center and ended city-subsidized bus rides after an immigration enforcement shift in mid-October by the Biden administration was expected to reduce border crossings by Venezuelans, the primary group creating the recent border surge. 

A related federal court ruling on Tuesday, however, blocks the government from using Title 42, a controversial pandemic-era health policy tapped by both the Trump and Biden administrations to rapidly expel asylum seekers at the border.

Migrants released pending hearings

Hoarty said the ruling may create more of a need for groups to provide temporary quarters for border crossers, but he said it was too early to know.

Meanwhile, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said that since the start of November, the El Paso sector that stretches along the southern border from New Mexico to Texas has continued to see elevated numbers of incoming migrants — an average daily “encounter” of 1,650.

In a 10-day stretch since Nov. 4, the sector released about 750 migrants into the community as a “safe and humane” option to alleviate overcrowding in CBP detention facilities, said the spokesman, Landon Hutchens. They were primarily from countries such as Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Such provisional releases, he said, are permitted after foreigners are found to pose no safety risk. He said steps are taken to help ensure they report to scheduled court hearings.

All of that has led to a distress call from the nonprofit Annunciation House shelter to supporters like the Hoartys.

Word of mouth

The couple said their involvement springs from volunteering at shelters along the southern border in 2019 and 2021.

“We saw the faces of people, faces you cannot forget,” said Margaret Hoarty.

So far, the Hoartys said, word about Omaha Welcomes the Stranger Inc. has spread rather privately and by word of mouth, among people who are familiar with the Annunciation House or aligned with its mission.

At least one Omaha church’s social justice group also is seeking donations and assistance.

Tom Hoarty said he has spoken informally with one City of Omaha official, but the effort at this point is privately organized.

When asked about future buses, Tom Hoarty said much depends on the first run.

“If this is successful, we do hope to do it again,” he said.

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.