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Big Bend residents rally to support migrants as end of Title 42 nears

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(Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT)
A view of the international port of entry in Presidio, Texas.

Communities on the border are preparing for an influx of asylum seekers with the expected end of a pandemic-era health policy that has been used to quickly expel migrants. A new coalition of churches and residents in the Big Bend is readying to help them when they arrive.

This week, the Biden administration is expected to lift Title 42, the controversial policy that has allowed officials to rapidly expel most migrants at the border since the beginning of the pandemic.

A federal judge ruled last month that the government’s use of the policy to turn away asylum seekers in the name of public health was “arbitrary and capricious,” and gave the administration until Wednesday to end the policy. An appeals court on Friday upheld that ruling, keeping the Wednesday deadline in place, NBC News reported.

Communities all along the border have been preparing for an influx of people in need of support. In the Big Bend region, where some of the migrants entering other regions are expected to be transferred, a newly created alliance of churches and residents is readying to help share the load.

Marfa Public Radio’s Annie Rosenthal recently spoke with Reverend Mike Wallens, co-chair of the Rio Grande Borderland Ministries, who has been coordinating those efforts.

Interview Highlights

On how the coalition formed

Wallens, who leads several congregations in the Big Bend, has quietly supported migrants here for years, providing housing and transportation for people Border Patrol has released to continue the legal immigration process.

In the spring, when the Biden administration first attempted to end Title 42, Wallens and others in the local religious community realized they would need to scale up the effort. A court order kept the policy in place in May, but the newly formed Alpine Border Coalition continued to prepare for its eventual end.

Wallens said few asylum seekers intend to settle in the borderlands.

“When the Border Patrol turns people over to us, they have a right to be in this country, and none of them want to stay in this region because they have family or sponsors somewhere in the United States,” he said. “It was a matter of talking to organizations and churches and individuals to figure out, how can we welcome people with dignity and respect? And how can we efficiently get them to where they want to go?”

On the challenges to supporting asylum seekers in a rural area

Helping migrants find their way to family elsewhere in the country is complicated, since the closest airports are hours from the Big Bend and bus transit here is limited. Wallens’ group is coordinating short-term shelter, food, medical care, and clothing for migrants in Alpine. The coalition is also recruiting volunteers to offer rides to Midland and El Paso, and working with people in those cities to help migrants get on buses and planes.

Wallens said the effort has been helped by what he sees as Far West Texans’ “big hearts.”

“I explain to them what the people that we receive from the Border Patrol are coming from, and basically ask the question, what would you do if you were in their shoes?” he said. “Then they begin to understand, and once they understand the story, they are ready and willing to make things happen.”

On what he expects when Title 42 is lifted

Wallens said he doesn’t necessarily expect to see huge numbers of people crossing into Presidio — thanks largely to its remoteness and rugged terrain, this area sees far fewer migrants than most other parts of the border. But he said Border Patrol has already been bringing migrants who arrive in cities like El Paso and Del Rio to the Big Bend, in an attempt to lighten the administrative load on agents elsewhere. He expects those transfers to increase in the wake of the policy change.

The coalition is working now to figure out its capacity. Wallens said he hopes they’ll be able to help more people as locals learn about their work, and that they’re still looking for support with all portions of the process, from gathering donations to offering rides.

“You can be hands on, involved face to face with people, or you can do things from a distance,” he said. “If someone comes to us, we will figure out what's best with their time.”

To learn more about the Alpine Border Coalition, you can contact Wallens at 214-862-7292.

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.