El Paso, TEXAS — Eric Mena covered his sleeping toddler daughter Sofia with a blanket as he sat on a park bench, prepared to wait as long as it took for free passage to New York City.
Mena, 28, said he arrived here three days ago at the epicenter of the southern border crisis, where Oscar Leeser, the city’s mayor declared a state of emergency last week as thousands of migrants filed into El Paso from across the border.
Mena, a shoemaker, said that he was told by other migrants the city was offering free bus rides to New York City and Chicago. Mena said he wants to join his brother in Paterson, NJ, and the free ride is his only hope of getting there.
“I don’t have any money, and they told me to wait outside the bus station, that someone would be here with bus tickets,” he said, adding that the family had been robbed of more than $300 on their journey by bus and by foot from Ecuador, which took more than a month to complete.
“I carried my little girl on my shoulders as we crossed the Rio Grande,” Mena said, adding that the family — his wife Nicole and son Jadiel, 7 — crossed into the US earlier this week in the early hours of the morning and gave themselves up to US Customs and Border Protection agents on the US side.
Leeser, a Democrat whose city has been overwhelmed with migrants from South and Central America throughout 2022, had sent thousands of migrants on buses to New York City and Chicago this fall, but stopped the program after the city ran out of money. A spokeswoman for the city of El Paso did not immediately return The Post’s request for comment Tuesday.
The state of Texas has also bussed thousands of migrants out of the state to sanctuary cities including Washington D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia at a cost of at least $14m so far.
For ordinary US citizens looking to travel from El Paso to New York, a one-way ticket on a 52 hour Greyhound Bus costs between $219 and $539 and flights were around $319. Tickets to Chicago started at $209 by bus, and were as low as $153 on a budget airline.
Since declaring a State of Emergency in El Paso at the weekend, buses run by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have been sent to the city to bus migrants to destinations outside of Texas.
Nellie Burgos, 52, who also arrived in El Paso from Ecuador a few days ago, said a Catholic charity had told her buses to New York City and Chicago were free, and she would have to obtain financing from family or a charity for other destinations in the US.
But Burgos said she is not interested in either city, and is waiting for her Venezuelan daughter-in-law to emerge from US custody with her two children in order to join her son in San Antonio, Texas. The family crossed the border together, but Burgos’ daughter-in-law and two grandchildren are still in custody, she said.
Burgos was camped out on the corner of Chihuahua and Overland Streets along with dozens of other recently arrived migrants, next to the downtown bus station. She was guarding a pile of toys she had received from a local charity for her two grandchildren, and was hopeful they would be released from immigration detention before Christmas.
“I am grateful for everything,” she told The Post, adding she and her husband, Luis, were trying to get into one of the city’s overcrowded shelters as temperatures dipped to the low twenties in the evenings.
El Paso has been seeing up to 2,400 people a day attempting to cross into the US in response to the imminent end of Title 42, the Trump-era policy that allows US border agents to return people to Mexico instead of admitting them to the US.
The policy was set to expire Wednesday, but Supreme Court Justice John Roberts put a temporary freeze on the termination of the policy following an emergency appeal Monday by a group of Republican-led states.
Like many other migrants interviewed by The Post, Burgos and Mena said they were eager to cross into the US before the end of Title 42 because they had heard that after the COVID policy is lifted, crossing into the US would be more difficult. When it ends, migrants will instead be processed under Title 8, which can have more severe consequences including being deported.
“Everyone was in a hurry to get here before the end of Title 42,” said Xavier Ardilles, an electrician who arrived a few days ago from Venezuela. “We heard about Title 42 when we were crossing the jungle in Darien. Everyone was scared and worried they would not make it in time.” The Darien Gap is a dense patch of rainforest between North and South America.
Ardilles and his cousins made the journey from their hometown in the state of Trujillo. They told The Post they are members of an opposition political party, and want to ask for asylum in the US. “If we go back to Venezuela now they will torture us and put us in prison,” he said, adding he also feared returning to Mexico where authorities are shipping migrants to a facility in Chiapas state near the border with Guatemala.
Ardilles and his cousins, Carla Hernandez and Glenny Garcia, both teachers, also want to take advantage of the free bus tickets to New York City. The trio have close friends in New Jersey, they said.
“Right now, we don’t know what to do,” Hernandez said. “We are stuck here.”