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On Christmas Day, Volunteers In El Paso, Texas, Help Hundreds Of Immigrant Families

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Volunteers in El Paso, Texas, are working to feed and shelter hundreds of migrant families suddenly released from U.S. custody. Immigration authorities dropped off the migrants near a bus station in downtown El Paso beginning Sunday night and going into Christmas Eve. Many of the families had no food or money. Local shelters had no warning. Monica Ortiz Uribe reports on the community response.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. Good morning.

ORTIZ URIBE: Good morning. Merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Merry Christmas.

ORTIZ URIBE: Outside the Borderland Rainbow Center, a local LGBT community center, social worker Kathryn Schmidt hands bags full of warm clothes into the waiting arms of volunteers. They're part of an impromptu group across the city that began mobilizing on Christmas Eve as soon as they heard some 400 migrant families were left out in the cold without aid.

KATHRYN SCHMIDT: I kept having the phrase go through my head last night, there's no room at the inn. We've got to make some. I grew up Catholic. So it seemed like a no brainer. There are people who are hungry, who don't have a place to stay. And it's Christmas.

ORTIZ URIBE: The families were previously in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. The agency has worked out a system in which it releases immigrants to local shelters when ICE processing centers are over capacity. But this time ICE failed to contact the shelters in advance. Dylan Corbett, who heads a local aid organization, went to the bus station as news spread about the families arriving.

DYLAN CORBETT: One of the ICE authorities who was present at the scene said, I have a heavy heart. I'm a human being, but I'm following orders.

ORTIZ URIBE: An ICE spokeswoman didn't respond when asked for an explanation. El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who told reporters he'd spoken with local ICE officials, said the agency admitted it made a mistake. It's unclear whether the ongoing government shutdown played a role in the unannounced releases.

CORBETT: This isn't the way that it should happen. We can do better.

SCHMIDT: In El Paso, ICE has been handing over groups of 100 to 300 migrants daily to local shelters for the past several months. Many of the migrants have arrived at the border seeking asylum. Advocate organizations have found additional room for the Christmas Eve arrivals at local churches, hotels and private homes. Corbett said it was a rapid grassroots response.

CORBETT: People were bringing pizza. People were bringing caldo, you know, hot soup. El Paso police officers I heard - overheard them calling their wives and asking them to bring clothing. And some of our local elected officials were out there on the street handing out food and handing out blankets.

ORTIZ URIBE: The migrants who were released must appear before a severely back logged immigration court at a future date. Some of them are now traveling to meet relatives elsewhere in the country. Dawn Vigil, a teacher at the local University, helped transport them from shelters back to the bus station. She described what it was like to encounter the families face-to-face.

DAWN VIGIL: Heart-wrenching and heartwarming at the same time. Seeing the families, seeing the children. You see it on social media. You can read about it. But actually being in the room with them, actually being witness is incredibly powerful. And that made me just full of love.

ORTIZ URIBE: The work in El Paso and all across the U.S.-Mexico border is far from over. ICE is back in touch with local aid organizations and has told them it plans to release another 200 migrant families today and tomorrow. For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.