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Around Ciudad Juarez, a sprawling desert city of 1.5 million people, NGOs, officials and asylum seekers all made the same point: The crisis at the border is a humanitarian one, the primary problem a lack of resources to help the thousands gathered here trying to reach the U.S.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Once or twice a week, buses of asylum seekers roll up to a red-brick Baptist church in the suburban sprawl of El Paso, Tex. Released into the U.S. while their bids for refuge are decided, the migrants can get a meal and pick out clean clothes here before heading to their final destinations.

Larry Floyd, the pastor who runs this processing centre, sometimes gets flak from members of his congregation over it. They accuse him of “aiding and abetting” the “crisis” at the Mexican border. People will even show up at the church to yell at the asylum seekers, most of whom are from Central America and Haiti. But Mr. Floyd, a tall, amiable 57-year-old, brushes it off.

“Most of the migrants we meet, they have good reason to seek asylum. It’s inhumane not to allow them in. This person is going to die if they can’t get here,” he said in an interview. “I’m anti-drug, I’m against people coming here to commit crimes. But you can’t shut the border to stop five people.”

In fact, Mr. Floyd said, he would happily help more asylum seekers if he could. All he needs are more volunteers and donations.

In the courts and Congress, a bitter battle is raging over Title 42, an immigration measure used to immediately turn back migrants without allowing them to claim asylum. Former president Donald Trump and his acolytes claim that, without it, violent criminals would storm the country.

But in interviews around El Paso and Ciudad Juarez – the cross-border desert conurbation of 2.5 million people – NGOs, officials and asylum seekers all made the same point as Mr. Floyd: The crisis is a humanitarian one, the primary problem a lack of capacity to help the thousands gathered here trying to reach the U.S.

Mr. Trump imposed Title 42 in March, 2020, ostensibly to reduce the spread of COVID-19. But many politicians want it left in place indefinitely to bar as many asylum seekers as possible. This has off-loaded much of the work of dealing with the influx onto Mexico.

“We live in a permanent state of stress,” said Enrique Valenzuela, general co-ordinator of Coespo, a migration agency run by the Mexican state of Chihuahua. “Things change, the phenomenon shifts from one day to another, from one week to another.”

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Pastors Larry Floyd and Kelly Knott of the El Paso Baptist Association run a processing centre for asylum seekers arriving in the U.S.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Coespo helps migrants find work in Mexico, and connects them with health care and other services. It also identifies those with strong asylum cases, whom U.S. border guards may exempt from Title 42.

There are currently about 20 migrant shelters in Juarez, run by three levels of government and several church groups. Many are completely full.

At Esperanza Para Todos, 260 asylum seekers inhabit a series of dorm rooms packed with bunk beds. The walls are painted blue and yellow, with motifs of trees. People cook in a communal kitchen and gather for meals on a covered patio. Here, on the edge of Juarez, the desert and city impinge on one another, washes of golden sand half covering the streets.

Grissel Ramirez, who runs the place with her husband and four children, said the U.S. stereotypes of asylum seekers heading to the border as a lark, intent on taking away jobs from Americans and committing crimes, are absurd.

“It’s not easy for the migrants to pack their lives in a bag, leave everything behind and start anew. They have to sell whatever they have,” she said.

Xiomara Alvarado, 39, lived undocumented in Minnesota for 10 years, where she worked making hamburgers. She travelled to Mexico’s Michoacan state a few years ago so her dying ex-partner could see their two young daughters again.

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Xiomena Alvarado wants to seek asylum in the U.S.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Then, local gangsters threatened to kidnap her children to extort money from her. So she is trying to find a way back to the U.S. with her girls, who are 11 and 8. “The U.S. relies on us because U.S. citizens don’t want to, or can’t, do the jobs that we do,” she said.

Fleeing gangs in Honduras, Manuel Pinto and his teenaged son hitchhiked through Guatemala, where Mr. Pinto spent all his money bribing his way through police checkpoints under threat of being sent back. In Mexico, they rode perilously atop a freight train. “Once you put one foot outside your country, everything’s off,” said Mr. Pinto, 38.

In Jennifer Turcios’s hometown in Guatemala, she recounted, “hit men” would trash the homes of people who refused to pay protection money. She showed pictures, stored on her phone, of houses whose windows and doors had been stripped out; burnt detritus lay on the floor. “The gangs are throwing people out,” Ms. Turcios, 27, said.

The future of Title 42 is uncertain. Several Republican states are suing to stop President Joe Biden from lifting it. A judge earlier this month sided with the states, leaving the measure in place. The fight is likely to continue through the appeals process. Senate Republicans are also pushing a bill that would keep Title 42 in effect until 2025.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has announced several moves to manage the border if Title 42 is lifted.

He plans to appoint special immigration officers to adjudicate asylum cases, in a bid to get processing times down to less than a year from the current six to eight. He’s also ramping up Title 8 deportations, in which migrants whom U.S. officials judge not to have an asylum case are deported to their home countries and barred from the U.S. for five years.

Mr. Floyd, meanwhile, has no doubt what would happen if Title 42 lifts. “It would overrun the community, because there’s only so much help to go around.”

But he contended that tightening the border will not solve the problem. “People will always try to come, because they will die either way,” he said.

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Manuel Pinto, an asylum seeker from Honduras.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

An El Paso native, he remembers when crossing operated on the honour system. He would seamlessly go back and forth on daytrips to Mexico, where “the goods were cheaper and the food was better.” When he gazes back at El Paso’s skyline from Juarez, he said, he understands what the migrants gathered there must feel.

“The land of milk and honey is right there. If I saw that, I would do anything to get there,” he said. “I’d want a better life. We say we believe in that in America, but only for us.”

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