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MON: Police have suspect in New Mexico shooting case, + More

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said in a news conference on January 9 the suspect was being held on unrelated charges and that numerous search warrants were still out
Albuquerque Police Department via Facebook Live
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said in a news conference on January 9 the suspect was being held on unrelated charges and that numerous search warrants were still out.

Police have suspect in New Mexico shooting case - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Authorities in New Mexico's largest city said a suspect believed to be linked to at least one of the shootings at or near the homes or offices of several elected officials was in custody Monday, but they declined to release his name.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said the man was being held on unrelated charges and that detectives were still awaiting the results of several outstanding search warrants filed in the investigation.

"We're just waiting to get a return on some of the information to ensure that everything we have, that the case we're building is as strong as possible and to see what other aspects are involved," Medina said.

Authorities declined to say what charges the man was being held on.

They did confirm, however, that officers seized a firearm used in the shooting that was linked to the suspect, but have yet to determine whether it was connected to any of the others, which occurred between early December and early January.

No one has been injured in the shootings, which come amid a rise in threats to members of Congress, school board members, election officials and other government workers around the nation. In Albuquerque, law enforcement has been struggling to address back-to-back years of record homicides and persistent gun violence.

In the latest case to come to light, Albuquerque Democrat Javier Martinez, the incoming speaker of the state House, inspected his home following reports last week of gunshots fired toward the homes of other officials or in the vicinity of their offices.

Police went to Martinez's home after he discovered what he thought was damage from gunfire heard in early December. Detectives said they located evidence of a shooting.

Martinez said in a statement he was grateful he and his family were safe.

"We have been working closely with the Albuquerque Police Department as they investigate this act of gun violence at our home," he said. "I share the anger of my fellow elected officials and all those who have been targeted by such senseless acts of violence."

Martinez, the former majority floor leader, will be in a new leadership role when the Democratic-led Legislature meets for a 60-day session beginning next week.

Public safety and gun control are expected to be among the top issues as the chorus of residents who don't feel safe in Albuquerque and elsewhere has reached a fever pitch.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said during a news conference there's a difference when elected officials are involved.

"These are individuals who participate in democracy, whether we agree with them or not, and that's why this act of violence I think has been so rattling for so many people," Keller said. "Again, regardless of their background or regardless of their belief ... those elected officials deserve to be able to do their job as part of American democracy without fear."

The shootings began in early December when eight rounds were fired at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa, police said. Days later, someone shot at former Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O'Malley's home.

Technology that can detect the sound of gunfire also indicated shots in the vicinity of New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez's former campaign office. Police found no damage.

Multiple shots also were fired at the home of state Sen. Linda Lopez — a lead sponsor of a 2021 bill that reversed New Mexico's ban on most abortion procedures — and in a downtown area where state Sen. Moe Maestas' office is located. Maestas, an attorney, co-sponsored a bill last year to set new criminal penalties for threatening state and local judges. It didn't pass.

Both Democrat and Republican state lawmakers have called on the public to provide information that might help law enforcement.

The eruption of gunfire in Albuquerque on any given day is not unusual. The police department began using the ShotSpotter detection system in 2020 in areas where data showed violence was prevalent.

As of last October, police reported having nearly 9,000 ShotSpotter alerts since the beginning of 2022. Of those, the department said more than 1,200 helped lead to the identification of dozens suspects and victims.

Some have criticized reliance on the technology. A 2021 Associated Press investigation, based on a review of thousands of internal documents, confidential contracts and interviews with dozens of public defenders in communities where ShotSpotter has been deployed, identified a number of serious flaws in using the technology as evidentiary support for prosecutors.

Albuquerque police did not respond to a request Monday for updated information on the number of detections for the past year or the number of reports in which gunfire struck homes or businesses in the city.

Republicans challenge New Mexico redistricting after loss - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Attorneys for Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico urged the state Supreme Court on Monday to dismiss a Republican challenge to a congressional map that divvies up a politically conservative region of the state.

The case is one of several court battles in states from Kentucky to Utah regarding U.S. House districts enacted by state legislatures and alleged constitutional violations.

Chief Justice C, Shannon Bacon said the court would take a deliberative approach, setting aside time with no deadline to forge a decision, after hourlong oral arguments guided heavily by questions from justices.

The Republican Party and several other plaintiffs have accused Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico of breaking up the southeastern corner of the state — an oil-producing region and Republican stronghold — into three districts "for raw political gain."

The case holds implications for the 2nd Congressional District where Democrat Gabe Vasquez in November ousted incumbent U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell. The majority-Hispanic district currently stretches from the U.S. border with Mexico across desert oilfields and portions of Albuquerque.

Sara Sanchez, an attorney for leading Democratic legislators, urged the high court Monday to uphold the new congressional maps and steer clear of a "political thicket," arguing that state law provides the legislature and governor with broad authority to draw political boundaries.

"This has to be an extreme situation," for the judiciary to intervene in redistricting, Sanchez said. "It's a political process, somebody's ox is being gored. And if every time someone didn't get the political shakes that they wanted in their district, they're going to come to this court. ... I would suggest a high bar."

Daniel Gallegos, representing the Republican Party and allied plaintiffs, said the new congressional map flouts traditional standards of redistricting that held sway over the past three decades. He said it would be unfair to block access to judicial review in state district court so soon.

"Our only option would be to go back to them (at the Legislature) and expect that the political process is going to work out," Gallegos said.

Clovis-based District Judge Fred Van Soelen in April cleared the way for Republicans to challenge the new congressional map, while barring immediate changes that might have disrupted the 2022 midterm election.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and leading Democratic legislators then asked the Supreme Court to intervene and preserve their redistricting plan.

They say new boundaries to the state's three congressional districts were vetted appropriately through the political process to ensure more competitive districts that reflect population shifts, with deference to Native American communities.

In related litigation at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, justices are considering a challenge that would leave state legislatures virtually unchecked in making rules for congressional and presidential elections. Arguments were presented in December.

Republicans from North Carolina who brought that case to the high court argue that a provision of the U.S. Constitution known as the elections clause gives state lawmakers virtually total control over the "times, places and manner" of congressional elections, including redistricting.

That means cutting state courts out of the process, they say. State courts have become the only legal forum for challenging partisan congressional maps since the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that those lawsuits cannot be brought in federal court.

The stakes in that case are high because Republicans won only a slim House majority in the November 2022 elections, giving them just enough power to challenge President Joe Biden's agenda. Any ruling that causes some districts to be redrawn likely would kick in for the 2024 elections.

In New Mexico, Democrats won all three congressional contests in November. They control every statewide elected office, command majorities in the state House and Senate, and make up the five-member Supreme Court.

ABQ councilors dealt competing proposals for bus program - Lissa Knudson, Source New Mexico 

The Albuquerque City Council continues to take its time to determine the fate of the Zero Fares Program, a transportation project that allows any city bus rider to hop on and go without having to show anything to the driver.

The Council decided again last week to postpone a final vote on an ordinance that would end the Zero Fares Program and replace it with a system where bus drivers will periodically check if riders either have an approved ID, a city-issued pass or a ticket.

A decision is expected during the next meeting on Jan. 18, when councilors will also have to debate another proposal that seeks to keep Zero Fares until June 2023, make it permanent on ART routes and increase transit security budgets by up to $1 million.

“I just feel like we’re making it the hardest for the most disadvantaged people in our community to use the system,” Northeast Heights City Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn said about the efforts to end the Zero Fares Program.

Fiebelkorn and Councilor Pat Davis are sponsoring an ordinance that would allow Zero Fares to complete the pilot project and calls for a subsequent study to analyze if it’s something the city wants permanently.

These competing proposals are exposing a split in the Council.

City buses became free for riders when the Zero Fares Program started in January 2022.

Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña started trying to roll that back in October, saying they were concerned about crime, though much of the data and reasoning used in those arguments has been debunked.

Their proposal keeps rides free but requires riders to have an actual bus pass to get on, or show a valid form of identification like a driver’s license or state ID, or student, senior and military ID.

Opponents pointed out that even though the bus would be free for most people, the proposal from Lewis and Peña would create additional burdens for those who most need to ride the bus, and it would be expensive for the city to build the infrastructure.

“It would definitely be adding some delay and additional time to the buses,” CABQ Transit Director Leslie Keener said.

“You basically get on the bus — no one would check you,” Keener said. “We’d have just random checks throughout a driver’s trip that they would then go and check who’s on the bus and make sure that they have the appropriate identification to be on, whether it be the free pass or one of the automatic rider identifications.”

Keener estimated that a new fares program would cost nearly $1 million to implement a ticketing and free-pass system. She said the city would need to both re-establish the fare boxes and purchase the technology for a mobile app that riders would show drivers.

“We are looking at a substantial amount of money to implement the free pass system,” Keener said.

It is predicted that there would also be a recurring yearly expense to cover the costs of administering the program.

In addition to higher costs, the Lewis-Peña plan also creates barriers for people who do not have identification.

To submit an application, people would have to provide contact information. People without an address or cell phone would likely have to get additional help from a service provider or agency.

Fiebelkorn said she is worried that the Council is setting up a system where people are going to have to potentially lie about having a home address just to get on the bus.

“If they’re willing to lie and say there’s a place that we could contact them — they could get a pass. But if they’re not, then they can’t get a pass,” Fiebelkorn said.

Members of the public commented that requiring IDs would also be a burden for high school students.

Volcano Vista student and CABQ Youth Advisory Council member Kayla Hynes spoke during public comment arguing that requiring IDs would also be a burden for high school students.

Hynes highlighted the school bus shortage across the APS school system, and explained that some students have been relying on city buses to get home when their school buses have been canceled.

“On several occasions at my own school, bus transportation is canceled for some students just minutes before the final bell rings for the day,” Hynes said.

Hynes added that because students are rarely required to show their student IDs at school, carrying them is not like carrying a drivers license.

“Many students, including myself, don’t really think about bringing identification or money to school every day,” Hynes said.

Those in favor of the proposal to change the system in place said that the current hop-on-and-go program has led to a rise in drug use and violence on the city’s buses.

‘I’m hearing from the drivers that the minute we switched to a zero-fare program that life changed for them: driving the bus wasn’t as fun anymore, driving the bus became more of a problem,” West Side City Councilor Louie Sanchez said.

Sanchez was an APD Southeast Area Command Sergeant and said before the Zero Fares Program, he and two APD officers would ride the bus in the Southeast Heights area and would often arrest people for using drugs at bus stops.

Sanchez said he would ride the bus, and when it would pull up to a bus stop, he would see illegal activity, walk off the bus and then make the arrest.

“We would make at least three or four arrests with one up-and-down trip on the bus,” Sanchez said in an interview with Source New Mexico. “We’d catch them red-handed in the middle of illegal activity.”

The counter-proposal from Fiebelkorn and Davis not only looks to increase transit security budget, but it would create additional penalties for people who are loitering at bus stops with no intent to ride.

The Lewis-Peña plan includes criminal penalties for anyone who rides the bus without a pass or ID.

Despite acknowledging that illegal drug use was a problem before Zero Fares began, Sanchez expressed support for the Lewis-Peña plan and said that once more funding is added to better address security concerns, he plans to vote in favor.

New Mexico delegation seeks changes to wildfire aid rules - Associated Press

New Mexico's congressional delegation says the U.S. government should make changes to rules proposed for processing damage claims stemming from a historic wildfire sparked by forest managers.

The delegation sent a letter to FEMA on Thursday as the federal agency prepares to wrap up public comment on the rules. The delegation noted that unlike a more affluent part of New Mexico that was devastated by a government-sparked wildfire in 2000, this part of northern New Mexico is more rural, has higher poverty rates and a high percentage of Spanish speakers.

The delegation also said many residents are still reeling from the emotional, financial and physical tolls of the Hermit's Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and that post-fire flooding has been a big concern for the mountainous areas.

"By providing thorough guidance and adding claims navigators early in the process, FEMA can ensure that claimants have the necessary resources in place to help them quickly and accurately assess the damages and repairs needed to move forward and receive the compensation as authorized by Congress," the delegation wrote.

Congress has approved nearly $4 billion for victims of the 2022 fire so far, and state officials have acknowledged that the recovery process will be long and challenging.

The New Mexico attorney general's office also has sought changes to the proposed rules. Then-Attorney General Hector Balderas, whose term ended in December, had outlined concerns over limitations on damages, the lack of a clear appeals process and leadership of the team that will oversee the claims process.

In their letter, U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury and Gabe Vasquez pointed to language that caps compensation for the replacement of destroyed trees and other landscaping at 25% of the pre-fire value. They said this does not take into account the degree of damage or the effort required to remediate the damage.

"It is important that adequate resources are devoted to restoring the environment and the livelihoods of those affected," their letter reads.

The 25% cap also requires FEMA to inspect property and prove whether a tree was used for landscaping, business, or subsistence and calculating entire property value on lands where it otherwise might not be necessary.

The lawmakers say this contradicts the intent of the relief act to provide a "a simple, expedited process."

A final public meeting is scheduled for Monday in Angel Fire. The online comment period will close Jan. 13.

Numerous missteps by the U.S. Forest Service resulted in prescribed fires erupting last spring into what became the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history. The blaze forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from villages throughout the Sangre de Cristo mountain range as it burned through more than 530 square miles of the Rocky Mountain foothills.

The fire forced the Forest Service to review its prescribed fire polices before resuming operations last fall, and experts have said the environmental consequences will span generations.

During a public forum FEMA hosted on its proposed claims process in November, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported many people affected by the fire and flooding asked officials to provide some leeway on the very points outlined by the congressional delegation.

Residents and elected officials also have asked for FEMA to hire as many New Mexicans as possible to staff claims offices in Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Mora. FEMA has held job fairs to fill the positions, with a third planned for Tuesday in Mora.

Feral cows face removal from a national forest in New Mexico - Associated Press

Federal authorities have a plan to remove feral cows that are roaming New Mexico's Gila National Forest and causing damage by over-grazing and trampling stream banks.

The Albuquerque Journal reports feral cattle have inhabited the forest since the 1970s and the U.S. Forest Service began its efforts to remove them in the 1990s.

More than 700 cattle have been removed and the U.S. Forest Service estimates there still are 50 to 250 feral cows roaming the Gila.

The Forest Service used lethal methods to remove 65 cattle in one operation last February, according to the Journal.

The Grant County Board of Commissioners unanimously supports the removal plan.

The public comment period began in November and ends Monday.

Center for Biological Diversity co-founder Todd Schulke told the Journal that his organization supports the Forest Service's approach because the alternative is conducting roundups and that still leads to many cattle being euthanized due to stress and injury.

The Forest Service's proposed plan would make both lethal and non-lethal methods available to remove the remaining population of unbranded cattle, according to the Journal.

The operations would likely take place in February, over two seven-day periods.

New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association President Loren Patterson disagrees with the plan to use lethal on-site measures.

He said the carcasses are left in place and the meat is wasted as opposed to the cattle going to auction, and the practice poses a risk of giving predators a taste for cattle.

Patterson would like to see a longer public comment period and a more thorough impact study, along with a reinstatement of grazing allotments to ranchers, who he said would be on the ground to remove unauthorized cattle.

He's also concerned that the Forest Service could kill branded cattle that wander into the space.

Forest Service spokesperson Maribeth Pecotte said that in the decades of past removals, the Forest Service is only aware of one branded cow that was shot.

Ex-deputy who used stun gun on Espanola teen gets 30 days - Associated Press

A former New Mexico sheriff's deputy who used a stun gun on a teen with special needs will go to prison for 30 days.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports Jeremy Barnes was sentenced Thursday for one count of false imprisonment. Once he is released, he will serve 17 months of supervised probation.

The sentencing was part of a plea deal with the New Mexico Attorney General's Office, which included the condition that Barnes never work in law enforcement again. He will also give up any law enforcement certifications.

The former Rio Arriba County Sheriff's deputy was initially also charged with child abuse, aggravated battery and violation of ethical principles of public service.

In May 2019, a widely circulated video showed Barnes using a stun gun on a 15-year-old boy several times at Espanola Valley High School. He was later fired.

Then Attorney General Hector Balderas, whose office brought the charges, said there was no excuse for Barnes to deploy the stun gun.

The teen later settled a lawsuit with Rio Arriba County and the Espanola school district for $1.3 million.

Biden inspects US-Mexico border in face of GOP criticism - By Colleen Long Associated Press

President Joe Biden walked a muddy stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border and inspected a busy port of entry Sunday on his first trip to the region after two years in office, a visit shadowed by the fraught politics of immigration as Republicans blame him for record numbers of migrants crossing into the country.

At his first stop, the president observed as border officers in El Paso demonstrated how they search vehicles for drugs, money and other contraband. Next, he traveled to a dusty street with abandoned buildings and walked along a metal border fence that separated the U.S. city from Ciudad Juarez.

His last stop was the El Paso County Migrant Services Center — but there were no migrants in sight. As he learned about the services offered there, he asked an aid worker, "If I could wave the wand, what should I do?" The answer was not audible.

Biden's nearly four-hour visit to El Paso was highly controlled. He encountered no migrants except when his motorcade drove alongside the border and about a dozen were visible on the Ciudad Juárez side. His visit did not include time at a Border Patrol station, where migrants who cross illegally are arrested and held before their release. He delivered no public remarks.

The visit seemed designed to showcase a smooth operation to process legal migrants, weed out smuggled contraband and humanely treat those who have entered illegally, creating a counter-narrative to Republicans' claims of a crisis situation equivalent to an open border.

But his visit was likely do little to quell critics from both sides, including immigrant advocates who accuse him of establishing cruel policies not unlike those of his hard-line predecessor, Donald Trump.

In a sign of the deep tensions over immigration, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, handed Biden a letter as soon as he touched down in the state that said the "chaos" at the border was a "direct result" of the president's failure to enforce federal laws. Biden later took the letter out of his jacket pocket during his tour, telling reporters, "I haven't read it yet."

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy dismissed Biden's visit as a "photo op," saying on Twitter that the Republican majority would hold the administration "accountable for creating the most dangerous border crisis in American history."

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego welcomed Biden's visit, but said a current lull in arrivals prevented the president from seeing how large the group of newcomers has been.

"He didn't get to see the real difficulties," said Samaniego, who was in the local delegation that greeted Biden. "It was good that he was here. It's a first step. But we still need to do more and have more time with him."

Elsewhere in El Paso where Biden did not visit, hundreds of migrants were gathered Sunday outside the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where they have been sleeping outdoors and receiving three meals a day from faith groups and other humanitarian organizations.

The migrants included several pregnant women, including Karla Sainz, 26, eight months along. She was traveling in a small group that included her 2-year-old son, Joshua. Sainz left her three other children back home in Venezuela with her mother.

"I would ask President Biden to help me with a permission or something so we can work and continue," she said.

Juan Tovar, 32, one of several people in her group, suggested he also had political reasons for leaving his home country.

"Socialism is the worst," he said. "In Venezuela, they kill us, they torture us, we can't talk bad about the government. We are worse off than in Cuba."

Noengris Garcia, also eight months pregnant, was traveling with her husband, teen son and the small family dog from the tiny state of Portuguesa, Venezuela, where she operated a food stall.

"We don't want to be given money or a house," said Garcia, 39. "We just want to work."

Asked what he's learned by seeing the border firsthand and speaking with the officers who work along it, Biden said: "They need a lot of resources. We're going to get it for them."

El Paso is currently the biggest corridor for illegal crossings, in large part due to Nicaraguans fleeing repression, crime and poverty in their country. They are among migrants from four countries who are now subject to quick expulsion under new rules enacted by the Biden administration in the past week that drew strong criticism from immigration advocates.

Biden's recent policy announcements on border security and his visit to the border were aimed in part at blunting the impact of upcoming investigations into immigration promised by House Republicans. But any enduring solution will require action by the sharply divided Congress, where multiple efforts to enact sweeping changes have failed in recent years.

From Texas, Biden traveled south to Mexico City, where he and the leaders of Mexico and Canada will gather on Monday and Tuesday for a North American leaders summit. Immigration is among the items on the agenda. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador met Biden at the airport Sunday night and joined him in the presidential limousine for the ride to Biden's hotel.

The numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has risen dramatically during Biden's first two years in office. There were more than 2.38 million stops during the year that ended Sept. 30, the first time the number topped 2 million. The administration has struggled to clamp down on crossings, reluctant to take measures that would resemble those of Trump's administration.

The policy changes announced this past week are Biden's biggest move yet to contain illegal border crossings and will turn away tens of thousands of migrants arriving at the border. At the same time, 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela will get the chance to come to the U.S. legally as long as they travel by plane, get a sponsor and pass background checks.

The U.S. will also turn away migrants who do not seek asylum first in a country they traveled through en route to the U.S. Migrants are being asked to complete a form on a phone app so that they they can go to a port of entry at a pre-scheduled date and time.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters aboard Air Force One that the administration is trying to "incentivize a safe and orderly way and cut out the smuggling organizations," saying the policies are "not a ban at all" but an attempt to protect migrants from the trauma that smuggling can create.

The changes were welcomed by some, particularly leaders in cities where migrants have been massing. But Biden was excoriated by immigrant advocate groups, which accused him of taking measures modeled after those of the former president. Administration officials disputed that characterization.

For all of his international travel over his 50 years in public service, Biden has not spent much time at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The only visit that the White House could point to was Biden's drive by the border while he was campaigning for president in 2008. He sent Vice President Kamala Harris to El Paso in 2021, but she was criticized for largely bypassing the action, because El Paso wasn't the center of crossings that it is now.

Trump, who made hardening immigration a signature issue, traveled to the border several times.

On eve of Biden's border visit, migrants fear new rules - By Andres Leighton And Elliot Spagat Associated Press

Several hundred people marched through the streets of El Paso on Saturday afternoon, and when they arrived at a group of migrants huddling outside a church, they sang to them "no estan solos" — "you are not alone."

Around 300 migrants have taken refuge on sidewalks outside Sacred Heart Church, some of them afraid to seek more formal shelters, advocates say, amid new restrictions meant to crack down on illegal border crossings.

This is the scene that will greet President Joe Biden on his first, politically thorny visit to the southern border Sunday.

The president announced last week that Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians will be expelled to Mexico if they enter the U.S. illegally — an expansion of a policy that began with Venezuelans last year. The new rules will also include offering humanitarian parole for up to 30,000 people a month from those four countries if they apply online and find a financial sponsor.

Biden is scheduled to arrive in El Paso Sunday afternoon before traveling on to Mexico City to meet with North American leaders on Monday and Tuesday.

Dylan Corbett, who runs the nonprofit Hope Border Institute, said the city is experiencing an increasing "climate of fear."

He said immigration enforcement agencies have already started ratcheting up deportations to Mexico, and he senses a rising level of tension and confusion.

The president's new policy expands on an existing effort to stop Venezuelans attempting to enter the U.S., which began in October.

Corbett said many Venezuelans have since been left in limbo, putting a strain on local resources. He said expanding those policies to other migrants will only worsen the circumstances for them on the ground.

"It's a very difficult situation because they can't go forward and they can't go back," he said. People who aren't processed can't leave El Paso because of U.S. law enforcement checkpoints; most have traveled thousands of miles from their homelands and refuse to give up and turn around.

"There will be people in need of protection who will be left behind," Corbett said.

The new restrictions represent a major change to immigration rules that will stand even if the U.S. Supreme Court ends a Trump-era public health law known as Title 42 that allows U.S. authorities to turn away asylum-seekers.

El Paso has swiftly become the busiest of the Border Patrol's nine sectors along the U.S. border with Mexico, occupying the top slots in October and November. Large numbers of Venezuelans began showing up in September, drawn to the relative ease of crossing, robust shelter networks and bus service on both sides of the border, and a major airport to destinations across the United States.

Venezuelans ceased to be a major presence almost overnight after Mexico, under Title 42 authority, agreed on Oct. 12 to accept those who crossed the border illegally into the United States. Nicaraguans have since filled that void. Title 42 restrictions have been applied 2.5 million times to deny migrants a right to seek asylum under U.S. and international law on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

U.S. authorities stopped migrants 53,247 times in November in the El Paso sector, which stretches across 264 miles of desert in West Texas and New Mexico but sees much of its activity in the city of El Paso and suburban Sunland Park, New Mexico. The most recent monthly tally for the sector was more than triple the same period of 2021, with Nicaraguans the top nationality by far, followed by Mexicans, Ecuadoreans, Guatemalans and Cubans.

Many gathered under blankets outside Sacred Heart Church. The church opens its doors at night to families and women, so not all of the hundreds caught in this limbo must sleep outside in the dropping temperatures. Two buses were available for people to warm up and charge their phones. Volunteers come with food and other supplies.

Juan Tovar held a Bible in his hands, his 7-year-old daughter hoisted onto his shoulders. The 32-year-old was a bus driver in Venezuela before he fled with his wife and two daughters because of the political and financial chaos that has consumed their home country.

He has friends in San Antonio prepared to take them in, he said. He's here to work and provide an education for his daughters, but he's stuck in El Paso without a permit.

"Everything is in the hands of God," he said. "We are all humans and we want to stay."

Another Venezuelan, 22-year-old Jeremy Mejia, overheard and said he had a message he'd like to send to the president.

"President Biden, I ask God to touch your heart so we can stay in this country," Mejia said. "I ask you to please touch your heart and help us migrants have a better future in the U.S."