Fernando and his pregnant wife gaze out at the river separating the US and Mexico and consider wading through its dangerous waters with their two children after waiting in a more dangerous border city a year without any trace.
They were desperate.
The 35-year-old man and his family were brought back to the Mexican city of Matamoros in the fall of 2019 under Trump administration policy forcing more than 66,000 immigrants and asylum seekers to wait south of the border. gender while a US immigration judge decides on their case. Immigrants are given documents with a future court date, usually a few months away, and most are left to fend for themselves in dangerous border cities despite the assurances of officials. US officials that Mexico will protect them.
At hearings held inside tents built along the border, it is not uncommon for immigration cases to be postponed because applicants have not completed their paperwork or need more time. time to find a lawyer. The incidents lasted for months, and in Matamoros, thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers, many from Central America, Cuba and Venezuela, lived in donated tents in the streets and parks. of the city. The threat of being kidnapped by criminal groups for ransom is persistent, immigrants rely on donated food and clothing, and early residents bathing in the Rio Grande, which sometimes leads to ban. Waiting is tough, but at least there is a promise of a future court date.
It is gone now. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has stopped hosting what are known as MPP hearings indefinitely, and combined with dangerous conditions inside the camp, immigrants have been motivated to tried to get into America without being detected.
“People are getting more and more desperate,” Fernando told BuzzFeed News. “What the US has done is only blocking the influx of legal immigration. Those who want to go through the proceedings and attend the trials, a large part of them have crossed the border illegally. “
That despair has forced some to pay smugglers to bring them into the US, a route that immigrant families often avoid because they can’t afford to pay and dangerous far-off routes. how to avoid arrest by Border Patrol agents. Others have sent their children over alone, not one practice but complicated by the new coronavirus policy that puts them at risk quickly expelled come from the US. Some immigrants have paid criminal organizations to control the flow of people and drugs across the border just to be allowed to cross the Rio Grande on their own. Many will be arrested and sent home immediately.
Gaby Zavala, founder of the Matamoros Resource Center, an organization that helps immigrants in border towns, said the camp, at its peak 2,500 people, now has about 685.
“They have lost hope in the system and are giving up all their asylum applications in favor of smugglers,” Zavala told BuzzFeed News. “They gave up the idea of ever having access to a system that would allow them to apply for asylum.”
Zavala said immigrants who did not try to enter the US returned home or began building new lives in Mexico.
Fernando and his family decided not to cross the border illegally, not sure how it would affect their case if they were caught by Border Patrol agents and did not want to risk their unborn child while on the tape. crossing the river has claimed countless lives. They decided to continue living in camp, but that came with their own concerns. The camp, once a refuge, has turned into a dangerous cage since the pandemic.
Made up of hundreds of tents and canvas tied together by wire, it sits on the banks of the Rio Grande River. Previously everyone was able to enter and exit freely, but since spring, the entire camp has been surrounded by a fence set up by the Mexican government, which carefully controls who goes in and out of the camp, on the grounds that is the pandemic coronavirus.
Groups like Zavala’s continue to help immigrants inside and outside the camp, Brownsville and Angry Tias and Abuelas Groups continue to provide food to people, and Global Response Management still provides free medical care. The restrictions have made the camp entry more tedious, Zavala said, even for groups that have worked with immigrants at the camp since its inception, Zavala said, with officials delay them, from transferring supplies, such as firewood or tents to mobile bathroom cleaners.
“That’s a lot of red tape that wasn’t there before,” said Zavala.
Zavala said no new immigrants were currently allowed in, which posed a problem as some of the shelters in the area were closed due to the pandemic. Zavala and her organization have begun helping families move to Matamoros City, some of which have started the asylum process in Mexico. A costly effort that Zavala is hoping to make money from after funding from an organization has failed, but one she believes will help immigrants lead more stable lives in the current context. in.
The provided camp protection awareness is also being eroded. Seven corpses were washed ashore on the riverbank near the camp. One of them is Rodrigo Castro, a Guatemalan leader at the camp.
“The fear inside the camp increased,” said Zavala. “People there are now more vulnerable to violence and aggression.”
Gelson, who declined to give his full name for fear of retaliation by US immigration officials, illegally crossed the border with his pregnant wife after about a year waiting in Matamoros. The ultimate motivating factor was the discovery of Castro’s body.
“Rodrigo’s death scared us all and reinforces what we already know – Mexico is not safe for migrants,” Gelson said. “It was a trauma and we could feel inside that the situation at the camp was changing.”
The presence of organized crime at the camp has increased since the pandemic began and fences were erected. People doubted the bad behavior of Castro’s death, but very few immigrants wanted to talk about it.
Immigrants who first started living in an open-air plaza after being handed over to the MPP last year were almost immediately caught by local officials and Mexicans, despite the federal government. the state agreed to accept them from the US. Immigrants are largely left to fight off against elements and criminals.
Over time, the number of people living in tents on the plaza and surrounding streets continued to increase and the National Institute of Migration (INM), Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency, forced them to move ashore. Rio Grande River, where immigrants worry that they will lose their eyes and lose their mind. There was a lot of opposition from the immigrants, even though they eventually moved out and the tent city continued to develop and develop infrastructure such as bathrooms, wash stations and showers.
Today, the INM carefully controls who is allowed to enter the camp through an entrance and exit and does not allow reporters to enter.
Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Robert S. Strauss Center, said the current setup leaves Mexican and US authorities accountable for the conditions inside the camp because of the supporters. households and journalists couldn’t see what it was like. in International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.
“One of the main reasons why people decide to stay at camp is because of the vision and attention,” Leutert told BuzzFeed News. “You don’t have that anymore.”
INM has also refused to renew immigrants’ visiting permits if they do not have a court date in the United States, which is the case for people who have lost their case and want to appeal, and no one can live in the camp. without that license, Leutert said.
“They just feel like they have no place to stand anymore,” she added.
The lack of support and conditions, Leutert said, forced a woman to send her daughter across the street as an unaccompanied minor recently. Leutert said entire families undetected smuggled are even more difficult because smugglers do not want to bring children in trailers and the route to keep entire families undetected through nearby ranches. The border is too expensive for most immigrants between $ 13,000 and $ 14,000, Leutert said.
More likely, parents will try to send their kids through safer channels and then try to reunite with them in the US, Leutert said.
“When applying for asylum is no longer an option and smuggling is really expensive, immigrants have to find a way,” she said. “People find loopholes like they always do.”
Sister Norma Pimentel, nun and executive director of the Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charity, who also works with immigrants at the camp, said.
“The Mexican government seems to be using COVID-19 in their favor to control the camp, no new immigrants are allowed in the camp and they can very easily entice anyone who disagrees with them, ”Pimentel told BuzzFeed News. “They will completely choke the camp.”
INM did not immediately respond to a request for comment on camp conditions.
Meanwhile, the majority of immigrants have avoided entering the city because they will be more exposed to organized crime, but parents with young daughters or teens are more open to moving out. camp where they feel more vulnerable, Pimentel said.
“Parents cannot do anything if they are attacked and taken advantage of,” Pimentel said. “It’s in the air whether it’s safer to move into the city or not. Some like to stay in camp because they have support from each other, a community ”.
Pimentel said there were about 4,000 immigrants living in the Matamoros interior.
Even before MPP hearings were postponed indefinitely, immigrants knew the odds against them were staggering in gaining asylum in the United States.
“The MPP process is a lie,” said Gelson, who immigrated to the US. “Not only can you not obtain asylum from Mexico, you cannot also work or afford to pay a lawyer to help you.”
After Gelson was sent back to Matamoros by US border officers last year, he and the others slept in an open-air plaza with other immigrants. Five people who travel into the city to find work are believed to have been kidnapped by organized criminals and helped claim ransom. Gelson has no family in the US, who can usually afford the ransom for immigrants, but his family in Honduras cannot afford it.
Foreign Office advisory As for Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, which includes cities like Matamoros, warns Americans about the dangers of arriving in the area, noting that organized crime of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault is common.
“People say we’re lazy, but you can’t move away from camp,” Gelson said. “If I get kidnapped, what will happen to my daughter?”
Gelson and his family left Honduras following gang threats.
“The criminal network is so tightly entwined with our government, there is nowhere to hide in such a small country,” he said. “That’s why we endured hot days, cold nights and the fear of kidnapping in Mexico.”
With threats of death in Honduras, the bodies of immigrants uncovered in the river by the camp and with no endpoint to postpone MPP hearings, Gelson said arriving in the US is the only option. meaningful.
“Everybody’s trying to get out of camp,” said Gelson. “The people there need encouragement, they need hope, because there isn’t a lot of that out there right now.”