Desperate immigrants make difficult choices at Mexico’s borders

Denise Cathy / AP

A young man wearing a face mask walks into a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico.

Fernando and his pregnant wife stared at the river that separates the United States and Mexico and contemplated wading into its treacherous waters with their two children after waiting in a dangerous frontier city for more than a year with no end in sight.

They were desperate.

The 35-year-old and his family were sent back to the Mexican city of Matamoros in the fall of 2019 under the Trump administration’s policy that forced more than 66,000 immigrants and asylum seekers to wait south of the border during a US immigration judge. I ruled in their case. The migrants were handed documents with a later court date, often months away, left largely to fend for themselves in dangerous border towns despite assurances by US officials that Mexico would protect them.

In hearings held inside the tent courts set up along the border, it was not uncommon for immigration cases to be rescheduled because applicants had not completed their papers or needed more time to find a lawyer. Cases dragged on for months, and in Matamoros, thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers, many of them from Central America, Cuba and Venezuela, spent waiting while living in donated tents in the streets and parks of the city. The threat of kidnapping by criminal groups for ransom was constant, immigrants relied on donated food and clothing, and people initially bathed in the Rio Grande, sometimes resulting in a rash. The wait was tough, but at least there was a promise of a future court date.

This is now gone. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has stopped holding so-called MPP sessions indefinitely, and along with the dangerous conditions inside the camp, immigrants have been pushed to try to enter the United States without being detected.

“People are getting desperate,” Fernando told BuzzFeed News. What the United States did has only resulted in the prevention of legal immigration. People who wanted to follow the procedures and attend court sessions, through a large part of them illegally. “

This desperation forced some to pay smugglers to bring them into the United States, a route that immigrant families generally avoid because they cannot afford it and how dangerous the roads are in order to avoid being caught by border agents. Others were sending their children alone, not new Practice But it is complicated by the new coronavirus policy that puts them at risk of existence They were expelled quickly from the United States. Some migrants have been paying criminal organizations that control the flow of people and drugs across the border only to obtain permission to cross the Rio Grande on their own. Many will be arrested and immediately returned.

Gabi Zavala, founder of Resource Center Matamoros, an organization that helps immigrants in the border city, said the camp, which at its height reached 2,500 people, now houses about 685 people.

“They have lost hope in the system and are giving up their asylum application entirely in favor of people smugglers,” Zavala told BuzzFeed News. “They have abandoned the idea of ​​being able to have a system that would allow them to obtain asylum.”

Zavala said that immigrants who did not attempt to enter the United States returned to their home countries or started building a new life in Mexico.

Fernando and his family decided not to cross illegally, unsure what impact this would have on their case if they were caught by border agents and did not want to risk harming their unborn child as he crossed a river that claimed countless lives. They decided to continue living in the camp, but that came with their own fears. The camp, formerly a shelter, has turned into a dangerous cage since the pandemic.

Made of hundreds of tents and fabrics tied together by twine, it is located on the banks of the Rio Grande. People were able to enter freely in the past, but since spring, the entire camp has been surrounded by a fence set up by the Mexican government, which carefully controls who enters and leaves the camp, citing the coronavirus epidemic.

Groups like Zavala continue to assist migrants in and out of the camp, Team Brownsville, Angry Tias and Abuelas continue to feed people, and Global Response Management continues to provide free medical care. Zavala said the restrictions have made entry into the camp more cumbersome, even for groups working with migrants in the camp since its inception, as officials have delayed delivering supplies, such as firewood or tents, to workers. Portable bathroom cleaners.

“There’s a lot of red tape that didn’t exist before,” Zavala said.

Zavala said that new immigrants are not allowed in now either, which poses a problem as the few shelters in the area are closed due to the epidemic. Zavala and her organization started helping families move to Matamoros, and some of them started the asylum application process in Mexico. Expensive endeavor Zavala hopes to find money for after funding fails from an organization, but believes it will help migrants lead a more stable life in the current landscape.

And the sense of protection the camp offers is eroding. Seven bodies washed up on the banks of the river near the camp. One of them was Rodrigo Castro, the leader of the Guatemalans in the camp.

“The fear increased inside the camp,” said Zavala. “People there are now more vulnerable to violence and aggression.”

Gilson, who refused to reveal his full name for fear of retaliation from US immigration authorities, illegally crossed the border with his pregnant wife after nearly a year of waiting in Matamoros. The final push was the discovery of Castro’s body.

“Rodrigo’s death filled us all with fear and reinforced what we already knew – Mexico is not safe for immigrants,” said Gilson. “It is a psychological shock, and we can feel in our hearts that the situation in the camp was changing.”

The presence of organized crime has increased in the camp since the outbreak of the epidemic and the lifting of the fence. People suspect a sinister game of Castro’s death, but few immigrants want to talk about it.

Immigrants who first began living in an outdoor arena after being brought back under MPP last year, were almost immediately seen as the sore eyes of local Mexican officials and residents, despite the federal government agreeing to take them from the United States. Migrants are largely left to fend for themselves against the elements and criminals.

Over time, the number of people living in tents in the square and surrounding streets continued to grow, and the National Institute of Immigration (INM), Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency, moved to the banks of the Rio Grande, where immigrants were concerned that they might do so. Out of sight and out of mind. There was a lot of opposition to the idea from the immigrants, although they eventually moved and the tent city continued to grow and develop infrastructure such as bathrooms, wash basins, and showers.

Today, the National Institute for Women carefully controls who is allowed into the camp through the only entrance and exit, and journalists are not allowed in.

The current system makes it difficult to hold Mexican and US authorities accountable for conditions inside the camp because defenders and journalists cannot see what the situation looks like for themselves, said Stephanie Leuter, director of the Mexican Security Initiative at the Robert Strauss Center. Of International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.

“One of the main reasons people stay in the camp is because of their visibility and interest,” Lyotert told BuzzFeed News. “You don’t have this anymore.”

Lyotert said that the institute also refuses to renew immigrant visit permits if they do not have a US court history, which applies to those who have lost their case and want to appeal, and no one can live in the camp without it. .

“They just felt that there was no longer support,” she added.

Lyotier said the lack of support and conditions led one woman to send her daughter as an unaccompanied minor recently. Leuter said that entire families who are smuggled undetected is difficult because smugglers do not want to take the children in trailers, and the road that takes entire families undetected through farms near the border is too expensive for most migrants, with a price ranging between $ 13,000 And 14 thousand dollars.

Leutert said that parents are more likely to try to send the children first through safer channels on their own and then try to reunite them in the United States.

“When seeking asylum is no longer an option and smuggling becomes really expensive, migrants find solutions,” she said. “People find holes like they always do.”

Veronica G. Cardenas / Reuters

Sister Norma Pimentel, a nun and executive director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, who also works with migrants in the camp, said the corpses, fencing and restrictions made the migrants feel fear, isolation and forgetfulness.

“The Mexican government appears to be using COVID-19 to its advantage to be able to control the camp,” Pimentel told BuzzFeed. “New immigrants are not allowed into the camp and they can easily pull out anyone who doesn’t agree with them.” News. “The camp will be completely suffocated.”

The Iraqi National Institute did not immediately respond to a request for comment on conditions in the camp.

Meanwhile, migrants have mostly avoided going to town because they will be more vulnerable to organized crime, but parents with young daughters or teenagers are more willing to get out of the camp, where they feel more vulnerable, Pimentel says.

“Parents cannot do anything about it if they are attacked and exploited,” Pimentel said. “It’s in the air whether moving to town is safer or not. Some people prefer to stay in the camp because they have each other’s support, society.”

Pimentel said there are about 4,000 immigrants living in the interior of Matamoros.

Veronica Cardenas / Reuters

A bottle of hand sanitizer inside a kitchen in the migrant camp.

Even before MPP sessions were postponed indefinitely, immigrants knew that the odds were stacked against them in terms of gaining asylum in the United States.

“The MPP operation is a lie,” said Gilson, an immigrant who left the camp for the United States. “Not only can you get asylum from Mexico, but you also can’t work or pay a lawyer to help you.”

After US border officers brought Gilson back to Matamoros last year, he and others slept in an outdoor yard with other immigrants. Five people who had traveled to the city to search for work were reportedly kidnapped by organized crime and helped obtain a ransom. Gilson does not have a family in the United States, who can usually pay a ransom to immigrants, but his family in Honduras cannot afford it.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Advisor In the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which includes cities like Matamoros, US residents warn of the dangers when traveling to the area, stating that murder, kidnapping and sexual assault by organized crime is common.

“People say we’re lazy, but you can’t go camp,” said Gelson. “If I’m kidnapped, what happens to my daughter?”

Gilson and his family left Honduras after threats from gangs.

“The criminal network is linked to our government, and there is no place to hide in such a small country,” he said. “That is why we endure hot days, cold nights, and the fear of kidnapping in Mexico.”

With death threats in Honduras, the camp discovering migrant corpses in the river, and no end in sight to delay MPP sessions, Gelson said getting to the United States is the only sensible option.

“People are looking for any way out of the camp,” said Gilson. “People there need encouragement, they need hope, because there is not much of this now.”

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