An estimated 1,200 refugees living in tents on this side of the Gateway International Bridge were unequipped to wait out an overnight downpour of near freezing rain and heavy winds as temperatures in the Rio Grande Valley plummeted into the low 40s this week.
Tarps and garbage bags were tied over the tops of the dwellings. In many cases, modification still did not prevent water from seeping in and soaking clothing, shoes, and Mylar blankets given to families by volunteers to stay warm.
By Friday morning, concrete curbs were covered with mud scraped from shoes as people braved the cold, walking back and forth from the river to get water from tanks. Some climbed down the steep, slippery bank and waded in the frigid water, scrubbing clothing clean.
On Wednesday night, a family accompanied by local attorney Jodi Goodwin pleaded with U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities to allow them entrance to a hospital with their critically ill 2-year-old child. Multiple volunteer doctors had indicated that the baby needed urgent access to a medical facility.
According to a timeline of updates posted by Goodwin, who represents various families seeking asylum, it took nearly four hours for the family to be processed and transported to the emergency room despite the severity of the child’s condition.
Reports from migrant camps along the U.S.-Mexico border indicate that the cold temperatures, lack of food and water, and severely deteriorating sanitary conditions have brought on a wave of illnesses such as pneumonia as people wait out the adjudication of their asylum cases in U.S. immigration courts.
In a press release sent to reporters on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, condemned the policy keeping refugees stuck in Mexico, stating that the Trump administration has forcibly returned “at least 50,000 individuals” under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, ‘Remain in Mexico’ program).
The Brownsville Herald spoke with multiple families on Thursday who have fled extraordinarily violent conditions, and in some cases political persecution, in Central America, Mexico, and Cuba. Residents have arrived to U.S. ports of entry seeking stability and the opportunity to work, raise families, and support themselves only to be returned to the streets of Mexico.
Families said they’ve received little to no support from Mexican government agencies in Matamoros.
Two weeks ago, Mexico’s National System for Integral Family Development (DIF) visited the camps, where officials threatened to take the children away from a crowd of surrounding families who did not wish to move to a shelter across town.
The people who live in the camps cited various reasons as to why they wish to remain, including that the government’s offer of shelter is temporary, that they’re afraid of missing their asylum hearings, and that they simply don’t trust authorities given their current circumstances.
Conditions are abysmal, and aid organizations and local volunteer networks appear to be the only safety net keeping the situation in the camps from deteriorating into an even larger humanitarian crisis.
Local coalition Team Brownsville recently used donations to pay for 10 extra port-a-potties at the camp. The initial five units were overflowing until a local volunteer shoveled the human waste out himself, according to residents.
The dirt path along the Rio Grande nearest the checkpoint is littered with human feces and used toilet paper. Residents have limited access to sanitary products and necessities like diapers.
Access to hospitals is nonexistent, though teams of volunteer doctors provide basic services from underneath a tent. On Thursday, residents told The Herald that they’re avoiding bathing due to the cold. Families rely on donated food and water to survive.
“I used to weigh 116 pounds. Now I weigh 96,” said Yamali, a woman from Honduras who fled to the United States with her husband and three children after a family member was murdered in May.
Previously, the father of Yamali’s 13-year-old son was murdered by the gangs in control of San Pedro Sula. Her husband, Josue, told The Herald that his aunt was murdered on May 5. The family received additional threats, prompting them to pack up and leave.
“Repatriación Humana brings lunch and dinner, but only for 300 people. The ones who are down there eat,” she said, pointing to a white, two-story building down the road from the checkpoint.
The agency, which assists recently deported Mexican citizens as they arrive from across the bridge, is surrounded by tents. On an average night, residents of the camps can be seen sitting on the property. Children run up and down the stairs, playing on the second-floor balcony.
Last week, Enrique Maciel, Regional Delegate for the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, allowed volunteers to set up dinner service next to Repatriacíon Humana as swaths of freshly deported Mexican citizens, mostly young men, arrived in groups of nearly 30 at a time from across the bridge.
A man named Ulyses, who was detained in the Pittsburgh area following a traffic stop, told The Herald that he hadn’t eaten for two days. He pulled out the birth certificates of his two children, who are still in the U.S. with their mother.
Maciel can be seen nightly in the camps and appears to be friendly with residents, assisting where he can from a public health perspective. However, he has previously been quoted in the local media saying that the migrants settled in the plaza “without permission.”
In a report published last month, he told reporters that it’s “not the responsibility of the government to provide them shelter,” as those sent back as part of MPP have permits to live and work in Mexico.
Yamali and Josue say they’re unable to work. The permits they were granted after a two-month stay in Chiapas only allow them to travel through Mexico.
The family is responsible for one of three tent “stores” set up by a woman from Ohio through which they attempt to equally distribute donated supplies. The small amount of money they do have comes from a stipend they receive from volunteers.
Josue worked as a driver in Honduras. He says life at home became impossible due to both government corruption and violence from the gangs, who have close ties with the government.
Last month, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother Juan Antonio Hernandez was convicted on U.S. drug trafficking charges.
According to reports, a witness told the court that Hernandez offered to protect shipments for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, for a $1 million dollar donation to his brother’s 2013 presidential campaign.
An alleged drug trafficker with knowledge of this incident whose notebooks were used as evidence in the trial was murdered in prison last month.
“Nobody would touch him before. There are laws protecting members of the military and government officials. What about people like us? How are we going to go back?” Josue said.
“The military is in the streets. They’re supposedly controlling the situation. They do nothing.”
The former taxi driver brought evidence of the murders of drivers killed by the gangs. He said that none of his papers, including evidence of threats made against him and the murders of relatives have been read by a judge.
The family turned themselves in to CBP officials at Reynosa in July. Josue told authorities that the family was fleeing for their lives. Officials allegedly responded, “That’s not my problem” and separated Josue from Yamali and their children.
“They put us in the hieleras,” he said. “Hielera”, Spanish for “freezer,” is common terminology among those in the camp, who are put into freezing detention facilities while they’re being processed by CBP.
“They kept us for three days. I asked to see my children. I wasn’t allowed to look out the window,” Josue said.
Yamali stayed with their two daughters, 7 and 9 years old, while the couple’s son was detained separately. “I cried. I had a headache, I asked for medication. They told me that it wasn’t their problem.”
The family was deported to Matamoros pending their asylum proceedings. At their initial court date on Oct. 3, Josue forgot his own asylum application. He was granted a separate hearing.
This week, the judge who was supposed to be at the hearing did not show up. The new judge gave him yet another court date, separate from the family, which will appear again without Josue in March.
According to the couple, judges appear over a TV screen with the attorney and a translator. Applicants are in the court room alone.
“The judge was fumbling with the papers like he didn’t even read them. They know that we’re living in these conditions. If you show up alone, they do whatever they want with you. If you have an attorney who knows the law, the judges don’t know what to do. It’s like they’re not even judges.”
Josue arrived at the bridge four hours in advance of his afternoon hearing. According to the couple, they’re required to show up early so that the dozens of asylum seekers are processed and checked for bruises and lice.
Yamali said that if they don’t appear to be clean or healthy, they’re not allowed into the hearings. Additionally, she said the first thing they’re told by the judge is that a July 16 law put into place by the Trump administration bars Central Americans from gaining refugee status.
The family described Honduras as a war zone. “You have to pay the gangs off to keep working,” Josue said.
“They increase the fees. If don’t pay the fee, they don’t go after the owners. They go after the drivers, the workers. I would pay in my own city. Then, I would pay in another. I also worked construction. In every industry you have to pay a fee. The police also take money from you.”
Josue also cited corruption as the cause of the rising cost of living in Honduras, where economic instability is amplified by a lack of available employment opportunities.
According to the couple, the amount of taxes they paid on electricity went up nearly 12 percent after the government sold the electric company in their area to owners with close ties to government officials.
Three years ago, Yamali was laid off from her job as a seamstress in a clothing factory and was unable to find another job, forcing her husband to support the entire family while maintaining their safety by paying his share to the gangs.
Yamali began to cry as she described how residents of the camps are yelled at and photographed by people passing by. “I hate that we’re living in these conditions,” she said. “They call us lazy. They tell us to go back to where we came from. It’s like we’re not people.”
The family doesn’t feel safe in Mexico. Josue pulls out a police report he filed with officers in Matamoros after a man sexually assaulted his daughters at the entrance to the bridge. The man was not arrested or charged. Josue says he watches the tent at night so his daughters can sleep.
“Sometimes people will say something to me and I don’t hear them because there’s so much swirling around in my head,” he said.
Both Yamali and Josue stress that they just want to support themselves. Asked what they want U.S. citizens to know, they said they need officials to understand that they “want one opportunity to work, to make a living, and to send their children to school.”
A few tents down, a woman kneels washing her laundry in a bucket. Rosa, who asked The Herald to not use her real name, is wearing socks underneath her sandals to keep her feet warm. She told The Herald that she left Cuba on June 19. She traveled alone through Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala before making the journey through Mexico.
Shortly after she placed her name on a list of asylum seekers kept by officials at points of entry, she was kidnapped alongside eight other migrants.
“I had already heard that they were kidnapping Cubans,” she said. “They know we have family in the United States who might have money.”
Rosa was unwilling to speak further about the experience out of fear for her safety. She told The Herald that she received a strange call on Tuesday in which someone asked her, “Don’t you remember me? I want to give you a surprise,” before hanging up.
“The hardest thing about this situation is leaving the people that you love. You’re fighting to be free, and you’re fighting for your family back home to be free as well. And you get here and things are like this,” she said.
Rosa’s grandfather was imprisoned for his political beliefs in Cuba. She said she has been routinely harassed by government officials her entire life as a result.
She points to patches of hives on her legs and forearms. “I have a skin disease from the stress,” she said. “It covers my entire body.”
Rosa told The Herald that she got involved with a human rights organization that assisted the families of incarcerated individuals economically and with food while she was still in high school.
The group collected signatures to change the constitution in order to free imprisoned family members and also attempted to get rid of the system of multiple currencies in Cuba, prompting backlash from officials.
“I was detained several times,” she said. “They would ask me for the names of other people in the group. The past few times that my husband came to visit from the states, they searched my home.”
Rosa’s mother told her to flee in May after she was detained in the presence of her 12-year-old son.
“He was traumatized. He would wake up in the middle of the night sleepwalking and try to run out of the house. He was so nervous he would pee himself at school,” she said.
Asked what she wants people in the states to know about her situation, she said, “None of us want to harm anyone. We just want to work and feel a little bit free. We don’t want to live under pressure or to wonder whether the government is going to knock on the door in the middle of the night.”
In a wooded area along the bank of the Rio Grande, volunteers have set up tanks of water and wooden huts for changing. The water is undrinkable and must be boiled. Some families cook on makeshift stoves.
When it rains, residents trek through the mud in inadequate shoes. A young girl wearing flip flops with no socks underneath told The Herald that she didn’t have any other shoes. Another young girl next to her chimed in to say that she’s looking for another coat.
At the edge of the camp, a young man took a break from work to share his story. Ramón, who asked The Herald not to use his real name, came from Nicaragua three months ago with his wife and 7-year-old son, where he worked as a rancher.
Ramón’s father-in-law participated in peaceful protests that began on April 18, 2018 in Nicaragua. The mass demonstrations began response to social security cuts and an increase in taxes authorized by President Daniel Ortega.
Reports indicated that over 30 people were killed by government forces over the course of five days. The demonstrations continued, and protesters called on Ortega to resign. Advocates argued that Ortega had been unconstitutionally re-elected for a third term in 2016.
The family started getting threats as a result of their participation in the demonstrations. “He didn’t take them seriously,” Ramón said. “Men entered the house during a family celebration on Father’s Day and dragged him out. When we walked outside, his body was on the ground. These are militarized groups that work on behalf of the government and the police. My wife and his son saw it.”
Ramón’s family is Catholic and was told by the vigilantes not to hold a traditional nine-day mass. They were also threatened when they tried to take his father-in-law’s body to the hospital.
“They are serious threats. They’ll do it. They pass on their motorcycles with their guns, and they’ll say things to you. You can’t go to the authorities because the police tell these groups that you’re talking to them,” he said.
Ramón’s son stopped going to school after the incident. The family left shortly thereafter. U.S. authorities put them in “the freezer” after arriving at the checkpoint and separated Ramón from his wife and son for three days.
He was able to borrow a cell phone to call a family member living in North Carolina upon arriving at the camp in Matamoros. He points to a light post where a local church has set up a connection that allows camp residents to charge their devices.
“The other night when it rained, my son didn’t sleep. It sounded like gun shots,” said Ramón, who says the family is traumatized.
The family does not have a lawyer. “I worry about my upcoming court date; I’m afraid that they’ll give us another one and we’ll be here for months,” he said.
At the other end of the camp, a young couple sits on the bank of the river with their infant daughter. They’re waiting for another family to finish washing clothes before climbing down onto a small patch of sand along the river.
The couple is from a town near Acapulco, Mexico and fled after gang members knocked on their door and tried to force the young man to sell drugs for them.
“It has been brutal, freezing,” said the woman, holding her baby. The couple is afraid to leave the camp because if they miss their pending court date, they’ll be placed at the bottom of the list.
“We have to ask for everything. But, we feel a bit safer than we were,” she said. “Every day they’re killing people. It has gotten worse over the years.”
Just down the path, a family of women who fled southern Mexico said that increasing levels of violence prompted them to travel north to seek asylum, as well.
“At home, they kidnap women and force them to sell drugs or work as prostitutes,” said a member of the family holding her granddaughter.
The women are worried, as they’ve heard that officials will deport families who don’t have young children. Additionally, they said they’ve been discriminated against because they’re not from Central America.
“My mother is 80 years old and it was freezing,” one of them said. “My daughter had a throat infection, and her daughter was also sick. The people giving out blankets told us we could find them somewhere else.”
The family went to a local shelter, where they were told there was no room. They were taken in by a local church instead. “There were empty beds at the first shelter,” she said.
“We can’t go back. But I wonder where we’re going to end up at if the people in our own country are treating us this way,” she says before returning to her tent.
Valley Morning Star reporter Elsa Cavazos contributed to this report.