MATAMOROS, Mexico — Asylum-seekers frustrated over increasingly squalid conditions at the southern border — where they have been forced to wait until their US immigration court dates — shut down a normally busy international border crossing Thursday.
At about 1:30 a.m., a group of up to 300 immigrants marched to the middle of the Gateway International Bridge, which connects Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, and sat down in the roadway, blocking traffic in both directions for nearly 15 hours. The group remained there through the afternoon until shortly after 4 p.m. when US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officials reopened the bridge.
On the southern side of the bridge is an ever-growing encampment of asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico until their immigration cases are adjudicated under the Trump administration's "remain in Mexico" policy. More than 51,000 asylum-seekers have been returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) across the southern border.
In Matamoros, where about 1,000 asylum-seekers sent back under the program are living on the streets under tents and blankets, many rely on donated food.
Celia, a 42-year-old asylum-seeker from Honduras, said living in the encampment is difficult, in part, because there is no clean water to bathe in or to wash clothes. Immigrants often use the Rio Grande, the dangerous and polluted waterway that has claimed the lives of immigrants attempting to cross. Adults and children have developed rashes after bathing in the river.
"This is an injustice," Celia said.
All of the immigrants who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story declined to use their full names due to concerns for their safety.
Other immigrants said they were frustrated by the lengthy duration they must wait for their asylum cases to be decided by an immigration judge. Some who believed they would receive a determination at their first court date, despite proceedings requiring multiple hearings, have grown desperate after being sent back to Matamoros with court dates weeks or months in the future.
Sara, a 35-year-old Honduran asylum-seeker who was among the protesters on the bridge, said she's been living on the streets of Matamoros for two months with her three children.
"If [the US] is going to give us an opportunity we want them to tell us because I have three kids I have to fight for," Sara said. "They keep telling us we have to wait longer and longer. When will it end?"
Critics of MPP have said forcing asylum-seekers to wait with few resources and access to legal information in dangerous Mexican cities like Matamoros is part of the Trump administration's plan to wear down immigrants.
In addition to squalid conditions and long wait times, asylum-seekers returned to Mexico also face the threat of violence and kidnappings. A State Department advisory for the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which includes cities like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, warns US citizens about threats to safety when traveling to the area, noting that murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault are common.
Asylum-seekers returned to Mexico under MPP have reported more than 340 incidents of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other violent attacks, according to a report from Human Rights First.
At a White House press briefing on Tuesday, Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of CBP said Mexico was providing humanitarian protection to asylum-seekers.
“With MPP, migrants are receiving due process and protection while the United States is restoring integrity to our immigration system,” Morgan told reporters.
Also on the bridge was Jilma, a 26-year-old Honduran asylum-seeker who was sent to Nuevo Laredo after presenting herself at the US border. Along with a group of other immigrants, she was transported to a shelter at the direction of Mexican immigration agents.
Along the way, the bus was stopped by federal police, Jilma said, who ordered all of the immigrants off the vehicle. Moments later the group was boarded onto trucks at gunpoint by men who took them to a large house with about 300 kidnapped immigrants. When Jilma and two other women couldn't provide phone numbers for family members who could pay a ransom, some of the men took them to another room and took turns raping them, she said.
"While they raped us they told us they would do the same things to our children," Jilma told BuzzFeed News. "They let us go, but before they left they took photos of us and told us to never return to Nuevo Laredo."
Jilma has since made her way to Matamoros where she hopes she will be safe, but is fearful of returning to Nuevo Laredo in January for her court hearing on the other side of the border.
Because the protest shutdown the bridge, asylum-seekers who had hearings inside newly erected tent courts on the other side of the Rio Grande were unable to see the immigration judge and CBP said their hearings would be rescheduled to a later date, potentially months down the line.
"It is so hard to get ahead," said Claire Noone, an immigration attorney who has worked with asylum-seekers in Matamoros. "Protesting abhorrent conditions leads to individuals being forced to exist in those conditions longer."
Henri Vinet-Martin, another immigration attorney who was worked with immigrants in Matamoros, said the other "travesty" is asylum-seekers in MPP find it nearly impossible to find US attorneys who can take their cases.
"How can you even think about your case when you're trying to figure out how to feed your baby?" Vinet-Martin told BuzzFeed News. "They're being denied access to their right to have an attorney not paid for by the US government."
One estimate from July found that only 1.2% of MPP cases that had already been decided had legal representation. The odds of an asylum-seeker winning their case increase exponentially if they have an attorney.
At one point the mayor of Matamoros, Mario López Villarreal, went to speak with the protesters about their concerns of living on the streets and, in an attempt to talk them off the bridge, offered them space at a shelter. Some of the immigrants balked at the offer while others accepted an invitation to speak to city officials about their concerns.
"He's never come to speak to us and only came after we shut down the bridge," said Alex, a 25-year-old from El Salvador. "I don't trust him."