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Fernando and his pregnant wife stared out at the river that separates the US and Mexico and considered wading across its treacherous waters with their two children after waiting in a dangerous border city for over a year with no end in sight.
They were desperate.
The 35-year-old and his family had been sent back to the Mexican city of Matamoros in the fall of 2019 under a Trump administration policy that forced more than 66,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers to wait south of the border while a US immigration judge ruled on their case. Immigrants were handed documents with a future court date, often months away, and largely left to fend for themselves in dangerous border cities despite assurances from US officials that Mexico would protect them.
At the hearings held inside tent courts built along the border, it was not uncommon for the immigration cases to be rescheduled because the applicants hadn’t completed their paperwork or needed more time to find an attorney. Cases dragged on for months, and in Matamoros, thousands of immigrants and asylum-seekers, many from Central America, Cuba, and Venezuela, rode out the wait living in donated tents in city streets and parks. The threat of being kidnapped by criminal groups for ransom was constant, immigrants relied on donated food and clothes, and people initially bathed in the Rio Grande, which sometimes led to rashes. The wait was difficult, but at least there was the promise of a future court date.
That’s gone now. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration stopped holding what are known as MPP hearings indefinitely, and combined with dangerous conditions inside the camp, immigrants have been driven to try and enter the US undetected.
“People are getting more and more desperate,” Fernando told BuzzFeed News. “What the US has done has only blocked legal immigration. The people who wanted to go through the process and attend court hearings, a good portion of them have crossed illegally.”
That desperation has forced some to pay smugglers to get them into the US, a route immigrant families generally avoided because they couldn’t afford it and of how dangerously remote the routes are in order to avoid being caught by Border Patrol agents. Others have been sending their kids across alone, not a new practice but complicated by a new coronavirus policy that puts them at risk of being quickly expelled from the US. Some immigrants have been paying criminal organizations that control the flow of people and drugs across the border just for permission to cross the Rio Grande on their own. Many will be caught and immediately sent back.
Gaby Zavala, founder of Resource Center Matamoros, an organization that helps immigrants in the border town, said the camp, which at its height numbered 2,500 occupants, now has about 685 people.
"They've lost hope in the system and are abandoning their entire asylum case in favor of human smugglers," Zavala told BuzzFeed News. "They've abandoned the idea of ever being able to access a system that allows them to gain asylum."
Immigrants who haven't tried to get into the US have gone back to their home countries or started to build new lives in Mexico, Zavala said.
Fernando and his family decided not to cross illegally, unsure of what impact it would have on their case if they’re caught by Border Patrol agents and not wanting to risk harming their unborn child crossing a river that has claimed countless lives. They decided to continue living at the camp, but that came with its own concerns. The camp, once a refuge, has turned into a dangerous cage since the pandemic.
Made up of hundreds of tents and tarps held together by string, it sits on the banks of the Rio Grande. People were able to enter freely in the past, but since the spring, the entire camp has been encircled by a fence put up by the Mexican government, which carefully controls who enters and leaves the camp, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
Groups like Zavala’s continue to help immigrants in and outside the camp, Team Brownsville and Angry Tias and Abuelas continue to feed people, and Global Response Management still provides free medical care. The restrictions have made the process of getting into the camp more tedious, even for groups that have been working with immigrants at the camp since its inception, Zavala said, with officials delaying them, from dropping off supplies, like firewood or tents, to workers who clean portable bathrooms.
“It’s a lot of red tape that wasn’t there before,” Zavala said.
No new immigrants are allowed inside now either, Zavala said, which presents a problem because the few shelters in the area are closed because of the pandemic. Zavala and her organization have started helping families move into the city of Matamoros, some of whom started the process of seeking asylum in Mexico. A costly endeavor that Zavala is hoping to find money for after funding from an organization fell through, but one she believes will help immigrants lead more stable lives in the current landscape.
The sense of protection the camp offered is also eroding. Seven dead bodies have washed onto the shores of the river near the camp. One of them was Rodrigo Castro, a leader of the Guatemalans at the camp.
“The fear inside the camp has increased,” Zavala said. “People there are more vulnerable now to violence and aggression.”
Gelson, who declined to give his full name fearing reprisal from US immigration authorities, crossed the border illegally with his pregnant wife after about one year of waiting in Matamoros. The final push factor 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 migrants," Gelson said. "It's psychologically traumatizing and we could feel it in our hearts that the situation at the camp was changing."
The presence of organized crime at the camp has grown since the pandemic started and the fence went up. People suspect foul play in Castro’s death, but few immigrants want to talk about it.
The immigrants who first started living in an outdoor plaza after being returned under MPP last year were almost immediately seen as a sore eye to local Mexican officials and residents, despite the federal government agreeing to receive them from the US. The immigrants were largely left to fend for themselves against the elements and criminals.
Over time, the number of people living in tents on the plaza and surrounding streets continued to grow and the National Institute of Migration (INM), Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency, made them move to the banks of the Rio Grande, where immigrants worried they would be out of sight and out of mind. There was a lot of pushback to the idea from immigrants, though eventually they moved and the tent city continued to grow and develop infrastructure like bathrooms, wash stations, and showers.
Today, INM carefully controls who is allowed into the camp through the one entrance and exit and doesn’t allow reporters inside.
The current set up makes it harder to hold Mexican and US authorities accountable for conditions inside the camp because advocates and journalists can’t see what it’s like for themselves, said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.
“One of the main reasons people decided to stay at the camp was because of the visibility and attention,” Leutert told BuzzFeed News. “You don’t have that anymore.”
INM has also been refusing to renew immigrants' visitor permits if they don’t have a US court date, which is the case for those who lost their case and want to appeal, and no one can live in the camp without it, Leutert said.
“They just feel like there’s no support anymore,” she added.
The lack of support and conditions pushed one woman to send her daughter across as an unaccompanied minor recently, Leutert said. Entire families being smuggled undetected is harder because smugglers don’t want to take children in trailers, and a route that takes entire families undetected through ranches near the border is too expensive for most immigrants at $13,000 to $14,000, Leutert said.
It’s more likely that parents will try to send the children first through safer channels alone and then try to reunite with them in the US, Leutert said.
“When seeking asylum is not an option anymore and smuggling is really expensive immigrants find workarounds,” she said. “People find holes like they always do.”
The dead bodies, fence, and restrictions have made the immigrants feel more scared, isolated, and forgotten, said Sister Norma Pimentel, the nun and executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who also works with immigrants at the camp.
“The Mexican government seems to be using COVID-19 to their advantage to be able to control the camp, no new immigrants are allowed into the camp and they can very easily pull out anyone who doesn’t agree with them,” Pimentel told BuzzFeed News. “They’re going to completely choke the camp.”
INM did not immediately respond to request for comment about conditions at the camp.
Meanwhile, immigrants for the most part have avoided going into the city because they would be more exposed to organized crime, but parents with young or teenage daughters are more open to moving out of the camp, where they feel more vulnerable, Pimentel said.
“Parents can’t do anything about it if they are attacked and taken advantage of,” Pimentel said. “It’s up in the air whether it’s safer or not to move into the city. Some prefer to stay at the camp because they have the support of each other, a community.”
Pimentel said there are about 4,000 immigrants living in the interior of Matamoros.
Even before MPP hearings were postponed indefinitely, immigrants knew the odds were stacked against them in terms of winning asylum in the US.
"The MPP process is a lie," said Gelson, the immigrant who left the camp for the US. "Not only can you not win asylum from Mexico, but you also can't work or afford to pay an attorney to help you."
After Gelson was sent back to Matamoros by US border officers last year, he and others slept in an outdoor plaza with other immigrants. Five people who traveled into the city to look for work were reportedly kidnapped by organized crime and help for ransom. Gelson has no family in the US, who can usually afford to pay a ransom for immigrants, but his family in Honduras can't afford it.
A State Department advisory for the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which includes cities like Matamoros, warns US residents about dangers when traveling to the area, noting murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault by organized crime are common.
"People say we're lazy, but you can't move from the camp," Gelson said. "If I get kidnapped, what happens to my daughter?"
Gelson and his family left Honduras following threats from gangs.
"The criminal network is entwined with our government, there's nowhere to hide in such a small country," he said. "That's why we endure hot days, cold nights, and the fear of kidnapping in Mexico."
With death threats in Honduras, dead bodies of immigrants being discovered in the river by the camp, and no end in sight for postponement of MPP hearings, Gelson said getting to the US was the only option that made sense.
"People are looking for any way to get out of the camp," Gelson said. "The people there need encouragement, they need hope, because right now there's not a lot of it there."