MATAMOROS, Mexico — Emma walked her 16-year-old son to the banks of the Rio Grande River and did what dozens of other parents have started to do, she sent him to the United States alone.
The 42-year-old Honduran mother watched her son put his clothes in a plastic bag and swim across to turn himself in to Border Patrol agents. Before taking off last week, he promised to one day make enough money to buy her a washing machine.
"I could feel his fear. I could see the fear growing in his eyes every day that passed," Emma told BuzzFeed News. "He didn't want to stay here, but he also didn't want to go back to Honduras."
After asking the US for asylum, thousands of parents like Emma and their children have been sent back to Mexico to wait while their immigration cases are completed under a Trump administration policy known as "Remain in Mexico." But the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy doesn't apply to unaccompanied minors, which means children like Emma's son can't be returned.
In the town of Matamoros, Mexico, more than 2,600 immigrants are living on the streets in an encampment they're afraid of leaving out of fear of being kidnapped or assaulted.
Rather than wait months in squalid and dangerous conditions before their immigration cases are resolved, some parents are sending their children alone to the US, a practice first reported by the Intercept.
One immigrant advocate in Matamoros estimates that 40 to 50 children in MPP have decided, sometimes without parental consent, to go to the US without their parents.
"CBP continually experiences ebbs and flows with migration patterns due to many factors, but in each case CBP officers consider the sum total of all facts and circumstances and everyone is processed in accordance with the law," an official with the agency said in a statement.
BuzzFeed News spoke to multiple asylum-seekers who agreed to only use their first name. In the case of Emma's son, death awaited him in Honduras after he refused repeatedly to deliver drugs for a gang, she said. They arrived at the US–Mexico border in September but were sent back to Matamoros, where every day the hope of winning protection in the US dwindled.
In the last few months, bits of news of the Trump administration's latest policies aimed at making asylum harder reached the camp. Even if immigrants didn't fully grasp the changes, they knew getting asylum was only getting harder. Emma and her son didn't want to take the risk of ultimately being denied refuge and being sent back to Central America.
Emma, who spends most of her time inside her tent with her 7- and 10-year-old sons out of fear, said she often stares at the space where her son used to sleep.
"I miss talking to him, but I'm comforted knowing he's safer now," she said while fighting back tears.
Glady Cañas, an immigrant rights advocate in Matamoros, said the conditions at the camp and the months of waiting in Mexico are becoming too much for some families.
"These families are desperate," Cañas told BuzzFeed News. "I don't recommend that they do it, but I understand why they're sending their kids off alone."
Since the summer, when MPP was implemented in Matamoros, immigrants have been sleeping on the streets because the one shelter at the time wasn't big enough to house the number of people the US was sending back.
In October, about 300 people, frustrated over the living conditions and time they have to wait in Mexico before getting a decision from a US immigration judge, shut down a normally busy international border crossing in Matamoros for 15 hours. In response to some of the demands, the city opened up a shelter, but it only had the capacity to hold a sliver of the people, and most immigrants were too distrustful of the local government to go — they had heard rumors of officials forcing or coercing immigrants to leave on buses for southern Mexico.
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 that murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault are common.
With limited access to clean water, some immigrants have been bathing in the Rio Grande River, which is also used as a bathroom. When Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro visited the camp, an animal carcass floated in the Rio Grande as people bathed. One 17-year-old girl nearly drowned when she was bathing in the river and was dragged downstream by the river's powerful undercurrent.
Temperatures are also starting to drop, and doctors working at the camp are increasingly treating people with respiratory issues and infections that are made worse by being exposed to the elements.
Helen Perry, operations director of Global Response Management, an organization providing free health care to immigrants and asylum-seekers, fears there will be a flu outbreak and has been trying to get funding to give people vaccines.
"Kids are living in less than ideal living situations because of MPP," Perry told BuzzFeed News. "They are routinely exposed to a lack of clean drinking water and exposed to the elements on really cold nights."
Salvador, the 45-year-old father of the teenage girl who almost drowned in the Rio Grande, said his daughter also recently crossed the bridge connecting Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros to ask for asylum as an unaccompanied minor.
Since his daughter Breni nearly drowned in September, Salvador said she wasn't the same. She was always weak and fainted twice. When they'd go to the hospital, he said they were ignored or quickly sent off with medication that didn't help.
"God brought her back to me once, I don't want to risk her drowning again," Salvador said. "I told her it was her choice. What can I do? Over there, they give them better health care."
Salvador, who works as a parking attendant for businesses near the encampment, said his daughter was still at a shelter operated by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. He hasn't spoken to Breni since she left, but her mother in Honduras has.
"I miss her. Your children are everything and you want to be with them always, but you also want what's best for them," Salvador said.
Carlos, a 40-year-old asylum-seeking father from Honduras, said he felt as if he had no choice but to send his 13-year-old daughter alone to the US.
"I know it's a gamble," he said, "but we all came here for a reason — to give our kids a better future — and right now, this is our best chance to give them that."