MATAMOROS — Thousands of immigrants hoping to get asylum in the United States spend months in this tent city in Mexico while they wait for their cases to be reviewed. They cook on makeshift stoves, survive on donations, and live in fear of kidnapping and violence if they venture too far from the camp.
Many are fleeing violence in Central America, and they hang on to a shred of hope that the US will let them in. Under the Trump administration, though, very few have been successful.
But even in these dire and at times hopeless circumstances, people have managed to do the improbable — fall deeply in love. Inside the Matamoros camp, an 18-year-old is now expecting her first child with a man she met there. And a woman who traumatically survived a kidnapping while waiting in Mexico has found stability with a man who is relentlessly optimistic.
More than 55,000 immigrants in the past year have been forced into a seemingly endless, dangerous wait. It’s hard to know how it can end, and it’s harder to know who to trust. It’s in these challenging conditions that these four immigrants found each other.
Adania and Adrian
“It’s not easy being here — sometimes you don’t have enough to eat,” said Adania, an 18-year-old from El Salvador who’s trying to get into the US. “There are people who make you forget that you’re going through a bad moment in your life or that you’re depressed. They help you forget that you’re sleeping outside.”
For her, that person is Adrian, a skinny 19-year-old Mexican national with close-cropped hair who’s also trying to start an immigration case in the US. In November, Adania was cooking a traditional Central American breakfast when she saw Adrian and admired the tattoos on his arms — a greenish feather, a vintage watch. She was slightly miffed when he turned down the meal of fried plantains, beans, and eggs, but a few days later she agreed to go on a first date with him. It was on the chilly banks of the Rio Grande river, where they sat in a hammock and talked until 4 a.m. For a moment, Adania forgot they were living in tents.
“He asked if he could kiss me,” Adania said. “I told him kisses aren’t asked for — they’re stolen.”
Then in early January, Adrian stood in front of the screen at a nearby movie theater, about a 25-minute walk from the camp, and asked Adania to marry him. She ran down and said yes.
She’s now about 5 weeks pregnant.
“I was really happy when we found out she was pregnant because I’ll finally have something that is only mine and with a person I love so much,” Adrian said.
The couple, who asked that their last names not be used for fear of retaliation, don't typically venture far from the encampment in Matamoros. But dates still happen. She’ll do her hair and makeup, and they’ll take an evening stroll to a park 20 minutes away.
“It makes me sound like I’m a diva, but it’s part of distracting myself and feeling good,” Adania said.
Adania also feels safer walking with Adrian because he’s Mexican. Before meeting him, she wouldn’t have dared walk to the park.
“My dad makes fun of me on the phone and tells me, ‘You went all the way to Matamoros just to fall in love — and with a Mexican no less. You’re going to end up talking like them,’” Adania said. “I tell him I’m just lucky.”
But because they come from different countries, US immigration policies could end up separating them. Once Adrian’s number is called and he presents himself to CBP officers, he likely won’t be sent back to Mexico like Adania was. Mexicans can’t be sent back to the country they’re fleeing from, so if his number is called and Adania is still waiting in Mexico for her case to be completed, Adrian said he’ll let people behind him in line cut ahead until they can both be in the US.
“It does make me worry more about the possibility that we could be separated,” he said.
Adania is also worried about the prospect of being separated and half-jokingly asks Adrian if he’s going to dump her for a gringa in the US. But Adrian assures her they’ll figure out a way to stay together.
“If they tell me I can go to the United States, but they can’t, I wouldn’t go,” he said.
Brenda and Pablo
In another part of the camp, 25-year-old Brenda is slapping masa between her hands and placing it on a griddle sitting on top of a mud stove. Six months ago, she fled her home in El Salvador after local gangs decided her son, who is 10, was old enough to start working overnights as their lookout. She made it to the US border but, like thousands of immigrants before her, was turned back and forced to wait in Mexico while her asylum case was reviewed.
In mid-September, days before she was scheduled to attend her hearing at tent courts the Trump administration built across the border from the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, Brenda and her son were kidnapped by cartel members. For reasons unknown to Brenda, after about nine hours, one of the men told her they would let her leave if she handed over all of her money. Before she was released, the cartel took photos of the pair along with biographical information and told them if they ever returned to Nuevo Laredo they would be killed on the spot. She left and missed her court hearing.
For weeks after the kidnapping, Brenda refused to come out of the room she shared with other women at a shelter in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico. But Pablo, a Cuban immigrant trying to get into the US who worked in the shelter’s kitchen, started telling her about his life, why he fled Cuba, how he was an only child with separated parents, and that he too had been kidnapped. She told him about why she left El Salvador, that she was a single parent, and began to cry when she got to the kidnapping.
“He told me, ‘Don’t cry, it’s OK. Everything happens for a reason and new things are going to happen for you soon,’” said Brenda, who also asked that her last name not be used.
She was drawn to his optimism — he always made her laugh and brought her Chinese food and hamburgers from outside the shelter when she was too afraid to leave. After Brenda’s uncle in El Salvador stopped sending her money, Pablo pitched in from his construction jobs.
Eventually, they began a romantic relationship, but in secret to avoid violating house rules. They had hushed conversations and quick kisses away from prying eyes and the shelter’s security cameras. Late at night, sleeping in separate rooms, they sent each other heart emoji–filled texts, saying “I love you” or “I wish I was next to you.” In front of others, they’d pretend to barely know each other.
“We were reliving that excitement you feel when you’re young and falling in love,” Brenda said. “Reliving that was very beautiful.”
Still, she worried Pablo was only interested in her to pass the time and would leave her once he won his asylum case. After the fathers of her two children left her, Brenda made a pact with God. If she was going to be alone for the rest of her life, fine. But if she wasn’t, she asked God to send her a good man she could trust. Brenda had already left a piece of her heart, her 4-year-old daughter, back in El Salvador with her mother and couldn't bear another heartbreak.
“I used to talk to myself like I was crazy or pray, but now I have someone who understands what I’m going through and supports me when the sadness over missing my daughter overwhelms me,” she said.
Brenda moved to the Matamoros encampment earlier this month to be closer to an attorney who is hoping to reopen her US immigration case that was sidelined by the kidnapping. The camp is also closer to another set of tent courts the Trump administration opened right across the Rio Grande where judges are hearing asylum cases like hers.
Pablo is still fighting his immigration case and hopes that if he gains asylum, Brenda will be able to do the same or find another way into the US. If not, they’ll move to Mexico City where he has a cousin and send for Brenda’s daughter. Until then, Pablo plans on moving to the Matamoros camp with Brenda after finishing a construction job in Reynosa.
It’s hard to be optimistic and hopeful when you’re stuck in limbo and living under tarps, Brenda said, but Pablo keeps her going.
“He tells me we can’t look back. ‘We have to push forward together,’” she said. “‘You’re here with me and we’re not going to die. We’re going to build a new life together wherever that may be.’” ●