Fear spread at an immigrant encampment in the border city of Matamoros, Mexico, Friday morning when a representative from the nation's child protective services agency threatened to forcibly take children from their parents if they didn't move to a shelter.
Esmeralda, a Guatemalan asylum-seeker with a 13-year-old daughter who declined to give her full name, said a man who identified himself as a representative of the National System for Integral Family Development (DIF) approached her and offered help. When Esmeralda declined to give him her information, the DIF representative said he could take her daughter if they didn't go to a shelter the city had recently opened.
"I have the ability with the law, which I have in hand and can show you, to collect the girl, take her to a shelter, or repatriate her to her place of origin," the man said in a recording provided to BuzzFeed News. "If you don't do it voluntarily I have the ability to do it by force."
The representative maintained children shouldn't live in the encampment and that it was his job to protect the kids.
By then, a group of immigrants had surrounded the unidentified DIF representative who asked him how he'd like it if someone came to his home and took his child. Others told him he wouldn't be able to take the children because there were too many of them.
The DIF representative left, but not before giving the group a warning.
"If I come back and see kids, I’m going to take them,” he said.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Miroslava de la Garza Luna, director of DIF in Matamoros, said a group of 12 people, including social workers, psychologists, and medical professionals, spoke with parents and offered the families space at the shelter.
"Without any desire to harm anyone, we simply offered the shelter to families who have minors," said de la Garza Luna. "However, I would like you to know that not a single child was taken. Because, as I said, it was not the intention."
Esmeralda told BuzzFeed News: "He intimidated me. I was so scared of losing my daughter. I'll do anything to protect her. Our children are the most precious thing we have."
A growing number of immigrants and asylum-seekers are living in tents in the streets of Matamoros at the foot of an international bridge that connects to Brownsville, Texas. The immigrants were sent back to Mexico under a Trump administration policy that forces them to wait there while their cases are adjudicated.
The US has sent back more than 55,000 people under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as "Remain in Mexico." However, only about 20,000 of them are still in Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
While there are now tanks of clean water and makeshift portable toilets, the people in the ever-growing encampment live in squalid conditions. Some bathe in the Rio Grande river, which is also used as a bathroom, and the temperatures are starting to drop.
City officials have been trying to convince people to go to a shelter they opened at a recreation center that's about a 30-minute walk from the encampment. Most of them have refused to go. Some said they’re afraid the support from US volunteers won't reach them there, that they'll be forced to stay inside the shelter, or they will be pressured by Mexican officials to return to their home countries, mostly in Central America.
Last month, 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.
After the immigrants shut down the Gateway International Bridge, Matamoros city officials offered to provide them a shelter. Some of them balked at the offer, saying it was too little. too late, and that they didn't trust officials. Others, though, accepted an invitation to speak to city officials about their concerns.
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 them down.
In addition to squalid conditions and long wait times, asylum-seekers returned to Mexico also face the threat of violence and kidnappings.
Glady Cañas, an immigrant rights advocate in Matamoros, said threatening to forcibly take away kids was not the way to build trust with the immigrants.
"That's no way to convince someone to go to a shelter," Cañas told BuzzFeed News. "It's only going to upset parents who are going to defend their kids however they can."
Edwin, a 42-year-old asylum-seeker from Honduras with an 8-year-old daughter, said he didn't want to go to the shelter because he doubted US attorneys who go to the encampment to offer them legal aid, medical providers, and volunteers who feed them would travel to the shelter.
Until some people shut down the bridge, the Mexican government had shown little interest in helping them, other than to offer them buses that would take them to the Mexico–Guatemala border, Edwin said.
"I know we're living in bad conditions, but we don't have another option," Edwin told BuzzFeed News. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to give my daughter to the government. She's all I have."