This is a difficult story to share.
This January I joined a group of photographers on a service trip to Brownsville, TX as part of Worth Manifesto, to deliver 5 tons of donations generously provided by Pittsburghers for the refugee camp directly over the border in Matamoros, Mexico. We walked the supplies over the border one backpack at a time.
Before January, I did not realize there were refugee camps at our borders. There are people living in squalid conditions, in tents on concrete and dirt for many months at a time, waiting patiently for their chance to legally enter the United States and join their families here. And I know this because I saw it with my own eyes.
(Photo by Michael Santiago, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The trip from Brownsville to Matamoros is a short walk over the Rio Grande River, and the bridge deposits you directly into the camp. Tents originate on the street and extend up into the forested area along the river’s edge. Walking through the area feels a bit like a typical campsite, with the smell of fire and clean clothing hanging from trees to dry. But it’s quiet. Despite the presence of 2500 people, there is very little activity. Families sit and watch us walk through. They welcome the diversion of talking to us, their faces light up as they share their stories and talk about their court dates and give hugs, and then we walk on and they sit back down and continue to wait. Life feels very much on pause here.
These families are seeking asylum in the United States because of persecution in their home countries. They have traveled to the US, turned themselves into Border Patrol, and applied for asylum status. Once they are assigned a court date, the government sends them over the border to Mexico, where they must await their first of many court dates. Because these people are not able to work in Mexico, local humanitarian organizations have stepped in to donate tents and provide meals for them.
Prior to July 2019, asylum seekers were allowed to remain in the US while awaiting their court dates. In July the US government’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) went into effect in Brownsville and officials began sending families across the border to Mexico while their cases were processed. Read more about the “Remain in Mexico” policy here.
This is a worsening problem.
In August 2019, there were 50-60 tents in Matamoros. As of January 2020 there are estimated to be over 2500 migrants awaiting asylum claims while living in tents on the ground. With the application process taking between 6 months to several years, there is no end in sight. This impromptu “tent city” has none of the amenities that you might assume a campground would have:
- They wash their bodies and clothing in the river because although the Mexican government recently installed a handful of showers, the water is gone before sunrise.
- There are 5 bathroom stalls for 2500 people.
- There is only one hand washing station.
- There is no clean drinking water. They have been boiling river water.
- When the river floods, feces backs up into the camp. Dysentery is rampant.
- Matamoros is full of drug cartels and the US Government has assigned the area a Level 4 – DO NOT TRAVEL ban due to crime and kidnapping.
We spoke directly with an 11-yr-old Honduran girl Yeleny who lives in the camp with her mother. She told of the cartel hawk who walked through the camps looking for girls of a certain height: “When we saw King, we ran and we hid in the tent and didn’t come back out. My friend’s Mom told us to do that whenever we see him and to not talk to him.” For Yeleny’s safety we did not photograph her face, but Michael Santiago of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did take a faceless portrait of her, which he shared on his IG account. No child should have to hide herself from sex traffickers.
At the start of every fiscal year our President proposes a cap on the number of refugees admitted to the United States. In 2020 the ceiling is set to 18,000– almost half of 2019’s cap. Since the program’s inception in 1980, this is a historic low. Currently, the United States is approving fewer than 1% of its applicants for asylum, down from 35% in 2018 (which itself had been a 6-year low). The future is bleak for these displaced people; and yet they have nothing to go back to, so they wait patiently in wretched conditions for the chance to legally enter our country.
When asylum seekers petition for asylum, it is common for the US government to confiscate their possessions, down to the shoelaces on their feet, before depositing them over the Mexican border. There they will be waiting months- if not years- in donated tents, and they have no economic means to support themselves. There is no support from the United States government and it took over 6 months for the Mexican government to even provide running water. In my four days at the camp, I never once saw police presence. Moreover, the people of Matamoros are growing increasingly frustrated with the presence of the camp; shortly after we left the area, there was an organized protest against the “tent city” and the government was pressured to move them further along the river off the street (into a potential flood zone).
Since asylum seekers are unable to legally work in Mexico, they are surviving solely on the generosity of strangers. There are NGOs like Global Response Management who have set up a medical tent on site. People like Gaby Zavala, a Brownsville resident who was moved to create the Resource Center for Asylum Seekers in Matamoros. From Pittsburgh-based Worth Manifesto, who shipped down 5 tons of donations and provided healthy meals for the asylum seekers. And Felicia Rangel-Samponaro who created the Sidewalk School, using donated funds to hire asylum seekers to teach the children. On the sidewalk, because that is the only space that they have.
(photo of Felicia Rangel-Samponaro in the apartment she rents for the asylum-seeking teachers)
I spent a day with Felicia and Victor, who together run the Sidewalk School. These Americans are making SUCH an impact in this dark situation- fostering a sense of dignity and purpose through education. They are genuinely altruistic people.
The first day I visited the refugee camp I left with so little hope and so many tears. Half of the people in the camp are children, and they do not hesitate to share the horrifying stories of their past, their reasons for fleeing their countries. Then they draw pictures of houses with trees and fruit and talk about when they leave this place.
And then I came back and met people like Felicia and Victor and though I could not forget the despair, I also felt their HOPE.
Hope is what feeds these people.
I met a Honduran man named Ernesto, who spoke eloquently about his respect for the law, and his patience in waiting out the vetting process to enter the United States. Because he trusts the United States law is upstanding, unlike that of his own country, which he claims is corrupt. He does not speak English and he does not have a lawyer because he cannot afford one (Immigrants in immigration court do not have a right to government-appointed counsel.). He simply trusts the process.
Asylum seekers are five times more likely to win a case for asylum if they have legal counsel.
Some families in the camp, expecting a long stay, build cooking enclosures out of mud. Some have contrived a mechanism for catching fish in the river using empty soda bottles. Other families have banded together and rotate laundry duties, or take turns making rice and beans. They do everything they can to try to feel normal. And they share their stories of beatings and murder and rape with me like we are talking about a book we both read. Every time I turn around I am faced with the resiliency of these people.
While we were in Matamoros, we befriended a woman Taylor* who has been waiting for at least 5 months in the camp with her two children. Taylor’s smile lights up her face and welcomes you in. Her husband arrived at the border first and received a court date, but he had to return to protect her and the kids in her travel- missing his court date. As a result he will never receive asylum into the US under current laws. Taylor’s next court date is in February 2020. Because they feared for the safety of their children, together they decided to allow the children to cross into the United States alone, and their son and daughter are now in the custody of the foster care system after spending time in a child detention center. Taylor’s sister-in-law lives in Pittsburgh, but it is unlikely the children will be placed with her.
Under MPP, unaccompanied alien children are exempt from the Remain in Mexico policy and they are allowed to stay. The number of unaccompanied minors who are entering the United States is growing.
Since October 2019 [until Jan 2020], more than 350 children have been sent across the bridge from Matamoros alone. The January weekend after we flew home from Mexico, a group of attorneys from the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights held a workshop for parents in the refugee camp to explain the process that children go through once they enter the US as unaccompanied minors. The attorneys stressed the emotional toll that the separation takes on the children and explained that there were no guarantees that their family members in the US would meet the requirements necessary to qualify as a sponsor, and that the process could take many months. How bad would things have to be for you to send your child, alone, into an unknown country’s foster system with no guarantee that you’d ever see them again?
That night, 3 more children were sent alone to cross the bridge.
There are no mental health services available to asylum seekers in Matamoros. Seriously ill children are lucky if they receive necessary medical treatment at ALL, let alone for anxiety or depression. This is why organizations like the Sidewalk School that provide hope and education for the children are so critical at the camp, especially with teachers as bright and engaging as Ray Rodriguez.
One of the teachers at the Sidewalk School from the very beginning, Ray is a much beloved figure at the camp. As a former English Professor in Cuba and multilinguist, he also volunteers his time as a translator for GRM in the medical tent. His smile is pretty special and the kids all love working with him. Ray was in the Matamoros camp for 9 months and attended FOUR court hearings, one of which was postponed, before he was SUCCESSFULLY GRANTED ASYLUM (YAY!!), but he never got the opportunity to set foot in the United States after his hearing. Instead they put him in a van and delivered him to a detention center 45 minutes away, with the goal of giving DHS the opportunity to appeal the judge’s decision. Ray was not notified of this decision until after he arrived around 1 am, and members of our group stood outside the tent court for hours, waiting for Ray until late in the day, before we were informed of his transfer.
Ray beat the damn near impossible odds to achieve asylum. He is the <1% who make it through the ever-moving goalposts. HE DID IT. And then he was detained like a criminal.
You’ll notice I haven’t shown photos here that depict the recognizable facial features of the asylum seekers, specifically in an attempt to protect them and their families back in their home countries. Most of the asylum seekers in Matamoros are fleeing areas in Central America that are cartel-ridden and they have been personally threatened. Living on the streets in Mexico they are extremely vulnerable, and sharing images of their faces online can only serve to harm them and/or their families back home.
Cartel activity is a credible threat to these asylum seekers, not just from their own war-torn countries they are fleeing, but also locally in Matamoros where they are forced to wait in the notoriously dangerous Tamaulipas state. The week after we returned from Mexico, Newsweek published an article describing a US Air Force veteran’s experience walking through the camp: “It’s like a war zone with no one in charge” says the vet who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a former intelligence analyst trained to look out for signs of danger, the veteran said she felt it everywhere at the makeshift site. Families seeking asylum have no choice but to be surrounded by this threat every day for months on end, with a less than 1% promise of relief.
Knowing that moms are training their daughters to hide from kidnappers, and unable to give their babies clean water or baths, is it really any wonder they find themselves deciding to send them alone to the United States, in hopes of not just a better life, but for basic safety and hygiene?
In my four days in the camp, I cried. A lot. Because there is so much trauma in these people’s stories. And because they clearly have more hope for their futures than I do for them. And because I can fly home, hug my kiddos and tuck them safely into bed, talk my feelings over with a therapist, and take some melatonin to sleep. I am acutely aware of my privilege.
THIS is why I decided to write this post. Because it is my responsibility now to share everything that I have seen and learned.
I want you to feel what I felt as I walked through the Brownsville TX Walmart mere hours after walking through the refugee camp. The jarring guilt, the wretched unfairness of it, the urge to DO SOMETHING.
I also fully support the organizations below and they gratefully accept donations.
- Worth Manifesto
- The Sidewalk School
- The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights
- The Resource Center for Asylum Seekers
If you are from Pittsburgh, you know our very own Mister Rogers is famously quoted as telling us to look for the helpers in scary situations. “Because if you look for the helpers, you know that there’s hope.”
Thank you for listening.
* Pseudonyms have been provided to protect the asylum seekers.