REYNOSA, Mexico —
When Joe Biden was running for president, he promised to close a squalid border tent camp in Mexico where thousands of migrants had been left to await the outcome of their immigration cases by the Trump administration.
Last spring, Biden emptied the camp, allowing most of the migrants to claim asylum and enter the U.S. even as his administration continued enforcing a Trump pandemic policy that effectively barred most other asylum seekers.
Soon after the Matamoros camp was bulldozed last March, a new camp formed about 55 miles west across from the border bridge to the more dangerous, Gulf crime cartel stronghold of Reynosa. This camp, along with another in Tijuana, are now home to thousands, many of whom have spouses or children in the U.S. A new camp was formed about 931 miles west from the border bridge to the more dangerous, Gulf crime cartel stronghold of Reynosa.
” We all thought that this would improve when Biden was elected president.” Brendon Tucker, who works in the camp clinic managed by the U.S.-based nonprofit Global Response Management. This organization also operated a clinic at Matamoros camp.
Instead, he said, Biden’s pandemic ban on asylum claims, “is creating worse conditions in Mexico.”
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the migrant camp situation and referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security said in a statement that, “This administration will continue to work closely with its interagency, foreign, and international organization partners to comply in good faith with the district court’s order [on Remain in Mexico] while continuing our work to build a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system that upholds our laws and values.”
In Reynosa, where about 2,000 migrants were living last week, conditions are in many ways worse than they were in Matamoros, Tucker said. The U.S.-based non-profits that have spent months in Matamoros installing sanitation facilities, such as bathrooms and showers, are finding it harder to provide water and sanitation. Mexican soldiers are seen circling in trucks with guns on the top. Migrants face not only cartel extortion and kidnapping, but also COVID-19 outbreaks and pressure to leave from Mexican authorities. Due to security concerns, fewer U.S. volunteers (including immigration lawyers) are willing to cross the border in order to assist. Although they claim they spoke with U.S. Customs and Border Protection about their rights and U.S. Pandemic restrictions before being expelled, few camp members understood what they were doing.
“They didn’t tell us anything, they just left us here,” said Salvadoran migrant Emerita Alfaro Palacios, 34, who’s been living at the camp with her 17-year-old daughter Pamela since June, hoping to join her brother in Houston.
Migrants refer to the camp Plaza Las Americas as the name of its park. The central gazebo was home to the first arrivals last spring. The rest pitched their tents outside, with their warren of droopy clotheslines and tarps growing every day. The mariachis, who used to gather in the park under the shadow of an abandoned casino, are gone. Only the gazebo’s roof was visible last week, looking like the center of a huge, patched circus tent. Taxis and vendors were still selling fruit popsicles and pupusas to hungry Central Americans, as well as tacos and other food items. Many claimed they arrived at the border in hopes that Biden would grant them asylum. Many had seen reports that Biden helped the Matamoros camp.
Many residents and officials of Reynosa consider the camp an eyesore.
Standing on the roof of a nearby building overlooking the camp last week, maintenance worker Hector Hernandez Garrido, 33, said it was the responsibility of the U.S. to accept the asylum seekers. He said he feared the camp was contaminated by COVID-19 and other diseases. Two weeks ago, Reynosa authorities took away cook stoves from the camp’s kitchen. They cited safety concerns. They pressured U.S. volunteers to stop cordoning off a section of the camp for migrants who had tested positive for COVID-19, and have threatened to cut the camp’s electricity and water supply.
” They want us out,” Gina Maricela, a single mother from Honduras and a nurse at the GRM Clinic, said.
It is not clear where the migrants will go. Reynosa officials launched a legal fight last month to demolish the city’s primary non-profit migrant shelter. It is located in a floodplain. Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, who has been crossing the border daily to help migrants at the Reynosa camp through her nonprofit Sidewalk School, said they rented a 20-room hotel for those who are COVID-positive to quarantine. She said they may build a new camp but it would take weeks and cost many thousands of dollars.
“It’s exactly like Matamoros, but with less support,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “Cut what you like, that’s not going to stop the encampment.”
As in Matamoros or other border cities in the Tamaulipas region, it is not city officials nor migrants who control the plaza. It’s the cartel. Without paying a smuggler, migrants who try to enter or leave the city risk being kidnapped or held for ransom. If you leave the camp for even a few hours, you could be kidnapped and held for ransom.
Honduran migrant Lesly Pineda, a factory worker, said she and her 11-year-old son Joan were kidnapped with eight other migrants in July and released only after she paid a $2,000 ransom. A single mother, Pineda, 33, then took her son to the border and sent him across the Rio Grande with a smuggler. She said that he remained at a Texas federal shelter last week. She had left her two oldest children, ages 15 and 14, with her mother in Honduras.
Pineda said she sold her house in Honduras to pay for her passage and couldn’t afford the return bus fare to southern Mexico, about $125, let alone to Honduras. She hid in the tent she shared with other migrant women, and only emerged to purchase food from vendors at the park’s perimeter. Pineda hopes to cross the border to join a Mississippi friend, but she isn’t sure how long she will be able to afford to stay at camp.
“There is always extortion,” she said, “They charge for everything.”
Mexican church volunteers bring donated meals sporadically, and supplies are limited. One group gave out one lollipop and one cup of water last week.
“There are some days we don’t eat,” said Honduran Abel Garcia, 37, as he sat with his 11- and 7-year-old daughters on the gazebo steps last week.
They were trying to reunite their 3-year-old son and wife, who had crossed the border in May. They settled in Atlanta.
Vendors at the camp charge at least 70 pesos for a hot meal, about $3. 50, too expensive for many of the migrants. A five-month-old Honduran woman became dehydrated after going without food for three days.
It costs 30 pesos to shower in concrete stalls on the corner next to a taqueria, 10 pesos to use the taqueria’s bathroom or to buy a bottle of water, 5 pesos to charge a cellphone.
One price outraged Pineda’s neighbor, a Guatemalan migrant Jose Torres. It was more than the rest.
“They charge you 100 pesos for an egg,” he said, about $5.
Torres, like others, ended up at the camp after unsuccessfully attempting to cross not only the border, but also remote Texas ranches to circumvent Border Patrol highway checkpoints. It’s a deadly gamble as afternoon temperatures still routinely climb above 100 degrees in South Texas.
Torres, 43, a cook, said he watched a fellow migrant die of dehydration on a ranch near Roma, Texas, last month.
“He died in my arms,” Torres said, and then the smuggler “left me for dead.”
Border Patrol agents rescued
Torres, along with half a dozen other migrants, and later expelled them from Reynosa. He had crossed the border after being kidnapped at a local shop where he had gone to buy food and was held with scores of others for a month until he paid $4,000 ransom.
Torres, who has an adult daughter and two granddaughters back in Guatemala, still ventures out of the camp to work odd jobs. Because other migrants have used the camp’s taxis, he fears that cartel kidnappers, Mexican cops and taxi drivers will continue to be there.
” The whole world is in a red zone because of corruption. There’s no escape,” Torres said, “If they kidnap me again, they’re going to kill me because I have nothing to give them.”
At nights, Torres puts a piece of cardboard down in one of the camp’s dirt alleys. He is not interested in occupying a tent that could have housed women or children. He shares a folding chair during the day with other migrants. He watches Reynosa residents drop off and volunteer their donations. Last week, a priest offered prayers with hundreds of migrants while kneeling on park’s brick walkways.
Others come to taunt the migrants, Torres said. Local social media is full criticism.
“It is not racist to be here, but it is important to ask, “Why are you here?” Torres stated, “Go back to your country. You are not welcome here in Mexico.”
Like most other migrants in the camp, Torres does not have access to masks, COVID-19 tests or vaccines. Because he and his immediate neighbours didn’t show symptoms, he mistakenly believed that the camp had somehow escaped from the virus. U.S.-based nonprofits have raised money to test migrants at the camp and confirmed dozens of COVID-19 cases since it opened, but testing is sporadic and not federally funded. About 200 migrants are treated daily at the camp clinic.
Honduran Gloria Guardado Diaz, 25, said that where she was sleeping, on blankets spread across the concrete floor of the gazebo with her 7-year-old son David, no one seemed to have COVID-19 — except him.
” He coughs all night.
In the evenings, the camp is filled with the sounds of migrants’ coughs. Vendors disappear, and are replaced by male migrants who guard the perimeter. The lookouts patrol cracks in the sidewalks, unarmed. They pass empty bus stops, park benches, and water park ads that say “Enjoy Reynosa!” as well as a sign pointing to the border bridge they hope one day to cross.