Hundreds sleep in tent city at base of Mexican bridge after being turned back by new US policy

Hot Topics

MATAMOROS, Mexico (Border Report) — Fernando Montoya sits shirtless and sunburned on a dirty curb with his wife, son and 3-month-old daughter on the outskirts of a massive tent city that has sprung up at the base of the Gateway International Bridge.

Like many migrants here, his family fled the violence and limiting economy of Honduras for America. When they arrived earlier this month, they were apprehended and processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and held in detention for a week, and then they were suddenly returned to Mexico and turned out on the streets, and told to wait there.

The Trump Administration in mid-July began implementing this new policy in Brownsville, Texas, formally called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which now makes asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for immigration court proceedings. The policy has been used since January in California and El Paso.

The result here in Matamoros, Mexico, has been a surge of upwards of 500 migrants, like Montoya and his family, who are now camping in the outdoors at the foot of this international bridge that leads to Brownsville, hoping and waiting to seek asylum in the United States.

“We left our country to find work. We got here and asked the Migra (U.S. immigration officials) for help but they wouldn’t,” Montoya told Border Report in Spanish.

After seven days in custody in freezing hielera cells — named such because they are as cold as iceboxes — they were suddenly released to the streets of Matamoros where they now wait in the baking sun with no food, little shade and no money. Their U.S. immigration court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 21, which is in two months.

“I don’t have one peso,” he said. “We have no where to go.”

Fernando Montoya, left, and his daughter, Valeria Crystal, 9, far right, and other families camp at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. They have been there since Aug. 11, after being processed and released by U.S. officials and told to wait for asylum immigration proceedings in Mexico. Their court date is set for Oct. 21, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

His 3-month-old baby, Jimena Lucia, wears only a diaper and is held by her mother, Daisy Vanessa Villalobos. She nurses the baby sitting on the curb, while their 9-year-old daughter Valeria Crystal, sits nearby.

They bathe in the nearby Rio Grande, a filthy river laden with chemicals from nearby maciladoras (industrial institutions.) They wash their clothes in the river and hang them on a fence across the street.

We stay here because we don’t know those people and not everyone is good,”

Fernando Montoya

Under MPP, Mexico is supposed to care for their humanitarian needs, according to a January memo by the Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, speaks to Border Report in his Brownsville office on Aug. 22, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

But, as U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, told Border Report: “What Mexico can agree to do is a lot different from what Mexico can do. And it’s pretty clear to me that Mexico may be very well intended in terms of trying to protect and take care of these people, but they’re clearly not capable of doing it.”

Read a recent Border Report story on the Gateway Bridge encampment here.

‘An indescribable situation’

At the encampment on Thursday evening, dozens of women sat outside their tents on the dirty sidewalk. One woman held what looked like an ice pack to her young son’s face. He was leaning back on her and appeared visibly heat exhausted.

A group of volunteers from Team Brownsville had just left. They have been delivering meals twice a day since November. But the numbers, which have quadrupled in the past month have overwhelmed volunteers and sometimes all they have to offer are bags of chips, nuts, some sandwiches and maybe hot dogs.

They used to provide hot meals, Harlingen lawyer Jodi Goodwin told Border Report. “But when the numbers started getting to over 200 that’s kind of impossible for someone in a home kitchen to make a meal for 200-plus people,” she said. “Before we had been serving hot meals but that’s impossible to do now.”

Flip flops is all that most have on their feet, if they have shoes at all. Many children hold each others’ hands and have far-away looks in their eyes.

A thin, young girl lays flat on the pavement. Her mother sits over her urging her to sip some blue Gatorade. An older woman seated on a nearby bench watches on.

A few folks lie in hammocks strung to bases of palm trees. The lucky ones have tents under a giant elder Ash tree.

There is trash everywhere: broken plastic chairs, paper, empty duct tape rolls, and discarded bags.

One person lies half-in, half out of an orange and white tent that is collapsing but still offers some bit of shade.

A woman urges a little girl to drink Gatorade at the tent encampment at the base of the Gateway International Bridge on Aug. 22, 2019. in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

The cooling evening temperatures are a respite from the searing 100-degree afternoon temperatures, but with darkness comes its own new set of fears in the camp.

Montoya’s family have bonded with others from their hometown of Tegucigalpa, but they keep to themselves and stay on the outskirts of the masses. “We stay here because we don’t know those people and not everyone is good,” Montoya says. “It’s an indescribable situation.”

‘Victimizing’ innocents

Rep. Vela, whose district includes Brownsville, says MPP and the Trump’s year-long metering policy — which limits the number of asylum-seekers who can actually cross at ports to apply for asylum — has resulted in “thousands and thousands of people being victimized.”

On Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Matt Albence told reporters after a tour of the South Texas Family Residential Center, a migrant family residential detention facility in Dilley, Texas, that metering and MPP were solid policies that will deter improper entries into this country, and keep those with nefarious intentions, like trafficking from bringing through more undocumented people into the United States.

Read a Border Report story and watch video of the tour here.

Rep. Vela disputes that.

“What we’re essentially doing is obliterating due process which is at the very core of our constitutional belief system,” Vela said. “Our system is set up to protect peoples’ rights and really what we want to do is to protect the people who deserve asylum, and sometimes that may mean that people who don’t are protected as well. But we’ve made a decision in this country to protect the rights of everybody in certain situations because it is our belief system. It goes back to our system of guilt and innocence.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

El Paso Correspondent Latest Stories

More profile-10790

South Texas Correspondent Latest Stories

More profile-10793

Washington D.C.

More Washington D.C.
borderlogo

About Border Report

The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.