BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — A group of 27 asylum-seekers who have been living in a muddy tent encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande for over a year in Matamoros, Mexico, finally crossed into the United States on Thursday via South Texas with the blessing of the U.S. government, and are heading to cities within the United States.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, as well as immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, confirmed to Border Report around 11:45 a.m. on Thursday that the migrants had crossed over Gateway International Bridge into Brownsville, Texas.
The bridge is just a few blocks from the tent encampment where the asylum-seekers had been forced to live — some dating back to August 2019 — under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.”
The migrants were processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on the U.S. side and about 45 minutes later, a double-decker charter bus with Sister Norma Pimentel, of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley standing at the front, drove the migrants a few blocks to the downtown bus station.
The migrants came off the bus smiling and some crying and raising their hands to the sky and thanking God for the opportunity to be in the United States.
“Liberty, liberty!” exclaimed 62-year-old Ornelia Alonso of Cuba as she stepped off the charter bus to join the other migrants outside a staging area at the downtown Brownsville bus station. “In the conditions we were living in, we couldn’t cross or do anything. We were stuck in MPP … I am very happy to be here.”
All of the migrants are granted permission to travel north of the checkpoint and are being released by Homeland Security officials with a Notice to Appear, which means they promise to appear in any and all upcoming immigration hearings wherever they are living.
President Joe Biden had campaigned that he would end MPP and help alleviate their suffering. And under his new administration, DHS recently announced that it would begin bringing in the migrants from three ports of entry. The first group of migrants began entering from Tijuana into San Diego on Friday. Tomorrow more MPP migrants are expected to cross from Juarez into El Paso.
Their release came just a week after an arctic air blast plummeted South Texas into a deep freeze, which had migrant advocates crying for them to be allowed to legally claim asylum in the United States after so many months, and even years, of waiting.
Their release is the result of many negotiations between the governments of Mexico and the United States led by a conglomeration of the United Nations and nonprofit organizations and immigration lawyers.
Goodwin told a throng of media waiting at the Gateway International Bridge that this is one of the first times the United Nations has had to intervene in order to help asylum-seekers enter the United States.
“The nightmare is over,” immigration lawyer Laura Pena said.
She and Goodwin were part of the Welcoming Committee of the Rio Grande Valley who wore blue T-shirts that read in Spanish “El Comite de Bienvenidos” and helped to ensure all legal paperwork was in order with the migrants.
Both praised the smooth crossing of the group, and said it portends well for others to follow in the days to come.
“What we witnessed today was great cooperation between civil society and the government of Mexico and also international organizations,” Pena said.
Other volunteers, including Andrea Rudnik of Team Brownsville, waited for the migrants at the bus station where they showered them with snacks and backpacks filled with food and blankets and toys for the children.
“This is a day we’ve waited for. This is a day of liberation, of exodus from the encampment and for these 27 people it means their life — a new life in a new country and the chance to do the kinds of things they have not been able to do in their own countries,” Rudnik said as she gave high-fives and smiled with the volunteers and migrants.
“They can live in peace and have their children go to school. It’s incredible and it will continue,” she said.
Migrant advocates said that they expect 100 more migrants to cross from the Matamoros camp on Friday because of the success of Thursday’s operation.
“Everyone was calm and worked,” Pena said.
“This was a conglomeration of several organizations,” Goodwin said.
Over 1,000 migrants live at the encampment and on Wednesday, officials with the United Nations were screening all applicants for coronavirus and sorting those who have lived on the camp the longest to be among the first to cross. The United Nations estimates that 750 migrants from the camp are eligible to cross into the United States because they have active immigration cases and have met all U.S. requirements. But first, they must also test negative for COVID-19.
The migrants who crossed on Thursday all tested negative for coronavirus, Pena said, and they all were wearing protective masks and other facial equipment as they got off the bus.
DHS officials said priority would be given to those who have had pending immigration cases the longest. Some have lived at the camp since July 2019 when the Trump administration implemented MPP, which forced them to wait in Mexico during their asylum proceedings.
Omar Antonio Castanedo, of Honduras, was with his 9-year-old son, with whom he’s lived at the camp since August 2019, one of the first families to arrive at the camp. “Yes we were some of the first,” he said. “It was very hard. It was very difficult every day. All of us are so glad to be out of the camp.”
Now they are headed to New Jersey where they have family.
A contingency of nonprofits led by the Diocese of Brownsville and several pro bono immigration lawyers have been at the camp all week assisting and preparing the migrants to cross. Originally they were slated to cross on Monday that has been pushed back every day as logistics were worked out.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.