HIDALGO, Texas (Border Report) — A tent encampment in the crime-ridden Mexican border city of Reynosa has grown to over 700 asylum-seeking migrants, and local nonprofits north and south are trying to help house and move the refugees.
The sudden swell in numbers at the migrant camp — mostly Central Americans who had crossed into South Texas since President Joe Biden took office — indicates that U.S. border agents are expelling many more migrants and families back to Mexico than the administration had at first.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told Border Report on Monday that they were working to move them to a designated area in an effort to “keep them out of harm’s way.”
Reynosa is a city in the northern border state of Tamaulipas that is one of the most dangerous in Mexico. It is a city of over 600,000 where rival gangs and drug cartels clash and where thousands go missing, are kidnapped or murdered every year and the U.S. State Department warns U.S. travelers not to go to.
Leaders with another South Texas-based nonprofit, the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, have been going to Reynosa daily and plucking what they say are the most vulnerable families from the hundreds in the swelling camp that is located in the Plaza de la República, just blocks from the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge in McAllen, Texas.
Sidewalk School Co-Directors Felicia Rangel-Samponaro and Victor Cavazos use donated funds to help put up these families in hotels and apartments. They get them medical care, legal advice, and give out tablets and school equipment to the children when they are ready to begin classes.
But Rangel-Samponaro told Border Report on Monday that schooling the refugee children is lowest on their list of immediate needs. First, these families need a safe place to live; the children need medical and emotional care from the traumas they suffered during their arduous journeys that often take weeks and months. And they need a lawyer to represent them.
“We are still pulling families off that plaza and housing families as we speak,” Rangel-Samponaro said via phone from Reynosa. “I’m not going to sit back and watch it grow or participate in all the illnesses and disease that are caused by living inside an encampment. So Victor and I every day pull one to two families off the plaza and put them in apartments and get them lawyers and try to get their cases heard. So far some people have been able to cross and that’s been wonderful to see, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Both are skilled at helping refugees. Their organization had been embedded in the Matamoros, Mexico, refugee encampment for nearly two years helping asylum-seekers under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program known as “Remain in Mexico.” The Biden administration has allowed nearly 1,000 of those asylum-seekers to legally cross into Brownsville, Texas, and allowing them into the interior of the United States as they await their U.S. immigration court hearings. The migrant camp in Matamoros has since dissolved
Now, volunteers are focused on the Reynosa camp. On Monday, Rangel-Samponaro said they helped relocate two families.
This weekend they helped to take in a father with a 9-year-old girl who has spina bifida and a catheter. The father carried the daughter much of the way from Honduras, Rangel-Samponaro said. And they were in rough condition when they arrived on Thursday.
Other volunteers in the camp help to earmark the recent arrivals and those who need care the most, she said.
This included a little girl with an arm deformation whom they took to a doctor in Reynosa and for whom they bought medicine. But the medicine was stolen, she said, and they had to return to pharmacies to buy more. The family refused to go to a hotel and stayed in the tent in the plaza. But they did have a lawyer and on Saturday they were able to safely cross into South Texas, she said.
“We pick the most vulnerable children that is very clear to us that should not be out there, should not have been expelled in the first place and who were. We put them in apartments, we buy them food, we give them donations. We give them housewares and stuff. But most importantly, within the first hour, we find them a lawyer,” she said.
Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer with the nonprofit organization Lawyers for Good Government, is one they turn to. D’Cruz, originally from Wisconsin, has been living in Brownsville for almost two years and has provided pro bono counsel to dozens of families in the Matamoros camp.
Since an influx in immigration began after Biden took over, she has helped dozens of refugees, she told Border Report last month.
“If there is a crisis, the crisis is a crisis of conscious and of humanity and of the fact that the rule of law has been eviscerated at the border for the last four years, especially the last two and a half years with MPP. So we have to look at this with that backdrop to understand why the numbers are the way they are,” D’Cruz said.
“This is not the way that asylum law should operate. Asylum law is a right. There is a definite basic human right to migration and a definite right to asylum and we need to restore the rule of law. And I know the Biden administration is working toward it but you can’t tell people to stay home and come on a sunnier day. It’s not realistic,” D’Cruz said.
But now most who cross are being expelled back over the Rio Grande. White buses are seen daily ferrying migrants who willingly give themselves up to U.S. Border Patrol agents back over the bridge under Title 42 travel restrictions that remain since the Trump administration to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Volunteers say that only the unaccompanied migrant children are not being returned to Mexico, with most taken to a tent processing facility in the South Texas town of Donna, and then sent throughout the country to holding areas operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
On Monday, HHS reported that 22,264 unaccompanied migrant children were in HHS custody and 317 were apprehended on Sunday.
Border Report asked CBP officials if the expulsion policy had changed in South Texas recently, and was referred to Title 42 expulsion regulations and Title 8 apprehension rules, which were put in place on March 21, 2020. The rules said the order can be waived and “does not apply to persons who should be excepted based on considerations of law enforcement, officer and public safety, humanitarian, or public health interests.”
Since February, the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders has been providing medical and psychosocial counseling to the migrants in Reynosa. Just a week ago, the organization reported the numbers in the plaza were 400 and said it continues to increase. A nearby shelter, Casa Migrante Guadalupe is at capacity.
“It’s been three weeks since I was deported, and I’m in this plaza. I don’t know what to do. I just want to be with my family,” Doctors Without Borders reported in a news release on Friday, quoting Gloria, a 57-year-old migrant from Guatemala who has been living at the plaza with her grandson. “I have nothing left in Guatemala. I never thought I would find myself living in a situation like this in my life, sleeping in the street. I feel like I’m in a nightmare. I lost one child before and I have the feeling that I have lost another one today. It is very difficult, and I’m running out of strength.”
I feel like I’m in a nightmare.”57-year-old migrant Gloria living in Reynosa, Mexico
Despite the threats of violence, abject poverty and hopelessness of their situation, the one thing volunteers say has boosted the spirit of the asylum-seekers in Reynosa is the generosity of local churches, residents and organizations that daily help them.
The churches have worked out a daily feeding schedule, providing at least one hot meal to the 700 migrants at the plaza each day, Rangel-Samponaro said. The Reynosa Rotary Club donated a bank of porta potties for the migrants.
“Reynosa is very different in the help they are giving asylum-seekers than the help they got from the people in Matamoros. The people in Reynosa are really coming out heavy and really got together and are supporting each other,” Rangel-Samponaro said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.