McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Migrants willingly left their tents on Monday night as they evacuated a camp in downtown Reynosa, Mexico, a Catholic nun who oversees volunteer operations for asylum seekers told Border Report on Tuesday, despite reports the migrants were forcibly evicted.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said over 400 migrants left the downtown plaza encampment starting at 10 p.m. Monday after she and another local pastor showed up with buses to take them to the Senda de Vida nearby shelter.
She said this was the last group of migrants to leave the downtown plaza encampment where many had lived for many months, some over a year, after being turned back to Mexico under Title 42, which has prevented asylum-seekers from coming to the United States to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“The last group of people who were there at the plaza were invited if they wanted to go to Senda de Vida, and they said ‘yes’ and so we took them there,” Pimentel said during an interview at the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, where her organization helps migrants.
There were reports and criticisms that the migrants were forced to leave in the dead of the night by Mexican military and police that descended on the camp to force them out. But she said they “were free to go wherever they wanted” and most chose to go to the shelter.
There weren’t enough buses for them all to fit so about half walked to the shelter, which is about a mile away, she said.
Mexican military and police surrounded the camp to ensure no one tried to inhabit the camp, which the city has publicly said it has wanted to dismantle for several months, she said.
However, some nonprofit organizations and non-governmental organizations told Border Report they were scrambling Tuesday to recover equipment and to find the whereabouts of some migrants. And they said forcing families to leave at night was not the right time.
“When you are asked to leave and people have machine guns that’s not really asking,” Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, founder and co-director of the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, told Border Report on Tuesday evening.
Rangel-Samponaro said she and a handful of other volunteers helped to guard valuable items as migrants were herded away and others in the border city came to loot the remains.
“The military surrounded it so asylum seekers couldn’t go back to get their stuff,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “We were guarding the water tanks and expensive stuff.”
“It’s shocking because there were a lot of children in the camp a lot of young moms,” said Alma Ruth, who runs Practice Mercy Foundation, a faith-based NGO, that ministers and helps Indigenous women asylum-seekers and their families living south of the border. “Showing up with the military and local police with their lights on in the middle of the night was not a good option.”
For months Ruth has traveled several times per week from McAllen, Texas, into Reynosa to help the asylum-seekers living in the plaza.
On Tuesday, she said she and other volunteers from nonprofits were “shocked” that the camp had been leveled and she said many NGOs lost items in the raid, such as expensive heaters, water purifying units, stoves, water tanks, as well as tents and thousands of items they have collected to help the asylum-seekers.
“We weren’t prepared to deal with that sudden move. It’s a waste of resources. All the nonprofits have to fundraise to fund what we do. Money doesn’t come easy for the nonprofits,” Ruth said.
Pimentel said she and a pastor who runs Senda de Vida had been 100 miles west in Nuevo Laredo assisting authorities to set up a shelter there and she said they had the buses and manpower to help move the migrants on Monday night. So that’s what they did when they got back to the Rio Grande Valley.
Ruth said she worked the phones Tuesday trying to locate a woman and her 7-month-old baby whom she said were forced on a bus by Mexican authorities overnight.
She managed to find the woman, but she said the migrant had no idea where in Mexico she was. She received a cryptic message from the woman indicating she was safe, but little else, Ruth said.
“This is the 21st Century. We should know better than this to treat people as slaves. We should treat people with dignity,” she said.
Rangel-Samponaro tweeted photos she took overnight that show downed tents with clothes and shoes strung about on the dirt and concrete ground. Crates and boxes and chairs were left, as well as sleeping bags and water bottles.
“THE REYNOSA ENCAMPMENT IS OFFICIALLY CLOSED,” she posted.
Rangel-Samponaro’s organization was the first to help asylum-seekers in Reynosa, a dangerous border city that is controlled by warring drug cartels and a city within the state of Tamaulipas, which the U.S. State Department warns U.S. citizens not to travel to.
Several U.S. and Mexican nonprofits have helped to raise money and resources to build two new shelters in Reynosa and to expand the Senda de Vida existing shelter.
One shelter just opened on April 20, but according to reports, they ran out of funding for bunk beds so their capacity was only about 250.
In late March, Erin Hughes, of the NGO Solidarity Engineering, which helped to build the shelters, told Border Report they were rushing to complete the facilities and were constantly under threats that the camp could be leveled any day.
“Mexican authorities really want people to move. They don’t want anyone at the plaza eventually. I’m under the impression that their whole goal is to move everyone from the plaza,” Hughes told Border Report on March 23.
Overnight, Mexican officials made good on their threats.
“They’re bulldozing everything right now,” Ruth said via phone on Tuesday afternoon.
Pimentel said Mexican authorities made clear that migrants were not safe living in the plaza and they are better off in area shelters. She said most of the shelters in Reynosa are now full, but all of the migrants who wanted to go to Senda de Vida on Monday night were accommodated.
“They were already and they came with their suitcases,” she said adding they were “extremely excited. They feel safer at Senda de Vida because being at the plaza was coming to a point that it was not OK.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com