HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — A growing camp where thousands of asylum seekers are pitching tents and cardboard boxes alongside the Rio Grande in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, has practically no bathroom facilities or showers.
Migrant advocates say it is a health hazard.
An estimated 3,000 asylum seekers are living in the encampment in Matamoros, across the river from Brownsville, Texas. But there are only two portable toilets for thousands of people, Andrea Rudnik, a volunteer with the nonprofit Team Brownsville, told Border Report.
The encampment has popped up in the past four weeks as thousands of asylum seekers have headed to northern Mexican towns hoping to cross into the United States if Title 42 is lifted.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday announced the public health order would remain in effect as justices hear arguments in a lawsuit brought by 19 states, including Texas, which want Title 42 to remain in order to control the flow of illegal immigration.
Under Title 42, asylum seekers are immediately expelled. The public health order was implemented in March 2020 under the Trump administration to control the spread of coronavirus.
But migrant advocates say other restrictions associated with the pandemic have been lifted, and so should Title 42.
“Title 42 is a public health measure and was never intended to control immigration like it is being done now. The CDC lifted many COVID restrictions, including international travel and mask mandates on planes. Title 42 should have been lifted in the same manner. Instead is being misused as a tool to control migration, and that’s not right,” said Lydia Guzman, national immigration chair for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC.)
Rudnik says preventing asylum seekers from crossing into the United States is forcing them to live in unsafe and unhealthy conditions in Matamoros. And she says this could create another health crisis there.
“This can breed diseases,” Rudnik said. “There is human excrement, and it can become a really dangerous situation really fast.”
Team Brownsville was instrumental in helping asylum seekers who lived in that earlier encampment in Matamoros — some for upwards of two years — from 2019 to 2021 under the Trump administration’s remain-in-Mexico policy, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols program.
But she points out that at the time, the faith-based organizations and NGOs, like Team Brownsville, were allowed by Mexican authorities to regularly cross the border and deliver supplies and food and large tents to the asylum seekers in the camp.
It even had a name — Dignity Village. And it was led by respected Catholic nun Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley, who worked with both U.S. and Mexican authorities and NGOs to ensure needs were met and migrants were well cared for.
The camp had a medical trailer staffed with doctors and nurses. Solidarity Engineering, an all-female NGO, built showers and bathroom facilities, and there were even laundry areas for clothes washing, as well as potable water and drinking water regularly delivered to the camp.
The so-called ‘Dignity Village’ encampment in Matamoros from 2019 to 2021 had free stores for migrants to get supplies; a medical trailer; a public garden area, a clothes-washing station and tents supplied by NGOs. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photos)
Now there are only two portable toilets at the camp for use by 3,000 people.
The old camp had 30 portable toilets to serve 5,000 migrants. Team Brownsville rented 20 units, paid for with donations; and Mexican officials in the State of Tamaulipas paid for the other 10 units, she said.
That has led many to turning the grounds into bathroom facilities and could cause bacteria to spread, said Pastor Abraham Barberi, who runs Dulce Refugio church in Matamoros and who ministers to the migrants at the camp.
“It smells very bad down by the river,” Barberi told Border Report on Wednesday. “And you can see where people step on it at night when they can’t see.”
He says there are no regular water deliveries. He says 36,000 liters of water were delivered daily to the old camp.
But nonprofits have not gotten the green light from Mexican officials to set up a supply route or regular feeding schedule to help the migrants, this time around.
“It was well organized and a lot of funding going into it, but this time it’s nothing like that. Maybe it will change,” said Barberi, who lives in Brownsville and crosses to Matamoros almost daily. “It’s not like in 2019 and 2020 that everyday there were people bringing stuff like food, clothing and toys.”
But with the old camp, it was clear for many months that Mexican officials in Matamoros did not want the asylum seekers to camp there and a couple times had tried to bus them to cities elsewhere south. Eventually the camp was enclosed by a wire fence and blocked off during the pandemic. It was dismantled after migrants were allowed to cross into the United States after MPP was lifted when the Biden administration took control of the White House.
Now the migrants are camping adjacent to the fence in an open area alongside the Rio Grande, a stone’s throw from the U.S. shore.
“We don’t know how that encampment will evolve,” Rudnik said. “The Matamoros government doesn’t want porta potties or tents.”
“They’re not very happy about the camp. So I’m sure they’re going to do whatever they can to stop it from growing and having people come and bring support,” Barberi said.
Barberi’s small parish has delivered bags of rice and beans to the migrants, which was well received during a bitter cold snap that struck the region over the Christmas holidays.
They also are trying to get maseca, a corn flour used in Venezuelan cooking that the asylum seekers are asking for, he said.
In a Facebook video, Barberi shows long lines of migrants who thank him as his team passes out the resources and send blessings to them in Spanish.
He says he plans to return next week bringing more supplies and food. But he says their funds were practically depleted after helping migrants in the previous camp.
“All of us ran out of funding. We have no money,” he said. “But we’ll definitely try to be involved.”