HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — Plagued by worsening weather, rats and desperation, a tent encampment for asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico, is dwindling daily, down to about 700 people, volunteers tell Border Report.
Though it still is believed to be the largest on the Southwest border, the refugee encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande across from Brownsville, Texas, had upwards of 3,000 migrants at the start of the year before the coronavirus pandemic. But on March 20, border travel restrictions were implemented and U.S. immigration court proceedings were temporarily suspended indefinitely due to COVID-19. And last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection put in place stricter screenings that have increased wait-times at the border.
That has not only caused hardship for volunteers who cross the border regularly to help the migrants in Matamoros, but it has also stoked desperation among the migrants themselves, many who are now starting their second year living in the tent encampment, most forced to remain in Mexico during their asylum proceedings under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.
“Bridge lines have been awful lately,” said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, the director of the nonprofit Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers who crosses daily to help run a virtual school for asylum-seeking children along the border in Matamoros and for some in Juarez. Rangel-Samponaro said she didn’t get back to her Brownsville house until 4 a.m. Tuesday after waiting for four hours to cross the Gateway International Bridge from Matamoros.
“People are waiting generally three hours, driving or walking either way,” said Andrea Rudnik, a volunteer with the nonprofit Team Brownsville, whose group provides food and medical and living supplies for the asylum-seekers in Matamoros. “People (volunteers) are more hesitant to cross but we know we need to cross with goods otherwise people won’t get the goods they need.”
Rudnik’s volunteers cross now about three times per week and the single biggest item they have had to supply lately for the migrants has been new tents. About 100 new, stand-up cabin-style family tents were bought by the nonprofit and given to the migrants after the Category 1 Hurricane Hanna struck the region on July 26, dumping several inches of rain and bringing high winds. Now, another 100 new tents are needed after several inches of rain fell this weekend on the area, Rudnik said Tuesday.
The tents cost about $300 each and Rudnik said her organization places orders of $30,000 with most of the money raised by online donations.
“Every time there’s heavy rain we have more tents that get seriously damaged and we have to start the process over again,” Rudnik said.
Sister Norma Pimentel, a Catholic nun who runs Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and who oversees all volunteer efforts for the migrants, said on social media that the migrants are at a “breaking point. … These families at the refugee camp in Matamoros are hurting terribly for too long.”
She said that a fumigation company came on Sunday evening, helping to alleviate some of the “trillions” of mosquitoes at the muddy encampment, which is set up where a city park used to be.
But she told Border Report there appears to be no relief from the rats, which came with rising waters from Hurricane Laura and have stayed, having found a new food source. The rodents burrow into tents while migrants sleep. Often times asylum-seekers wake up “to find a rat on top of them,” she said.
The rats coupled with venomous snakes, bad weather and an indefinite restart for immigration court dates, has forced many migrants to leave the tent encampment, which has been named “Dignity Village.”
And with Instituto Nacional de Migración — the Mexican government’s immigration authority — forbidding any new asylum-seekers from entering the camp, the “camp is draining,” Rudnik said.
“It’s less and less every day because people decide to leave the encampment in many different ways. They don’t always say they’re leaving. They just leave,” Rudnik said. “Much of it is caused by desperation.”
Some of them did get a bit of relief when Team Brownsville volunteers recently distributed 300 rain boots and ponchos to children and families in the camp, Rudnik said. She added that with so little, the migrants are so grateful for anything they receive.
“They were so excited and so happy to get the boots and just in time for this weekend’s rains,” Rudnik said.
Team Brownsville and Catholic Charities are helping to relocate some families to apartments and hotels within the city of Matamoros, for those who request it. But leaving the tent encampment comes with it its own dangers, because the village is fenced off from the rest of the city and monitored by Mexican armed guards.
Rudnik says her volunteers discourage the migrants from leaving the confines of the camp, unless they are relocating to another shelter or hotel or apartment with their help, especially after several recent river drownings. “We are encouraging people not to cross the river. That’s our bottom line. We do not encourage people to cross that way. It’s very dangerous. There’s a lot of uncertainty and we encourage people to go the legal route, although it’s lengthy, it’s much safer,” she said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.