MATAMOROS, Mexico (Border Report) — Calling it “inhumane,” “morally unjust,” “heinous,” “disgraceful,” a “travesty,” “horrific” and “heartbreaking,” 17 Democratic members of Congress described with great emotion the “disregard for our fellow brothers and sisters” they say they saw on Friday morning as they toured a squalid migrant refugee camp across from Brownsville, Texas.
This was the largest congressional delegation to date to view this encampment. An estimated 2,500 asylum-seekers live at this makeshift refugee camp at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in this northern Mexico border city that is so dangerous the U.S. State Department has issued a Level IV “Do Not Travel” warning for it.
“These are conditions that people seeking asylum and refuge in the United States should not have to endure,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told Border Report as he walked with members on the two-hour tour on Friday. “To think that our nation for generations was the moral beacon around the world has now lost the moral authority because of President Trump … because the president has done this to these people. I think it’s devastating for many Americans to know that our country, that was thought about so highly around the world, that its reputation and its image and its character in the eyes of other folks has been significantly damaged.”
In mid-July 2019, President Donald Trump’s administration implemented a remain in Mexico policy, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols program (MPP) in South Texas. This policy requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico during their immigration review hearings, which can take several months.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, whose district includes Brownsville, said he helped organize Friday’s tour to provoke outrage among his colleagues, which he hopes, in turn, will spark a national outcry against this policy and hopefully lead to its end. The tour also coincided with the one-year anniversary of MPP, which was first implemented in South Texas in July 2019.
“Last year, when the family separation crisis first ensued, the outcry was so great that President Trump retracted it,” Vela said as he pointed out to the other members of Congress homemade stoves and a medical trailer lacking flu vaccines.
“It’s been a little bit more difficult with MPP, and one of our primary objectives is to show more people what’s going on in Matamoros. Because what we’re witnessing here is even worse than what we witnessed with family separation but for whatever reason word has not gotten out.”
What we’re witnessing here is even worse than what we witnessed with family separation but for whatever reason word has not gotten out.”U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas
“Issues like impeachment and Iran have come to the forefront and for whatever reason this particular issue has taken a backburner,” Vela said.
But MPP wasn’t on the backburner on Friday as a barrage of news media from throughout the country descended upon the camp, following around the congressional members who were so scattered about that a headcount at the end was needed to ensure everyone was safely walking back over the bridge.
Some of the members likened what they saw to that of refugee camps in Syria.
“I’ve been in refugee camps around the world and seen squalor and human rights abuses perpetrated by other countries,” Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said as she walked along the Rio Grande where clothes were hanging on trees behind her to dry.
“But the blame for this lands squarely in the lap of Donald Trump. It’s a violation of international law and that’s why we’re here to shine a spotlight on it and to use all the tools at our disposal to bring an end to it,” said Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.
It’s a violation of international law and that’s why we’re here to shine a spotlight on it and to use all the tools at our disposal to bring an end to it.”U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida
After the tour, U.S. Rep. Ben Lujan, D-New Mexico, was nearly brought to tears as he recounted the images. “What we saw today at this camp is no way to treat people,” Lujan said. “All this disregard for our brothers and sisters needs to stop.”
“These young kids who were hungering just to say hello, a little boy pretending to be a barber with a few of his friends,” Lujan said. “Congresswoman (Norma) Torres (of California) sat down for a few minutes to play with him the guitar and sing him a song. That’s the kind of compassion you should show to people. What’s happening here is a travesty.”
A migrant from El Salvador opened the flap to her tent and showed Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, of Oregon, her sick infant lying on the floor.
She squatted down to give a little barefoot girl a purple teddy bear and spoke with her brother who was playing with plastic blocks on a pink yoga mat on the dirt embankment that is their family’s “playroom.”
“This is no way to treat families who are coming to the United States because they are seeking a better life. They are escaping violence; where they don’t feel safe,” Bonamici said. “We need to open our arms and open our hearts and open our country to these families. Let them come here.”
We need to open our arms and open our hearts and open our country to these families. Let them come here.”U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon
Catholic nun Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, briefed the members of Congress before the tour on what they would see and where they would go. She helped to answer questions and introduce them to migrants who were cooking on makeshift stoves made from mud on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Since the migrant surge from Central America began in 2014 through South Texas, Pimentel has hosted countless members of Congress at her organization’s Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, about 60 miles to the west. This included 12 members of Congress led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Aug. 11. The respite center was then a loud and noisy relief shelter where migrants who were released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement received food, clothes and respite before traveling on to other destinations.
But when MPP was implemented in South Texas in mid-July, the number of migrants at her facility suddenly dropped from over 1,200 to maybe 30 per day currently.
A few weeks ago, Pimentel was asked to oversee all the volunteer organizations that have been helping the migrants in Matamoros, such as Team Brownsville, Angry Tias & Abuelas, and Global Response Management, which provides medical services. And giving a tour to congressmen and women was again a natural fit for her, several advocates say.
“It’s a good day. It’s important that people see and understand what’s happening,” Pimentel told Border Report as she walked like a mother hen across the bridge at 9 a.m., leading the congressional delegates. “It’s important that we come and see and become part of what is happening.”
Said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, or Oregon, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: “What I saw today is a disgrace — a disgrace to the United States of America, the conditions, the open sewage, they have volunteer medical facilities but they can’t vaccinate for flu. There are a lot of young children with respiratory disease and if they have an urgent need they come to the border.”
On Friday, there was a heavy presence of Mexican law enforcement at the camp, much more than seen in previous visits to the area. Mexican federal police, local Matamoros police, and Mexican national guardsmen were all patrolling with weapons in hand.
As the tour wrapped up, U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, of California, appeared angry at what she was witnessing: “Kids who are sleeping on the floor; kids who are sick without medical care; kids who are not going to school because of a lack of basic things like water and sewage facilities,” she told Border Report. “You see people banding together to try to help each other but meanwhile, they wait for a day in court that can take eight or nine months and this is all the U.S. policy that has forced this set of circumstances.”
You see people banding together to try to help each other but meanwhile they wait for a day in court that can take eight or nine months and this is all the U.S. policy that has forced this set of circumstances.”U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-California
Interceding on behalf of special-needs child
As the congressional delegates prepared to walk back over the Gateway International Bridge, they were approached by advocates who asked them to intercede to help get three families across. This included a 6-year-old girl with a heart condition and Down Syndrome from El Salvador, and three Mexican families with newborns.
Five of the congressional Democrats, including Castro, went to speak with supervisors of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency that oversees the ports of entry.
Several hours after their request, the little girl with Down Syndrome was released, Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer with Lawyers for Good Government told Border Report.
Castro was proud to be able to help the family. And his intersession came three months after his identical twin brother, Julian Castro, did the same for a deaf woman and her family, whom he helped to cross when he came in October during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Because they were assisting the special needs family and those with newborns, Castro and four others missed a tour on Friday of the judicial court tents where the migrants appear before U.S. immigration judges via videoconference. But Castro said what they did was very important.
Outside the tent facility, migrant advocates who oppose the tent city, were on Day 6 of a vigil protesting the facility.
Joshua Rubin, of Florida, who is leading the vigil said “it’s catching on. People come up all the time and talk to us. A lot of the people from Matamoros thank us for what we’re doing. When I’m walking around town with this button (which says “FREE THEM”) people come up and say, ‘Bless you for what you’re doing.'”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.