MATAMOROS, Mexico (Border Report) — The sun has set over Matamoros and hundreds of men, women and children emerge from under canvass tents in a parking lot within walking distance of Gateway International Bridge.
A young boy crushes an empty water bottle and kicks it like a soccer ball. Tired of the game, he picks it up and throws it like a frisbee toward the nearby Rio Grande. A group of girls, some from Honduras and some from El Salvador, engage in a conversation that begins with facts about their home towns and turns to how their family’s court date in U.S. immigration court went.
A man keeps three boys away from mischief by providing a deck of cards for them to play with. He doesn’t want them running around as vehicles approach the bridge at night to cross into Brownsville, Texas.
“It’s hard living in these conditions, but we have no choice,” said Carlos Paz, of Honduras, one of about 1,000 residents of Matamoros’ migrant tent city. Many of the migrants are asylum seekers who were placed under the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) program and returned to Mexico until their next court date. Others only recently arrived at the border.
Paz and his two daughters have spent a month under sweltering heat and humidity in their tent. They’ve run out of money and depend on the charity of a group that comes to feed the migrants — mostly from Central America — twice a day.
“Before they came, finding food was a daily struggle. I don’t have a permit to work in Mexico and I didn’t know what to do. Your clothes are soaked in sweat and there’s nowhere to bathe except the river … but it’s filthy and there are so many mosquitos,” the father of two said.
Paz recently initiated the asylum process — based on high crime in Honduras and the lack of jobs — but his next court date in the U.S. is in January. Despite the hardships at the tent city, Paz says he cannot go back to Honduras. “My wife came here more than a year ago, before the caravans, and she’s already in the United States. We have to be strong so that we can be reunited with her,” he said.
Many migrants refuse to bathe in the river. Some are using an abandoned building on Alvaro Obregon — the street that leads to Gateway International Bridge — as an improvised bathhouse.
“I only met them a few days ago, but we have to show solidarity to each other,” said Pedro Mogollon, a stocky middle-aged Panamanian who stood watch at the entrance of the abandoned property while a young Honduran mother and her three daughters bathed inside. The woman’s husband ferried buckets of water from a faucet outside a business across the street.
Mogollon said he left Panama a month ago in search of economic opportunity in the United States, but so far has found nothing but hardship. “All we want is a chance to work. We came to work, not to do bad things,” he says as he lets his young Honduran friend go inside the abandoned house with the buckets.
Back at the bridge, two boys who say they’re 12 but look 8 or 9 years old solicit money from passers-by. “We are not bad people, sir. We just want money for food,” says Nelson, the leader, in a well-rehearsed voice.
Engaged in conversation by a visitor, Nelson, light-skinned and with light brown hair, said the children at tent city endure as much hardship as the adults. He said he saw paramedics tend to a girl who was suffering dehydration a few days back. “But don’t worry, we are very brave,” he says.
Local officials wait for resources from Mexico City
Mexican officials in the summer said they would build migrant shelters in five Mexican cities including Matamoros. One such government shelter is already operating in an abandoned factory building in Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. But there are no signs one will go up any time soon in Matamoros.
“We have no government shelters here; we have some private shelters with many limitations to receive the migrants when they return to await their next hearing with the judge,” Tamaulipas Gov. Francisco Javier Cabeza de Vaca said last week.
“We have asked (the Mexican federal government) to build migrant shelters that are adequate to house all of these people, provide them adequate services, dignity and prevent any violation to their human rights.”
The state official said he and other governors have asked the Mexican government for money to help the Central American families, but “we are still waiting for an answer.”
Mexico’s ‘open-door’ policy led to migrant crisis, some say
Garcia Cabeza de Vaca said he and his colleagues saw the humanitarian crisis coming many months ago after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador opened Mexico’s southern border to the massive migrant caravans from Central America. “The governors told the President, directly, that such an open door policy would have consequences, and we are now seeing those consequences,” he said.
The governor added that even though the arrival of Central Americans to the U.S.-Mexico border has diminished, the fact that many are being sent to Mexico by the United States to await court hearings poses a problem with which communities like Matamoros are unprepared to deal with.
“We are prepared for the repatriation of Mexican citizens, … (A state agency) takes custody of them, feeds them and puts them on a bus back to their communities. It is totally different when those who are returned to us are citizens of other countries and many have to stay” for court hearings in the United States, Garcia Cabeza de Vaca said.
Meantime, the migrants have to make do in their tents near the international bridge.
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