In late October, a cold front descended on a makeshift village at the foot of one of the international bridges in Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. The wind chill was in the upper forties. Tarps connected a group of small tents pitched on a cement plaza near the river. Vaguely human shapes could be seen beneath a sea of blankets. Occasionally toddlers, some barefoot, some shirtless, could be seen poking around. Marching briskly through the camp was Kelly Escobar.

This particular morning, Escobar, a forty-year-old community activist from Columbus, Ohio, was on a mission to demonstrate the ingenuity of some of the two thousand or so migrants who have been forced to live here as part of a harshly effective new U.S. policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols. More commonly known as the Remain in Mexico policy, it forces migrant families—most of them seeking asylum from Central American countries wracked by gang violence and police corruption—to live on the streets of some of the most dangerous cities in Mexico as they await U.S. immigration court dates.

Leaving the hundreds of tents behind, Escobar strode into a field dotted with more than a dozen groups of migrants huddled around hornos de barro, ovens they had built using the mud of the nearby river. “These people are so smart,” she said. “This is what many of them built in their home countries.” Some of the ovens were nothing more than crude bumps in the land, but many were elaborate, multilevel affairs with grills fashioned from thatched green sticks. The aroma of chicken soup was everywhere, a stark contrast to the stench of human waste that filled the plaza near the tents. Everyone seemed to know “Mama Kelly” as she methodically stopped at each oven to visit. Almost every family offered her a meal, which she politely declined.

Escobar is one of thousands of volunteers who have traveled from all over Texas and the U.S.—and in a few cases, from countries such as Spain and India—to bring these migrants food, clothing, diapers, shelter, medicine, and legal help. They are church groups who haul in hundreds of liters of clean water each morning. They are college students devoting their spring breaks to helping transport more than a thousand meals a day that are cooked in Brownsville and taken in a convoy of wagons across the border to Mexico. They are high-priced corporate and overworked immigration lawyers offering free legal advice. They are doctors, nurses, and psychologists combating mental trauma, lice infestations, and, occasionally, serious contagious diseases such as chicken pox.

“They are the modern-day Freedom Riders,” said Episcopal priest Maryetta Anschutz, drawing a comparison to the idealistic volunteers who risked their lives to travel to the American South in the sixties to protest segregation. Anschutz, who lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, has helped raise money for several nonprofits assisting migrants in the Big Bend and El Paso regions. Traveling to Texas on behalf of her diocese and meeting with business leaders in cities like Houston who are eager to assist, she has helped raise more than $75,000 so far for five shelters near the U.S. border in Mexico that have served nearly 50,000 migrants. She and other fund-raisers have set a goal of raising $600,000 in 2020.

The primary cities along the Texas-Mexico border to which U.S. immigration authorities are sending migrants—Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros—are considered so dangerous that the U.S. State Department has warned Americans to avoid or “reconsider” visiting them. Yet the volunteers keep coming. Said Anschutz, “It’s the most hopeful thing I’ve seen in a long time.”

Many volunteers, like Alicia Cruz, a 46-year-old psychotherapist from San Francisco, describe a pattern of engagement: Cruz, who “spent two days crying” after hearing about the family separations on the news in May 2018, made her first visit to San Antonio to help the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services two months later. After returning home, she immediately began fund-raising to return to Texas, and has now been to San Antonio four more times.

Other volunteers said their efforts evolved as the immigration crisis evolved. That’s how Andrea Morris Rudnik, a 59-year-old retired teacher from Brownsville, got involved. “A group of us were protesting the family separation policy, and we asked ourselves, ‘What more can we do?’ ” she said. That was the birth of Team Brownsville, which prepares a thousand meals five days a week and raises money to pay a Matamoros restaurant to feed the migrants in that city breakfast every day. Today, Rudnik helps accommodate volunteers from around the country and ensure their safety as they cross into Mexico. Her motivation is simple: “I’m here because our government has said to the migrants, ‘You are not welcome to apply for asylum in our country. You are not welcome in our country. You have to go back to Mexico because we don’t want you here.’ ”

Kelly Escobar initially traveled to Matamoros this past summer from Ohio in an Econoline van filled with donated diapers, clothes, shoes, toiletries, and first aid kits. She spent two weeks living in a tent among the migrants and “fell in love” with the people she met. At the end of her stay, she gave her six-person Ozark Trail tent to a Honduran woman named Yamali Flores, on one condition: though the tent was Flores’s to sleep in, Escobar asked that she use it as “a free store,” filled with donated supplies such as first aid kits, sanitary napkins, and other toiletries for her fellow migrants.

After returning to Ohio, Escobar said, she found it difficult to talk about the suffering that she had seen. So she returned to Matamoros in October and has stayed. “She’s an angel,” declared 33-year-old Yadira Bustillo, who came here from Honduras with her three children, ages twelve, six, and five. Bustillo’s children huddled under blankets that Escobar had brought them. As the two spoke, Escobar reached into a bag and offered Bustillo a hand-knit beanie that a retiree had made in preparation for winter.

Sister Norma Pimentel, head of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande, believes that something profound is going on among the volunteers. “We’re here as brothers and sisters,” she said, noting that the people who come from far and wide undergo their own transformations as they try to restore the dignity of these migrants. “We are also restoring and preserving our own humanity in the process.” 

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Freedom Riders.” Subscribe today.