In perhaps the least scripted moment of the hot October morning, the crowd of refugees and trailing journalists fell silent as presidential candidate Julián Castro ascended a hill near the bridge that connects Matamoros and Brownsville. He placed a bouquet of flowers next to the crosses memorializing the lives of half a dozen migrants who have died since July trying to swim the Rio Grande near Matamoros. The only sounds were of a Central American family bathing in the river nearby. A few hundred yards downstream a bloated horse carcass rotted in the muddy waters.
All of the migrants had been living, and waiting, in a tent encampment in Matamoros—subjects of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, which force migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases are heard. Between July 15, when the policies were enacted, and August 23, nearly 32,000 people were placed in the MPP program; only one person was recognized by U.S. immigration officials as a refugee during that period, one study showed. There are an estimated 50,000 people subject to MPP today.
Castro said he had come to Matamoros—the first presidential candidate to do so—to see firsthand the fruits of MPP. As the policy better known as “Remain in Mexico” matures and sweeps up more people, its effects have become clearer. The number of asylum seekers making their way onto U.S. soil has plummeted, and desperation has mounted on the other side of the river with migrants languishing for months on the streets of treacherous places like Matamoros, a city the U.S. State Department has deemed too dangerous for Americans to visit. Reports of kidnapping, extortions, and violence have grown.
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While Castro admitted that he was all too happy to expose the cruelty of this existence with his visit, what I saw was a new level of desperation among these migrants. I have visited this makeshift tent city at the base of the Mexican side of the international bridge in Matamoros almost half a dozen times in the past three months, and the morale of this community continues to plummet. I have come to recognize several of these migrants. They are always welcoming, but on this morning there seemed to be a distance in their eyes testifying to the pressures of surviving this ordeal.
There are stories of violence like the one Jose Sanchez, a 38-year-old from El Salvador, told me. With little emotion, he spoke of a shooting near the encampment just two nights earlier involving the police. Whether local, state, or federal authorities were involved he didn’t know. And his account could not be independently verified. Neither did he know what happened to the person who was shot. All he knows, he said, is that his family of four no longer ventures outside of their tent at night, no matter how hot it may get.
There are stories of horror like the one that April Peebler, who traveled from California to help feed these migrants, told me before we crossed into Mexico. “People have told me all these cockroaches come down from the trees at night,” she said.”They tell me it looks like a sea of black.”
There are also stories of an immigration policy filled with inconsistencies like those Castro tried to highlight by meeting and returning to the United States with twelve migrants who, according to MPP policy, should be allowed entry into the U.S. Castro escorted them and asked U.S. immigration agents to allow these people in, something the agents agreed to do until they could investigate their situations. It included a family of four whose mother is deaf and unable to communicate except with the help of her family. People with disabilities are not supposed to be sent to Mexico under MPP. The others that Castro helped are members of the LGBTQ community who have been victims of violence or fear violence while on the streets of Matamoros. Under a principle of international law called non-refoulement, the LGBTQ migrants are entitled to a hearing with U.S. immigration officials who determine whether they may face danger in Mexico.
Castro said he was told there are now more than a thousand people living in tents on the streets of Matamoros. Others estimate the numbers could be as high as 1,500, including an estimated 300 indigenous people from Chiapas, a volatile region in southern Mexico where indigenous languages are commonly spoken. Their presence underlines the mockery of the MPP process, since they’re forced to wait in Mexico for a court hearing to plead for asylum because of their fear of living in Mexico.
Another migrant living in the tents is a woman named Carolina Escobar. I met her and her husband, Jose, the first time I visited the plaza in August. They have a court date set for mid-October. Since it took them a month to travel here from Honduras, where they left under threats by local gangs, they have essentially been on the road for three months. She recognized me as she stood among the immigrants watching the spectacle of a media scrum around Castro, a man she had never heard of. When I explained who he was and what he was doing there, she simply nodded. “Life is hard,” she said in Spanish when I asked how she was doing. One of the hardest aspects of life, she told me last month, is the boredom of existing each day in the relentless heat of South Texas. She seemed to appreciate the diversion of Castro’s visit, but soon returned to her tent at the periphery of the encampment and sat quietly.
Sanchez, who had told me about the shooting, reacted in much the same way when I explained who Castro was and asked what he thought of the visit. “Some people like us, and some people don’t,” he answered, betraying little emotion. He said his court date isn’t until January, and he admitted to being worried about the onset of winter.
The only emotion I saw was the glee of the children who make up a majority of this encampment. Perhaps living so many weeks with so many strangers has these kids used to being around people they don’t know. I had never exchanged so many fist bumps and high fives with these kids like I did this day.
“What I saw today is that this president has helped to create a humanitarian crisis,” Castro said of Trump after his visit. “Many of them are sick. Many of them don’t have enough to eat. They said that they can’t get potable water oftentimes. That they’re desperate … This policy is a disaster.”
Hours later, after Castro returned to San Antonio and the media left, U.S. immigration officials sent the dozen people whom Castro had accompanied across the border back to the camp in Matamoros.