Matamoros, Mexico / Brownsville, Texas, United States – Late last month in Matamoros, one of the asylum seeker camps on the US-Mexico border, the usual hive of activity was gone and an air of nervous anticipation descended when the Mexican Institute of migrations (INM) closed the large razor wire topped the doors and the 700 residents were asked to wait in their tents for more information.
It was a day many had waited in the primitive camp for 18 months or more – the opportunity to travel to the United States to plead their asylum claims. The camp, which had just been born across the border swelled after the United States, under then President Donald Trump, introduced Migrant Protection Protocols (MPPs) in 2019, which forced asylum seekers to wait for trials in Mexico.
The atmosphere in the camp, still with a hint of violence and danger, worsened during the pandemic that limited the reach of aid workers reluctant to spread the virus. Residents of the camp were at risk of kidnapping and rape.
But now the US Department of Homeland Security has announced that it will “treat” individuals for entering the United States, under orders from newly elected US President Joe Biden to restore “a secure, orderly and humane immigration system.”
People stood in the doors of their tents, spreading gossip and questioning the process. Who would be allowed in? Has the camp been completely emptied? What would happen to those who remain? US rules provided that people with active MPP claims would be allowed in.
Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities, believes that all camp residents are “at risk and vulnerable” and therefore everyone in the camp, regardless of their status as MPP, would be screened. “It’s the worst place to be. Residents are kidnapped, extorted or even killed. Any place is safer than this, ”she says.
United Nations personnel moved from tent to tent, marking each person’s arm with a black marker and UV pen, and giving each a bracelet. They marked the tents with a number. The next step was to wait.
Xochlith, from Nicaragua, had been in the camp since mid-2019, with her two daughters, living in a tent across from her mother, Perla. Neither woman was willing to share their full names.
Perla said they had fled political persecution. She had spent the time volunteering for the camp pharmacy. Xochilth had opened his own restaurant, offering Nicaraguan and Salvadoran dishes such as pupusas – fatty corn pancakes filled with meat and cheese – cooked on a fire pit inside an old washing machine drum.
While waiting for UN staff to arrive at her tent, Xochilth has batted her eyelashes and put on makeup in preparation for finally crossing the border into the United States.
Registration of the entire camp took less than a day and that evening, February 24, the US Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) selected the first 27 people who would enter the United States the next day.
CBP administered COVID tests and recorded personal data, and the first 27 from the camp arrived by bus at the bus station in Brownsville, Texas. They hadn’t walked more than 600 meters, but they were a world away from Matamoros.
One of the first people to cross paths was Fernanda, a 17-year-old transgender woman who fled her home country of El Salvador. She waved a pride flag at the cameras as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Fernanda spent the night in a hotel, then flew to California, where she planned to stay with her aunt and hoped to return to school.
Xochlith, Perla, and the children arrived in Texas shortly thereafter, then traveled to South Carolina.
At a McAllen, Texas respite center about an hour’s drive from Brownsville, those arriving from Matamoros mingled with others who had crossed the border on their own. Hundreds of people filled three large halls. Young mothers and children under five made up most of those in the refuge.
Loud Tannoy advertised taxi and bus rides or other services.
Josafina (a pseudonym), 23, from Honduras, had arrived the night before and hadn’t slept much on the thin blue plastic mats that were spread across the crowded floor, but she didn’t mind. “It was a dream to leave Matamoros. I was so happy, ”she said.
His trip to the United States had started 15 months earlier with his five-year-old son. When MPP rules prevented her from entering the United States, she found herself homeless on the streets of the town of Matamoros, then moved to a tent in the camp. Josafina’s son fell ill and increasingly unhappy as she sought to “avoid the risk of rape and kidnapping”. She sent it across the border to the United States with nothing in her pocket except her brother’s name and Florida address.
“No one can understand what it really looks like [in the camp,]She said, her eyes filled with tears. “There was too much violence, with men beating and raping people and mistreating children,” she added.
After three months, in Texas and then in New York, her son was transferred to his brother’s custody in Florida, she told Al Jazeera.
“I almost lost my mind. For two and a half months, I saw a psychologist in the Medicins Sans Frontiers camp. It helped me and little by little I got better, ”she said.
She was planning to take a bus that night. “I will arrive after he goes to school so I will surprise him when he comes home,” she said with excited eyes.
Al Jazeera has not been able to confirm whether the reunion has taken place.
Playing their flute in thanksgiving! A whole family in the Matamoros refugee camp feels happy that after so many months, they are finally in the United States! ♥ ️ pic.twitter.com/BUMvRfsAFl
– Norma Seni Pimentel (@nspimentel) February 27, 2021
By March 4, more than 650 people had left the Matamoros camp and were allowed to enter the United States, according to United Nations agencies working there. There are currently more than 50 people remaining in the camp, although the UN has confirmed that it expects more people to leave for the United States.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol did not comment on the screening and approval process that chose those who could leave, but Al Jazeera confirmed that at least one person without an active case of MPP had been authorized to enter the United States. Organizations dealing with asylum seekers could not give figures on the number of those who had crossed the border who had active cases or on the number of those who were refused entry.
Many grassroots organizations that had offered their support believe the camp will be completely closed, the INM, the Mexican government department that manages the camp, declined to comment.
“The conditions in the camp are horrendous,” said Helen Perry, executive director of Global Response Management (GRM), an NGO present in Matamoros since October 2019.
GRM staff entered the camp on Thursday and found that the remaining residents “did not have access to food, water and sanitation,” she said. “On top of that, every day between 50 and 100 people come to the camp and ask to be admitted there because there are no adequate shelter beds in the town of Matamoros.”
“There is raw sewage in the drainage ditches and people are back to spontaneous defecation,” she added.
Perry, acknowledged the dangers associated with the camp. However, she said that “[it] provided infrastructure providing access to legal, medical and other services. We wonder how to get resources to other parts of the city [if the camp closes.]”