I Spent 5 Days At The Largest Migrant Refugee Camp On The U.S. Border. Here's What I Saw.

"Biden has sworn to undo the previous administration’s damage to the nation’s immigration system. ... Meanwhile, for those waiting in refugee camps, nothing has changed."
The author stands at the border during his time in Brownsville, Texas.
The author stands at the border during his time in Brownsville, Texas.

One of the last things I did before the world went into COVID-19 lockdown last year was witness a refugee camp with my own eyes. At the time, this camp held some 3,000 people, most of them families, women and young children, all cramped together on what used to be a small public park, cooking from stoves made of dried mud, sleeping on the ground in camping tents or yurt-like structures of tarpaulin and other scrap materials. 

A year later, this refugee camp still exists. No, it’s not near Syria or South Sudan. It’s just south of Brownsville, Texas, a stone’s throw across the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico.

The Matamoros Refugee Camp is an example of the lingering damage left from the Trump administration’s euphemistically named Migrant Protection Protocols (aka MPP or “Remain in Mexico”). For the last two years, MPP combined with closing the border due to COVID-19 has trapped tens of thousands of vulnerable asylum-seekers in Mexico, creating the first refugee camps along a U.S. border ever

The largest of these camps is in Matamoros, containing hundreds of men, women and children, most of them fleeing extreme violence and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

As recently as Feb. 2, President Joe Biden issued an executive order for the Department of Homeland Security to “promptly review” MPP. However, the review will likely take months, and the order doesn’t detail what to do with these people in refugee camps who applied for asylum under the previous administration. The result is an immigration limbo with some of these migrants waiting for a year and a half while their cases stall in court.

This time last year, I knew very little about all of this. I’d never set foot in a refugee camp. I’d never even been to Mexico. I wanted to see the border situation firsthand for a book I’m writing about the American detention-deportation machine, which has grown into an “industry” akin to for-profit incarceration. 

Online, I connected with a group of immigration activists known as Witness at the Border. This network of volunteers, who come from all across the country “to Witness,” had gained national attention for their social media posts about immigrant detention as well as for their efforts maintaining vigils in front of migrant “detention centers” or “shelters,” really prisons for immigrants. 

Last February, the “Witnesses” were still taking people across the Brownsville & Matamoros Express International Bridge to experience firsthand the stark reality of the refugee camp there, which at the time had swollen to nearly 3,000 individuals. 

When I arrived in Brownsville, I was guided across the border by the founder of the Witness movement, Joshua Rubin. A retired software engineer from Brooklyn, Rubin felt compelled by news of family separations at the border to do something proactive. So back in 2018, he began a lonely vigil outside a migrant detention center in Tornillo, Texas. 

Slowly, other activists and people from across the country (including some big names like Alyssa Milano and Beto O’Rourke) joined Rubin, and a few months later that site closed down. In 2019, Witness at the Border and other activist groups had similar success with a minor migrant detention site in Homestead, Florida. 

“This vigil has proven to be extremely useful,” said Rubin about his time at the border, where Witnesses also documented “deportation flights” regularly running out of the Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport. “We don’t know if we’re going to accomplish anything exactly, but we know we have a chance. We’re watching, and they know we’re watching. Before this, they didn’t feel it.”

Exiting the terminals on the Mexican side, it was impossible to miss the refugee camp. Looking across the highway, it was the first thing I saw, a grassy levee dotted with tents behind chain-link fencing that was covered in drying clothes and topped in barbed wire.

A camp for asylum-seekers stands next to the international bridge to the United States in Matamoros, Mexico.
A camp for asylum-seekers stands next to the international bridge to the United States in Matamoros, Mexico.

At the time, there were no guards or security in front of the camp ― you could walk through unchecked and see what had become a small city of several thousand people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and a growing number from within Mexico itself. 

All were refugees, people who’d “done it the right way,” applied for asylum at a legal port of entry just like they were supposed to. However, Trump’s MPP had forced them to “Remain in Mexico” while the pandemic shut down the tent immigration courts that were set up, visible even, just across the river.

I almost couldn’t believe the living conditions inside the camp. Women did their laundry in the same bend of river where many migrants had drowned trying to swim across.By the Matamoros banks, men daily chopped mesquite to burn in earthen stoves for their meals. Throughout the dirt alleys of the tent city, children ran about in rags with no shoes. 

These weren’t “rapists” or “murderers” or “animals” as Donald Trump had called them. They were just people, most of them families looking for a better life. I spoke with people who’d been living there for months. I couldn’t believe the stories I heard about what they called “Cartels” in Mexico and “La Mara” in Central America: stories of theft, extortion, rape, kidnapping, murder, mutilation and torture.

Like a lot of other Witnesses, during my five days in Brownsville, I volunteered with different nonprofits. I watched young children do colorful drawings as part of Team Brownsville’s Escuelita de la Banqueta (“Little Sidewalk School”) and helped a San Antonio-based organization called Sueños Sin Fronteras (“Dreams Without Borders”) deliver water filters, hydration packets and other supplies to a resource center near the camp. It was a strange new feeling having some small but direct impact in a community, an impact I could see with my own eyes. These people needed this assistance.

Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the refugees’ resilience and ingenuity. Even in this hostile environment, people had found ways to maintain their dignity, culture and identity. While visiting the camp, I heard about a recent quinceañera (a kind of “sweet 15”), the camp’s first, and I also got lunch at a “restaurant,” a tin shack that served fresh pupusas, plantains and coffee.

Immigrant children break a birthday pinata at a camp for asylum-seekers on Dec. 9, 2019, in Matamoros.
Immigrant children break a birthday pinata at a camp for asylum-seekers on Dec. 9, 2019, in Matamoros.

In truth, however, the relative calm of the site belied a much darker history. One 47-year-old man I spoke with had lived in Brownsville since he was 3 months old. He’d been recently deported and said he was now living between the streets and the camp; he didn’t seem to speak or understand much Spanish. I also spoke with a Salvadoran mother of two who told me in San Miguel she’d been paying 300 colones a week (about $34) to police officers under threat of death. When the price went up, she fled with her whole family. 

As horrible as these stories are, they are sadly far too common. Life in the refugee camp was by no means free of risk either. Migrants in Matamoros told me repeatedly about assaults, kidnappings and robberies, mostly from gang members or corrupt police. One mother was even forced to send her daughter across the bridge alone because she was being raped in the camp. (Under MPP, unaccompanied minors were still accepted into the U.S., while families had to wait out their asylum claims in Mexico.)

Over time, these dangers have driven thousands from the border refugee camps to seek shelter elsewhere, even in the streets, or to give up on their asylum claims altogether.

To date, there are about 1,000 people remaining in the Matamoros Refugee Camp and thousands more scattered in smaller encampments all along the southern border. Some estimates put the backlog of asylum claims ― those waiting in Mexico for their cases to be heard ― as high as 60,000.

Asylum-seekers wash clothes on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
Asylum-seekers wash clothes on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Although Biden has sworn to undo the previous administration’s damage to the nation’s immigration system, including issuing a host of executive orders, many immigration activists, myself included, feel that the new president is not moving swiftly or aggressively enough.

A federal judge in Texas halted Biden’s deportation moratorium after just one week, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues its rapid rate of deportations, even sending people to countries they’ve never been to, such as with Paul Pierrilus who was recently deported to Haiti, the birth country of his parents.

Meanwhile, for those waiting in refugee camps, nothing has changed. Migrants requesting asylum at legal ports of entry are still being turned away. Since I went to Brownsville, I’ve stayed in contact with a couple of asylum-seekers. 

“The only thing we’ve been told is that things will change and that la migra [immigration authorities] will change a little their mistreatment of migrants,” said Josué, a Honduran who stays with his family in the Matamoros camp. Josué told me his court date was also recently changed: to July 27. “By that time, I will have been here two years,” he said. “But we continue, with God’s help.”

It’s not as if Biden isn’t aware that these refugees are suffering as they wait. Dr. Jill Biden, who’s now the first lady, visited the Matamoros Refugee Camp in 2019 with Team Brownsville, a nonprofit that provides aid and supplies to migrants. At the time, she said what she saw in the camp was “heartbreaking.”

Young Central American asylum-seekers sit on the bank of the Rio Grande, as cameras from an American surveillance tower look
Young Central American asylum-seekers sit on the bank of the Rio Grande, as cameras from an American surveillance tower look on from across the border.

I know there are a million considerations with any undertaking in today’s political trench warfare. But when it comes to these people on the other side of the border, on the banks of what’s called in Mexico the Rio Bravo (the “Wild River”), it’s not a matter of political calculation. It’s a matter of doing the right thing ― and doing it swiftly.

These people have waited long enough. If they don’t qualify as refugees or asylum-seekers ― having fled chaos and murder and waited for months and months ― then who does?

What I saw in Matamoros has never left me. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that it would be the last flight I took before a solid year of isolation and social distancing, but that’s the way it happens sometimes. In a strange way, I’m glad for that because the experience has changed me, not only made me more grateful for my own life but also made it impossible for me not to “Witness.”

I close my eyes and I’m back in the refugee camp. I see the faces of the people living there. I hear the din of children playing and crying. I wonder how much longer they’ll have to wait ― how much more they’ll have to endure.

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