Article written by Christiana Wagner
On Friday January 17, 2020 I accompanied FLOC President, Baldemar Velasquez, upon the invitation of US Representative, Marcy Kaptur and other House Representatives, to Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. The trip was organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The representatives wanted to see first-hand the consequences of the President’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) the so-called “Stay-in-Mexico” policy. We saw asylum seekers from South and Central America awaiting their hearing in a makeshift refugee camp just across the border in Matamoros. After seeing the camps in Matamoros, the delegation went back to the US side to tour the Processing Center where the Asylum Seekers are given access to their lawyer only an hour and a half before their hearing, where their future is decided. The delegation was able to ask questions about the way these hearings are done and the time frame in which the Asylum Seekers are processed and vetted. The over 200,000 square foot facility was running and fully guarded but it was eerily empty. I asked Ms. Brophy (the Director of Field Operations), who was giving us the tour, why it was empty and why it was not running and processing considering how many people the facility can hold. HLS deferred to Dept of Justice, saying the DOJ makes the appointments. DOJ was conveniently unavailable during this visit.
Five of the Representatives stayed in Matamoros to advocate for a very sick 6-year-old girl (she has a hole in her heart and has Downs Syndrome) who had been turned away for asylum. She needed immediate medical attention with which the minimal medical clinic in the camp could not help her. They were able to get her to the US with her family for help. It should not have taken five members if Congress to help this family. There are hundreds more in similar situations.
It appeared to many of us that the “stay in Mexico” policy is meant to punish the migrants, placing them in a dangerous position to discourage them from coming to the US. Matamoros and other border cities are dangerous, and the US has declared Matamoros a no-travel advisory for US citizens. However, the migrants stay in donated tents/tarps/ropes from humanitarian organizations because many of them would have faced certain death if they had stayed in their home country.
There is an underlying feeling of stagnant immobility from our government, which was unnecessary and appalling. The desperation and hope and the incredibly resilience of the asylum seekers was incredible to see. They have come so far. I was in awe of their courage to escape. Families and so many young children. These people found other seeking asylum from their country, and they huddle together for protection. The camp grounds were uneven and dry. The ground was packed mud/clay/dirt right up against the Rio Grande River which when heavy rains come, they would be completely flooded over. Camp sites and make-shift tents would be easily washed away. Improvised cooking stations were set up near camp sites. No refrigerators or modern conveniences. Some migrants make a little money to survive the conditions by making food for the masses or working in local area businesses which need easy and exploitable labor. Terrified parents sleep restlessly on the ground outside the tents doorway to protect their kids from being kidnapped. The horrid reality is that there are hundreds who have been kidnapped, raped, sold into cartels and more.
The Rio Grande River is where they washed their clothes and bathe. We did not see showering stations. Thrown together outhouses made of boards were every couple hundred yards. Big white heavy-duty plastic water tanks about the size of two porta-potties were stationed in between the outhouses. We saw one of them being filled with the river’s water with big plastic hoses. The water opaque from mud and pollutants, was being pumped into the tanks. These tanks hold the migrants’ drinking water. Because of inadequate filtering, medical issues that are completely preventable are running rampant (diarrhea, digestive problems, fungus, and fever). Many of the children have two or three of these symptoms.
As we walked through the camp people were eager to tell their stories – men, women, and children alike. One little boy (about 1 or 2) kept saying “Hola! Hola!” at the top of his lungs. One woman had arrived last August with her three young children who looked identical to her. Her hearing is next month. The HLS confidently said the process from the time they arrive on the border to the time of their completed vetting is 72 hours. They acted confused and ignorant when we simply said that this is not the case for many of the people waiting in Mexico. They again deferred to the DOJ.
A couple times looking into their tired, terrified, determined faces I thought I would just fall apart. My eyes welling up with tears, choking down sobs. Looking at the ground, I took a few deep shaky breaths and kept moving throughout the camp. Observing, talking, sympathetically smiling and nodding as I heard their stories. I felt helpless and that I had nothing to offer that would really help. So, what I really want to give them is freedom. Freedom from our ridiculous political games. Freedom from views that do not represent them in any way, shape, or form. I can speak of their stories to whomever will listen. I am hoping and praying with all my heart that the members of congress we have now met with will take this home and speak the truth and let their stories speak for themselves. I hope they can end this MPP! There is no protection in anything that this policy is doing. In the meantime, I will keep doing what I do with what I have with passion for justice to be seen in my lifetime. To see our work at FLOC to advocate for and work to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles as we continue to empower others.