Matamoros, Mexico / Brownsville, Texas, USA – Late last month, normal activity in Matamoros, one of the asylum seekers camps on the U.S.-Mexico border, had vanished and an air of nervous anticipation rose when the Mexican Migration Institute (INM) closed the high barbed gates and all 700 residents became residents asked to wait in their tents for more information.
It was a day many had waited 18 months or more in the primitive camp – the opportunity to go to the United States to file their asylum applications. The camp, which emerged just across the border after the US swelled under then-President Donald Trump, introduced the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in 2019, which forced asylum seekers to wait for trials in Mexico.
The atmosphere in the camp, always violent and dangerous, worsened during the pandemic, which limited the reach of helpers who were reluctant to spread the virus. The camp residents were at risk of kidnapping and rape.
But now the US Department of Homeland Security has announced that it will “process” the restoration of a “safe, orderly and humane immigration system” for entry into the United States at the request of the newly elected US President Joe Biden.
People stood in the doors of their tents, passed gossip and questioned the process. Who would be let in? Has the warehouse been completely cleared? What would happen to those left behind? US regulations stated that people with active MPP entitlements would be allowed entry.
Sister Norma Pimentel, the Executive Director of Catholic Charities, believes that all residents of the camp are “at risk and vulnerable” and therefore everyone in the camp, regardless of MPP status, would be screened. “It’s the worst place. Residents are kidnapped, blackmailed or even killed. Any place is safer than that, ”she said.
United Nations staff went from tent to tent, marking each person’s arm with a black pen and UV pen, and giving each person a bracelet. They marked the tents with a number. The next step was to wait.
Xochlith from Nicaragua had been in the camp with her two daughters since mid-2019 and lived in a tent across from her mother Perla. None of the women wanted to share their full names.
Perla said they fled political persecution. She had spent the time volunteering for the camp’s pharmacy. Xochilth had opened her own restaurant, serving Nicaraguan and El Salvadoran dishes like dolls – fat corn pancakes stuffed with meat and cheese – cooked on a fireplace in an old washing machine drum.
While waiting for UN personnel to come to her tent, Xochilth fluttered her eyelashes and wore makeup to finally cross the border into the United States.
It took less than a day to register the entire camp, and that evening, February 24, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) selected the first 27 people to enter the U.S. the next day.
The CBP performed COVID tests and registered personal information. The first 27 from the camp arrived by bus at the Brownsville, Texas bus station. They hadn’t ridden more than 600 meters, but they were a world away from Matamoros.
Fernanda, a transgender person from El Salvador who has just crossed the border into the United States, holds up a flag of pride for the cameras [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]One of the first people to cross was Fernanda, a 17-year-old transgender woman who fled her home country of El Salvador. She waved a flag of pride at the cameras as tears ran down her cheeks.
Fernanda stayed at a hotel and then flew to California, where she wanted to stay with her aunt and hoped to return to school.
Xochlith, Perla, and the kids arrived in Texas soon after and then made their way to South Carolina.
At a respite center in McAllen, Texas, about an hour’s drive from Brownsville, those coming from Matamoros mingled with others who had crossed the border alone. Hundreds of people filled three large rooms. Young mothers and children under five made up most of the shelter.
A loud tannoy announced taxi and bus rides or other services.
The people at the McAllen Respite Center are handing out food to the hundreds of hungry migrants who are there until they find permanent shelter in the United States. Many had just come from Matamoros, Mexico [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]Josafina (a pseudonym), 23, from Honduras, had arrived the previous night and hadn’t slept much on the thin blue plastic mats that were spread out on the crowded floor, but she didn’t mind. “It was a dream to leave Matamoros. I was so happy, ”she said.
Her trip to the United States had started 15 months earlier with her five-year-old son. When MPP rules prevented her from entering the US, she was homeless on the streets of Matamoros city and then moved into a tent in the camp. Josafina’s son fell ill and became increasingly unhappy while trying to “avoid the risk of rape and kidnapping”. She sent him across the border to the United States with nothing in his pocket but her brother’s name and his address in Florida.
“Nobody can understand what it really is like [in the camp,]She said, her eyes full of tears. “There was too much violence, men beat and raped people and molested children,” she added.
After three months in Texas and then New York, her son was taken into the care of her brother in Florida, she told Al Jazeera.
“I almost lost my mind. For two and a half months I saw a psychologist with Medicins Sans Frontiers in the camp. It helped and gradually I got better, ”she said.
She planned to take a bus that evening. “I’ll be arriving after he goes to school so I’ll surprise him when he gets home,” she said with excited eyes.
Al Jazeera was unable to confirm whether the reunion took place.
Play your flute for Thanksgiving! A whole family from the Matamoros refugee camp feels blessed to finally be in the USA after so many months! ♥ ️ pic.twitter.com/BUMvRfsAFl
– Norma Seni Pimentel (@nspimentel), February 27, 2021
By March 4, more than 650 people had left the Matamoros camp and, according to the UN organizations operating there, had been admitted to the USA. There are currently more than 50 people in the camp, although the UN has confirmed that more people will be leaving for the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not comment on the selection and approval process that selected those who were allowed to leave the country. However, Al Jazeera confirmed that at least one person had been admitted to the US with no active MPP case. Organizations working on processing asylum seekers could not provide figures on how many of those who crossed the border had active cases or how many had been refused entry.
Many of the grassroots organizations that offered support believe the camp will be closed completely. INM, the Mexican government department that manages the camp, declined to comment.
“Conditions at the camp are terrible,” said Helen Perry, executive director of Global Response Management (GRM), an NGO that has been in Matamoros since October 2019.
A doctor distributes vitamins to children at the free shop counter at the shelter [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]GRM workers entered the camp on Thursday and found that the remaining residents “have no access to food, water and sanitation,” she said. “In addition, between 50 and 100 people come into the camp every day and ask to be admitted because there are insufficient beds in the city of Matamoros.”
“There is raw stagnant sewage in the drainage ditches and people are returning to spontaneous defecation,” she added.
Perry recognized the dangers associated with the camp. However, she said that “[it] Provision of an infrastructure that enables access to legal, medical and other services. We are concerned about how to get the resources to other parts of the city [if the camp closes.]”