Nation & World

‘Afraid ... for the children.’ Inside the Mexico tent city where asylum seekers live and wait

Yenny Carranza sits with her 3-year-old daughter, Monse, under a thorny bush that overlooks a tent city taking over the plaza in Matamoros, Mexico. On this sweltering afternoon, it’s the only place she can find shade within view of her tent.

Carranza, a Honduran migrant, is one of hundreds of asylum seekers living at the foot of the Gateway International Bridge hoping to be granted asylum in the United States. Their living conditions are deteriorating as the tent city grows in the border town just south of Brownsville, Texas.

She has called the plaza in Matamoros home since they requested asylum at the U.S. southern border in August.

The journey north was treacherous. Carranza said she was kidnapped with her family and held for 17 days in Reynosa, Mexico.

“My [daughter] cried, I was nervous, I almost fainted, “ Carranza recalled. “ Do you know how difficult it is for one to be targeted with a gun?”

After requesting asylum at the U.S. Southern border, Carranza was processed by Customs and Border Patrol and given notice to appear before an immigration judge at the Brownsville immigration facility with a court date and hearing time. Six days later they were sent back to Mexico to wait, she said.

Since the Trump administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols in January, over 53,000 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico to wait for the duration of their U.S. court proceeding.

Carranza said they slept on the floor for 10 days before securing a tent from aid workers.

“I am afraid, much more for the children,” Carranza said. “People are becoming more desperate because children are becoming ill.”

Migrants and aid workers interviewed said conditions that are already squalid are deteriorating because of the rainy season, cooler temperatures and the number of people arriving in the plaza each day.

A State Department advisory warns U.S. citizens not to travel in the state of Tamaulipas, which includes Matamoros, noting that sexual assault, kidnapping and murder are common.

Elisa Filippone, now a legal observer for the American Civil Liberties Union, has taken supplies and food to migrants forced to wait in Matamoros for over a year. In the beginning, she brought personal hygiene products and some food to the few waiting at the bridge. The numbers have grown dramatically since the Trump administration implemented new immigration policies.

“The Migrant Protection Policy has been devastating because now [migrants] are returning back to Matamoros,” Filippone said. “The camps extend for blocks and blocks and across both international bridges.”

There is a lack of clean water and children are falling ill. Migrants bathe in the river and line up for bottled water. In the middle of September there were two portable toilets for about 700 people. Now, there are 10 for the over 1,000 people, according to Filippone. She said that finding reliable service providers and trucks to empty waste is the problem.

“There is a lack of shelter,” Filippone said. Last year at this time, all the migrants fit under an awning that provided some protection from the weather.

In some cases, migrants have court dates that extend into next year, which means their stay in Mexico will extend through the winter.

Carranza’s court date was set for Oct. 21, after she requested asylum in August. She has no idea what will happen when she goes to court. She has had no legal help, but she fears being returned to Matamoros for good.

“We have suffered enough,” said Carranza. “If we return, something could happen to us.”