“Thank God I’m here.” It was the first thing that Onelia Alonso, a 61-year-old Cuban political exile, said last Thursday when she arrived to applause at the bus station in Brownsville, Texas. His arrival, along with 26 other asylum seekers, marked the beginning of the end for the migrant camp in Matamoros, northern Mexico. In this camp, erected a few meters from the American border on the other side of the Rio Grande, the migrants were forced to wait for a judge to hear their asylum request. It was the product of former US President Donald Trump’s sweeping immigration policy, which President Joe Biden has promised to end as soon as possible.
Alonso fled Cuba for Trinidad and Tobago at the end of 2017 after being threatened by the Cuban government for his membership in the opposition group “Damas de Blanco”, founded by wives and other women close to imprisoned dissidents. She traveled through dozens of countries, crossing the dangerous Darién Gap, a remote, roadless stretch of jungle bordering Panama and Colombia, before reaching Mexico. But she couldn’t go further because of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a US program – often called “Remain in Mexico” – created by the Trump administration that forced asylum seekers to leave. southern border to stay in Mexico until their court hearing. More than 71,000 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico under the MPP. Last week, the Biden administration began the process of welcoming the more than 25,000 asylum seekers whose cases remain open, meaning they can await a judge’s decision on US soil.
Alongside Alonso on the bus to Texas was a trans woman from El Salvador who hoped that in the United States she could live as herself without fear of violence; a Guatemalan farm worker on crutches who had fled the country after being attacked during a land dispute; several families and at least one pregnant woman. They had all been living for months in the Matamoros migrant camp. The transfer across the border was quick and involved an antigen test to prevent migrants with the coronavirus from entering the United States. In the coming days, more refugees with open cases will be moved until the camp is gone, a process that could take between eight and 10 days.
“It’s the end of a cycle, a stage that should never have happened,” says Juan Sierra, head of the charity group Casa del Migrante in Matamoros. Although he has been helping people in transit to the United States for years, he says he never thought he would live to see a camp on such a large scale – nearly 2,000 people lived there before. the coronavirus pandemic. By Wednesday, that number had fallen to 750, according to a recent tally. For those who are still in the camp, the feelings are mixed: hope and happiness for those who will be transferred to the other side of the border, and sadness for those who have also been waiting for months, but will not pass either because their asylum application has been refused or they have not yet had the chance to submit their application.
Erase Trump’s Immigration Legacy
Since the establishment of the MPP in the summer of 2019, migrant families in Matamoros have gone from sleeping on the streets to living in a real neighborhood, with tents donated by non-governmental organizations and churches. After the tents came portable toilets, showers, water treatment plants, kitchens, donation distribution points, makeshift schools and workshops for children, churches and even a field hospital, which was put in place in response to the pandemic.
Despite this support, migrants in Matamoros have suffered a wide range of adversities: from extreme weather conditions to the coronavirus crisis, which created an even deeper void when the United States decided to close its border in March 2020 and stopped accepting asylum applications from the MPP. Worse still, organized crime. Although no one dares to speak out loud about the problem, everyone at the camp knows that La Maña, the criminal group that controls this area of Matamoros, has a deep influence there. Violent attacks, extortion and rape have been recorded in the camp, according to the migrants, who continue to live with the legacy of MPP trauma.
“Throughout this period, we have known many people who have been traumatized and who have had psychological problems,” says Yamalí Flores, a 35-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras, who was sent back to Mexico with her husband and three children in August 2019. “I was going to a psychologist because I couldn’t take it anymore and my eldest son was not eating and sleeping. He told me he didn’t want to be here anymore,” says Flores. The hardest part, she says, has been protecting her three children, ages 15, 10 and 8, who have been out of school for nearly two years, and creating a sense of normalcy for them. “As a mum, I always feel in tune with all three of them and tell them that we have to keep our faith and our hope, knowing that this will end soon,” she says.
Biden has made ending the Matamoros refugee camp, a symbol of one of Trump’s hardline immigration policies, a priority. But while the door has opened to this group, his administration says the border will remain closed to new asylum seekers. Meanwhile, migrants like Yamalí Flores pack up their belongings and say goodbye to the people of Matamoros, who have become like family. His children have given their bikes and toys to other children who will stay behind. “I know this will mark our lives forever and that we will value our lives more,” says Flores, who will travel with friends to San Francisco once they arrive in the United States. “I know that every time I wake up in the morning, I will always remember that I am not sleeping in a tent.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.