I have been traveling regularly to the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley as a journalist for well over a year. In those early days, the story was that the U.S. Government was forcibly separating migrant children from their parents. The Trump administration changed the violation of an illegal crossing the border with Mexico from a civil offense to a criminal offense with 100% prosecution. Parents with children were hauled to federal courthouses. Parents were told that their kids would be waiting for them when they returned from their hearing. As soon as they were gone, the children were unceremoniously marched out the door to detention facilities for minors.
The parents returned from their hearings with no idea where their children had gone or who had taken them. They only knew that their children were gone.
Before long the story evolved. It wasn’t just that the parents didn’t know where the kids where, it’s that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) didn’t either. The sudden mass detention of migrants and asylum seekers placed on CBP and ICE had consequences. CBP had neither the infrastructure or manpower to house all of these people. The result was poor management and poorer record keeping. Children were being shipped across the country with no real record of who their parents were and no real way to find out. Parents ended up deported without their children.
I went to see if it was true. It was.
In the summer of 2018, I walked across the Gateway International Bridge from Brownsville into Matamoros, with a friend, expecting to find an encampment of asylum seekers. That was the story coming from the White House. It was reported to be an invasion. What I found was a handful of people waiting on the bridge. I walked into Matamoros a little farther. I found an Irish Pub and a Sushi bar. We bought some elotes from a street vender, wandered the town for a few hours and then walked back along a levee next to the Rio Grande River at sunset. There were people riding along a bike trail on top of the levee and we saw a photographer taking photos of a young couple in the woods by the river.
It was not what I expected.
Walking back across the bridge I saw a reporter interviewing one of the few asylum seekers on the bridge. I also saw why they were on the bridge. U.S. asylum law states that a person must be on U.S. soil to make a claim for asylum. You have to cross the bridge to arrive at the customs station. Historically, people would walk across the bridge and request asylum at the customs gate. However, the halfway point of the bridge over the river marks the place that becomes U.S. soil. There were now two CBP officers stationed there who blocked anyone without a passport or travel visa. Asylum seekers were not being allowed to step foot on U.S. soil to request asylum. They were at an official port of entry and not being allowed to follow establish law because of a shift in policy. They were told that their names would be put on a list and they must wait.
They didn’t know the goalposts would be moved. And then moved again. They didn’t know that the wait would turn into months.
An asylum seeker took a taxi across the bridge because there are no guards posted in the vehicle lanes until cars are on U.S. soil. At the checkpoint, he stepped out of the car onto U.S. soil and requested asylum as required by law.
He was charged with illegal entry.
A couple of weeks later I met Larry Cox through a mutual friend. Larry and his wife Nancy have run a refuge in Matamoros for over 20 years taking care of the destitute in one of the poorest areas in the city. They have seen and experienced firsthand the poverty and the violence of the city. Now Mexican officials were asking them to house migrants. He took me to the refuge, Casa Bugambilia, to see for myself. They were housing three times the number of people they were equipped to manage. This was my first realization that people coming here are not just from Central America and Mexico. People from Central America, Cuba and Africa, plus the local people he normally cared for. There are also Chinese, Russians and people from all over the globe that pass through this border. For the elderly and dying, Casa Bugambilia can also serve as a nursing home and hospice. One such man died shortly after our arrival. Larry attended to the body while I talked to those seeking asylum. There I met a man from Cameroon named David. He told me the story of being arrested, beaten and thrown into jail for protesting his government. He told me that he saw guards take his cellmates out day after day. He would hear their screams and then he would hear the gunshots. They never came back.
He showed me photos on his phone of people who were gunned down. Photos of mass graves. A photo of a dead woman lying beside her wheelchair. Two bullet holes in her back.
David told me how he managed to bribe the guards and escape after he found out that his execution would be soon. He told me of his journey to America. He told me that it’s only in America that he could feel safe because America is a country of laws. The last I heard he and others had travelled to Tijuana because they thought it was easier to cross there.
No one has heard from him since he left.
Larry and I had to wait a couple of hours in line as we drove back across the border. He told me he hasn’t seen things this backed up since 9/11. Larry is good to have around to put things into context.
I tried talking to Boarder Patrol agents. I empathize with their dilemma. They’ve been in a no-win situation with little or no extra resources to see it through. Local border agents told me that they weren’t allowed to talk to me. So I attempted to contact the media office in Washington D.C.. Unfortunately, the government was shut down due to Congress and the President feuding over the proposed border wall funding in the budget. All non-essential personnel were not at work and the CBP agents were working without pay.
A few weeks later I finally got a call back from the Washington office. I was told they would not grant me an interview because the agents were very busy. In the same conversation, I was told that they probably could block out some time if I didn’t record anything or take notes. They were too busy as long as they were on the record.
A few weeks later and I’m back in Mexico. I met this ragtag group of school teachers and activists who formed Team Brownsville. They were skipping school and maxing out their credit cards feeding asylum seekers stranded on the Mexican side of the bridge. They were doing it every night of the week. Andrea, Michael and Sergio took me across the bridge that night. It was cold. There were about twenty asylum seekers staying under a makeshift shelter and protected with tarps. We all ate together. They also gave food to the Mexican guards managing the entrance to the bridge.
The mood was hopeful.
The day after I left, the American military showed up at the border to guard it under orders of the President. They set up a basecamp and strung concertina wire. Helicopters flew overhead.
Team Brownsville pulled their wagons of food past soldiers and across the border once again to feed the asylum seekers supper.
I start hearing stories about las hieleras or ‘ice boxes’ from those coming out of CBP/ICE detention and images of migrants huddled under foil blankets in concrete rooms and chain link cages began circulating on mainstream media.
It’s early December and I’m back again. I crossed with Michael and Andrea and I discovered that the number of people waiting under the shelter at the bridge has doubled since my last visit. It’s colder now and people are starting to get sick. A woman they simply call ‘Baby’ has gotten very sick. She’s tried to present herself for asylum multiple times, but repeatedly turned away. Her journey was horrific. She’s been raped. She doesn’t know where her family is. Andrea takes her to the bridge agents to try again. They tell them she’s very sick. Anyone who looks at her can see she’s very sick. The agents again tell her no. They’re not allowed to make that decision. They will contact their supervisor. Over the radio we hear them talk to someone who tells them to tell her to be back at the bridge when the dayshift comes on. The supervisor will relay the information to someone who can make the decision.
The next morning she’s back at the appointed time. The dayshift crew has no idea what she’s talking about.
A few days later I find out that all the tarps over the shelter and cots had been removed by Mexican authorities. They don’t want a camp at the bridge. But there are no other places for the migrants to stay. This is border town Mexico and there is no Holiday Inn. To make things worse, they have to be at the bridge when their name is called. They’re forced to live on the streets.
Time goes on, the new year approaches and the weather deteriorates. Team Brownsville has started bringing tents to try to shelter people. The numbers are increasing. It isn’t long until there are over 100 people living in tents by the bridge.
The mood is not hopeful.
Stories start circulating about how asylum seekers can pay for a fast pass on another bridge. Basically, pay a few hundred dollars to the right Mexican Immigration official and get your name moved up on the list. It’s a different bridge and obviously controlled by a cartel, but people don’t want to talk about it. You don’t get to profit off a plaza without someone getting paid. At first the number was $300. As time went on the number went up. Those with more resources took the offer. It’s hard to blame them. As paying customers, the cartel protected them and got them across.
On the U.S. side, things aren’t much better. CBP and ICE detention facilities are maxed out. A tent city has sprung up near El Paso. U.S. taxpayers are unknowingly paying between $200-$700 per day per migrant to house them instead of letting them stay with their families while they await their court dates as done with previous administrations. CBP starts pushing people through to relive the strain. In Brownsville, Jack and Marianela have turned The Good Neighbor Settlement House into a well oiled machine, GNSH is an extension ministry of The United Methodist Church that has helped migrants for over 70 years, is soon overwhelmed as CBP unexpectedly starts dropping off migrants daily by the busload. They are offered no additional financial assistance from the Department of Homeland Security or The United Methodist Church. (Note: Recently GNSH did receive some reimbursement funds from the Department of Homeland Security)
I’m there as migrants are dropped off. They look exhausted.
Team Brownsville is also at the bus station down the street. CBP is dropping people off there with their paperwork, but no shoe laces, coats, food or anything to help them make their journeys across the country. The volunteers are bringing travel bags, shoelaces and using their personal phones to call the families of the migrants. There is a Christmas tree in the center of the bus station. The irony of a child in a manger who would later become a refugee is not lost on me.
More disinformation comes from the White House about these people being criminals gaming the system and entering illegally. The reality is something much different. The White House is making it increasingly more difficult to enter legally. Over 90% of migrants never miss a hearing and criminality rates are low because they’re screened at the border and are afraid of being deported. Mostly, I see young families and children. The kids are cared for by mothers who are fiercely protective of those children.
Reports of increased kidnappings of migrants by cartels cycle in. Some ransoms are paid. Others are not heard from again. I am told that many of the kidnappings are conducted by Mexican police.
The people sleeping in this camp aren’t the criminals. These are the people fleeing the criminals. I make it a point to remind people that when you force people into desperate situations, they will inevitably do desperate things. I wonder if this is the underlying strategy?
I make this point often via social media. I’m regularly told I’m wrong by people who have never been here.
I travel to McAllen and volunteer for a few days at the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities and specifically by Sister Norma Pimentel. They’ve occupied an old nursing home. CBP drops off hundreds of people each day here. The Respite Center gives migrants a chance to eat a hot meal, take a shower, get clean clothes for their journey. I work in the coat closet helping mothers find coats for themselves and their kids. Many of them don’t understand what cold really is. They’ve lived their entire lives in the tropics. I have to explain it to them in broken Spanish.
There is a small army of volunteers here. They make do with what they have. They make it work and work well. This is the narrative that’s becoming clearer, volunteer groups are rising to meet the need regardless of the complexity and size. Federal authorities, understandably also over-taxed are treating the fallout of the policy as someone else’s problem. For all those on the front lines, we begin to understand the misery generated is an intended consequence of the new immigration policy. The more migrants suffer the more it will deter others from coming.
And yet they still come. By the thousands.
Few stop to consider what lives they must have lived to make them willing to suffer this.
A few weeks before, Trump came to McAllen to tout his border wall. I rode there with Michael, from Team Brownsville. He’s an army vet who’s seen combat and he’s excited to show off his Trump Baby balloon. There is a protest and counter protest outside the airport. This was the first time I’ve seen Fox News down here. Geraldo is with a bodyguard, sticking a microphone and camera in the faces of people arguing.
The mood here is anger.
After we watched Air Force One take off back to Washington, we drove over to the Respite Center so Michael could meet Sister Norma who had been invited to participate in a panel discussion with the President. As it turned out she was mostly used as a prop for him to talk about his immigration policies.
When we got there, we found her leaning against the desk that once served as a nurses’ station. She looked visibly tired. She told Michael that she had fought the temptation to stand up in the middle of Trump’s remarks against migrants and tell him that he was wrong. But, she remained quiet and was now internally debating if that was really the right thing to do.
Months go by and winter turns to spring and summer. The camp by the bridge is now a couple hundred people. Team Brownsville has set up a sidewalk school for the kids in addition to the nightly meals. There is word that something called the Migrant Protection Protocol is coming to the Rio Grande Valley. Instead of waiting in the U.S. for asylum hearings, migrants are sent back to wait in Mexico for their day in court. This can take months.
Then, in late summer, it does.
The migrant camp is now a full fledge refugee camp. Except there are no United Nations officials here. No state sponsored anything. Just a sea of camping tents and thousands of people. I followed my border contacts online as the camp went from two hundred to five hundred to a thousand to over two thousand with hundreds more arriving daily. Border Patrol drops everyone off here who has crossed this region of the border seeking asylum.
The mood here is desperation.
I walked around the camp. The tents have overflowed the plaza. The levee that I walked the year before with my friend is now an extension of the camp. Tents fill the wooded area near the river, laundry hangs to dry on the fences and tree branches. There are new born babies being nursed by mothers as the stench and sight of human feces lines the area around the river. There are only a handful of portable toilets here and very little drinkable water. Below the bridge, on the bank of the Rio Grande River are several crosses memorializing children who have died in CBP custody or trying to cross the border. I walk down to look and see a woman giving her child a bath in the bacteria infested water.
On the U.S. side of the bridge, white tents have been erected behind fences. Journalists aren’t allowed at the proceedings. Only CBP authorities, asylum seekers and their attorneys can enter the complex. The tents are makeshift courtrooms with video screens where asylum seekers face judges and almost uniformly have their claims rejected. Judges are encouraged by their superiors to reject claims and keep to a quota.
I talked to Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney and overall force of nature. I spoke with her first back in the spring to explain the Trump immigration policies. I came back in the fall to talk about MPP.
I’m not going to mince words here. Jodi didn’t look good. She looked exhausted since I last saw her. She’d lost weight and while the fire in her eyes still raged, her body like so many others I’ve seen over the past year, has suffered the consequences of her labor. She is the tip of the legal spear of trying to find due process for those seeking asylum. She travels regularly into Mexico even though it’s dangerous. She holds judges and attorneys accountable when they appear to be leaning toward quotas and apathy instead of due process.
She’s worked to help hundreds of migrants fill out their paperwork properly, she’s enlisted volunteer attorneys to help with the forms.
She’s told me story after story of migrants being told to show up on the bridge with their children at 3 a.m. for a hearing that may not happen until noon. Or how migrants regularly have their court times and dates changed without any notification and are kicked back because they fail to appear. Of encountering CPB agents lying and documentation that is deliberately falsified. She tells me stories of systemic abuses of the immigration system by federal authorities that are not only condoned but encouraged.
I’d heard, a few weeks ago, from one of my sources that child prostitution was now coming out of the camp. Under-aged girls forced into sex trafficking by the cartel in exchanged for enough money to live. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the girls are given a choice.
That’s the way things go on the border. You hear a rumor and you have to chase it down. Some things are more dangerous to chase down than others.
About a week later, I’m back in Brownsville only to find the bridge closed. The asylum seekers had staged a sit-down protest blocking the bridge. I hung out with a few other reporters as we watched agents in riot gear conductexercises on the bridge as a show of force. As I waited, a middle aged American man walked up and asked the guy next to me if he knew where a particular street was in Matamoros. He then clarified it with, “You know, where the prostitutes hang out.”
Sometimes those rumors chase you down.
I still regret not breaking his jaw.
The bridge opened about an hour later. I went ahead and crossed over. I was told they weren’t sure I’d be able to get back. But, I decided to risk it because I’d heard rumors that Mexican authorities had cleaned out the camp and I wanted to find out if it was true. It wasn’t. There were just as many refugees as there was a couple of weeks before.
I wandered around alone for a while with my camera. It’s something I typically don’t do. There is definitely a risk here, but so many people I know have risked so much more to help these people. It’s those who risk nothing who help no one.
I wandered around the plaza. More tents. More people extending farther than they had since my last visit. I wandered down under the bridge to the river. A couple of Mexican officials on ATVs were guarding it. I looked at the white crosses on the bank. I watched as a woman washed clothes in the river while her toddler waded around beside her.
I walked back along the levee that was so beautiful a year before. I took photos. I walked and I thought about how much had changed, who I was as a person and who we are as a country.
I realized there was someone following me. A man, probably in his 30s was trailing about fifty feet behind me. I can’t stress enough how important it is to maintain situational awareness in a place like this. People don’t typically follow me. I turned around, made eye contact and just stared at him. I didn’t know what his game was, but I wasn’t playing it. He turned and walked away.
I walked to the bridge and back across to the United States.
The nation’s eyes are turned toward Ukraine right now. I’ve been following as well. But this attention deficit has been part of the major narrative for the border. It’s in the news cycle only when something else isn’t shinier. Coverage ebbs and flows and reporters come and go and basically report the same story over and over again.
Gosh this is terrible. Look at those poor people. We’ll be back right after this commercial.
But right now, reports of kidnappings on the border are increasing, including those abducted moments after they were sent back under the Migrant Protection Protocol. Factions of the Gulf Cartel and La Familia rule the streets of Matamoros and the Rio Grande Valley. Violence is once again escalating in the Valley as cartels compete for turf. Recent kidnappings include two doctors and three lawyers. The report is one of the doctors was returned after paying La Familia roughly $100,000 in ransom.
All others are presumed dead.
A couple of days ago I read the accounts of a listless, migrant toddler being presented to the CBP on the bridge by an American doctor. I will let you read a first person account of the event:
“It’s 44 degrees, windy, and raining. I have been standing on the bridge trying to cross a very sick 2 year old and her parents. The child is severely malnourished and mostly listless. After being told that they couldn’t let the family through because it was past 5 pm and outside business hours, I asked the CBP if they were forcing the child to sleep in a wet tent in 40s temp and raining. The child could die. They then brought their medical team. I am so lucky that Megan Algeo from Temple University, a ER physician was here. She had done the examination of the child and asked me to walk the family to the border. The government medical team agreed with the diagnosis. They agreed that the kid needs to be taken. It has been half hour and we are still on the bridge freezing. The child could die on this bridge. CRUELTY IS THE POINT!!!! SHAME!!! #fuckmpp
UPDATE..IT HAS BEEN 45 MINUTES SINCE THE MEDICAL TEAM SAID THE KID NEEDS TO GET THROUGH..WE ARE STILL STANDING ON THE BRIDGE..TEMPS DROPPING. .RAINING..
IF YOU ARE FROM TEXAS CALL YOUR SENATOR OR REP. ESP SOUTH TEXAS.”
The child eventually made it to an American hospital, but this exchange sums up my experience here on the bridge. Volunteers, willing to move heaven and earth to make something happen regularly challenge federal authorities, on the American side of the bridge who aren’t willing or able to do anything to help. While on the Mexican side, those same volunteers move heaven and earth to protect the vulnerable from disease, hunger and those who would seek to harm them.
They are the sheepdogs.
I first went to the border to see if my government was actually forcibly separating migrant children from their parents. I learned that it was true. A year ago I crossed over into Mexico expecting to find a massive encampment of desperate migrants. I expected to find the invasion that the White House talked about. I found nothing more than a few people waiting on the bridge.
The encampment I expected to find over a year ago now exists. But, it exists as a self-fulfilling prophesy of policies pretending to combat the criminal element of Mexican cartels, but actually serves only to hurt those fleeing from violence. The border, as it seems within other places of the Trump administration, is living with the fallout of policies put into place without forethought or concern of the consequences.
The bridge is a battle ground of the two Americas that exist today. Right there on that bridge. You can see it. The best that America can offer and the worst. Those willing to help and those willing to hurt.