‘Inhumane’ conditions continue for migrants living in Mexican border towns, nonprofit says

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Healthcare workers with the Red Cross from Mexico assist migrants to pitch tents on Jan. 28, 2020, at the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — With no way to legally cross into the United States, thousands of migrants continue to live in “inhumane” conditions and are “preyed upon by criminal organizations” in several border towns in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders said Tuesday.

The Mexican city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, is especially rife with murders and drug cartel operatives who are recruiting and kidnapping many of the migrants, including children, who live in shanty buildings they have constructed near the riverbank and throughout Reynosa, said Marcos Tamariz, Doctors Without Borders’ deputy head of mission for Mexico and Central America.

“There must be a system in place to help and assist these people on an international humanitarian level,” Tamariz told Border Report via a Zoom call from Matamoros, Mexico, where he is currently stationed to help transfer asylum-seekers who were placed on the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program known as “Remain in Mexico.” About 100 asylum-seekers per day are being allowed into Brownsville, Texas, from the tent encampment right across the Rio Grande.

Mexican law enforcement on Jan. 17, 2020, patrol a migrant refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. The camp at once point had 3,000 asylum-seekers, most from the Trump administration’s remain-in-Mexico policy. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Tamariz said Doctors Without Borders has been assisting asylum-seekers in several border communities and they are publicly advocating that President Joe Biden lift or adjust Title 42 travel restrictions between the United States and Mexico — which were placed by the Trump administration on March 20 to prevent the spread of coronavirus — to allow the asylum-seekers to find refuge in the United States. Most of the asylum-seekers are from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as a growing number of Haitians and Africans.

For the past month, U.S. Border Patrol agents have been allowing some migrant families who are apprehended with very young “tender-age” children near McAllen, Texas, to travel to the interior of the United States in exchange for their promise that they will appear in any and all upcoming immigration court hearings.

But Tamariz says it is not happening in other areas along the Southwest border.

This includes asylum-seekers who he said currently are staged in groups and trying to cross from the northern Mexican cities of Piedras Niegras into Eagle Pass, Texas; from Nuevo Laredo into Laredo, Texas, and from Nuevo Camargo into Rio Grande City, Texas, which is an hour west of McAllen.

Nuevo Camargo is where the bodies of 19 Guatemalans were found in a car last month burned and shot in an area known for drug cartel activity.

German and Maria Tomas are seen on Jan. 27, 2021, at their home in Comitancillo, Guatemala, holding a framed portrait of their grandson Ivan Gudiel who they believe is one of the charred corpses found on a rural road on the Mexico-US border township of Camargo, Mexico. A dozen special operations officers have been ordered held for trial on charges they shot to death at least 14 Guatemalan migrants and two Mexicans on a rural road in the border town. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros, File)

“It’s a lawless area where kids are forcibly recruited by the drug cartel,” Tamariz said.

The actual number of asylum-seekers living in northern Mexican border towns is unknown. Tamariz said they are holed up in what they call “quarterias,” which are very cheap hotel rooms or condemned apartment buildings that they have carved out spaces where many people are living together.

“Some have no doors, no water or electricity. These are very bad conditions,” Tamariz said. “And there are many who are homeless and homeless children.”

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, founder of the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, a nonprofit that offers free classes to migrant children living in border communities visited Reynosa on Monday and gave out blankets and supplies to children she says are living on the bridges. Her organization has for over a year collected donations and distributed goods to the migrants in the Matamoros camp and last year also expanded to help migrants in other Mexican border cities, such as Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and Juarez.

There are approximately 1,200 people living in the migrant refugee camp in Matamoros, which started forming muddy banks of the Rio Grande in the summer of 2019 just blocks from the Gateway International Bridge.

Last Thursday, U.S. and Mexican officials with the help of nonprofits like Doctors Without Borders began prepping the camp and helping to sort those families that have been selected by the United Nations and U.S. Department of Homeland Security to enter the United States via the bridge into the town of Brownsville, Texas. Twenty-seven asylum-seekers were allowed to cross on Thursday, and 104 on Friday. And the buses keep bringing these migrants who are legally released from the MPP program.

A migrant woman at the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, carries laundry on Dec. 22, 2019. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But Tamariz said that once the migrants from the camp who qualify for removal to the United States leave the camp then there will be hundreds more asylum-seekers who are left behind. The United Nations estimates that only 750 migrants from the camp will meet the requirements for release into the United States. All must have active immigration cases and apply through an online portal managed by the United Nations. They cannot have had their case already decided, or have come to the border after Jan. 1 seeking asylum.

Tamariz says his nonprofit and other non-governmental organizations are extremely concerned about what will happen to those who are left after the camp is dissolved, and he says there must be some type of pathway to the United States for them.

“No minors or families with minors should be living in these conditions,” he said.

Last Friday, 120 families were sent back to Reynosa from the United States, he said. Most of the migrants at the border are from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but there are also a growing number from Haiti and Africa who are living in Reynosa and Piedras Negra, and Ciudad Acuña across from Del Rio, Texas.

A migrant, who has been released by U.S. Border Patrol, gets assistance from volunteers on Sept. 29, 2019, at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition respite center in Del Rio, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

In Reynosa, Tamariz says, the two state-run migrant shelters are completely full and not accepting more migrants, prompting them to seek shelter in doorways and under bridges or anywhere they can find.

“We continue to see mass criminalization of migrants, increased raids and arrests, lack of necessary support for shelters and lack of health care at a particularly critical time because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sergio Martín, SPS coordinator general in Mexico for MSF said in a news release on Monday. “We applaud the start of the asylum seeker registration process, but thousands will continue to suffer on the road if current measures are maintained.”

Tamariz said the migrants are extremely vulnerable and preyed upon by criminal organizations.

Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met virtually on Monday and released the following statement promising to improve conditions on the border for all asylum-seekers, as well as address the “root causes” for their migration.

“The United States and Mexico share a vision that recognizes the dignity of migrants as well as orderly, safe and regular migration, and a shared commitment to addressing the root causes of irregular migration and we are working with regional and international partners to promote growth throughout the region,” the statement read.

Both presidents promised this is the start of “a new phase of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship.”

Tamariz says it will take more than diplomacy and sending money to Central American countries to stop the migrants from coming. It will take considerable effort to improve education and the workforce of those countries and to rid them of gangs and violence.

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