On Tuesday morning, workers with Mexico’s federal immigration and disaster response agencies continued work on a new encampment set up in a soccer field along the Rio Grande in Matamoros. The structures are expected to house asylum seekers stuck in Mexico while also providing a designated spot for organizations to distribute aid.
The new development has been the subject of scrutiny by both camp residents and local aid networks, some of which have reported that residents will be forced to relocate by the beginning of January.
Workers and government officials could be seen surveying the camp of over 1,200 asylum seekers underneath the glow of construction floodlights in Matamoros as construction began on Saturday night.
The men moved in groups across the dirt soccer field as workers began installing a set of towering canvas tents to provide protection from the rain. Contractors stood on ladders as they finished securing the structures, which span the length of two recreational soccer fields.
On Tuesday, a group of 10-15 workers with Mexico’s Nacional de Protección Civil (SINAPROC) were busy completing a structure housing 10 showers, separated for men and women. One worker told The Brownsville Herald that construction began last week, but he is unsure when the group will finish. “I think soon, since we’re working hard,” he said.
The spot has been fenced in by workers with SINAPROC in an attempt to streamline the aid process for those stuck in Mexico awaiting the adjudication of their asylum cases, according to Gaby Zavala with the Resource Center for Migrants in Matamoros.
“What they told me, essentially, was that they were concerned that the municipal government hadn’t moved fast enough concerning the situation here, so they came in and set up this station so that the residents can move in and out, on a voluntary basis, if they’re looking for shelter during the rain and cold,” she said.
Zavala said she was told that the shelter is supposed to be temporary. Additionally, the tents set up for aid organizations looking to distribute food, supplies, medication, and other services aim to regulate the process, potentially preventing organizers from showing up at random and distributing aid that doesn’t reach everyone.
“I’m working to establish a relationship with them,” she continued, noting that aid organizations do not necessarily endorse the development but wish to maintain their ability to serve camp residents in need of aid. “As soon as something happens, we will have to reconsider our presence in this new space.”
Rumors that camp residents will be forced to move have swirled around the media, as well as in the camp, where a mistrust of government agencies persists due to miserable conditions, a lack of aid from both local and federal authorities, and documented threats from public officials regarding the custody of children.
Officials with Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) regularly patrol the camp on ATVs. Last week, workers destroyed an estimated 60 tents left behind by Mexican asylum seekers who were granted permission to cross into the United States in the middle of the night, rendering the desperately needed supplies useless.
Some 30 tents have been set up underneath the new structure. Responses from camp residents appear to be mixed.
A woman from El Salvador said that she felt compelled to move before relocation became mandatory. “I’m afraid of the mafiosos over here. All of this is their territory,” she said, referring to the presence of the cartels, which are known to control the areas along the river.
“But, I’m also afraid of the soldiers. Over there and in this spot, too,” she said. Buzzfeed News reported over the weekend that Mexico’s National Guard had been present in the camp. One man allegedly told a reporter that officials said if he chose not to move, they would take his tent when he goes to his court hearing across the river.
“They’re not going to protect us,” she says, pointing to Repatriación Humana, a government agency that assists recently deported Mexican citizens that has maintained a presence in the camps due to its proximity. “There’s not enough food. My son is getting sick.”
Just down the road, two municipal workers drive a motorized cart to pick up trash in the camp. “They’re going to force them,” one of the workers says. “There’s no date, but these people don’t want to move.”
Further into the camp, others expressed health concerns regarding the new location, which is located on a patch of dirt. “It’s windy here. A lot of people are experiencing respiratory issues from the dust, and it’s worse down there,” said a man from El Salvador camped out by the river.
This sentiment was echoed by various families who spoke to The Herald as a cold front rolled in, kicking up dust while families were busy preparing lunch and washing laundry.
A woman from Honduras took a break from organizing her tent underneath the new canopies to share her thoughts. “It’s better over here,” she said. “The only thing is the dust.”
A young couple from Honduras cited their fear of the camp’s close proximity to the river. A woman with her one-year-old son in her arms said she also fears being so close, as her son is young and can’t swim.
Erin Sheridan // The Brownsville Herald