Storm Damages Tents, Floods Pathways In Matamoros Migrant Camp As Aid Work Continues

A Saturday morning downpour sent the camp of asylum seekers along a levee in Matamoros, Tamaulipas into disarray. Heavy winds brought down trees and destroyed tent dwellings secured to trees with ropes. Rain soaked belongings and documents. Clay pathways along the river stretching two recreational soccer fields turned to thick, slippery mud and pools of water collected on uneven ground, overwhelming trenches dug by residents to channel rainwater into the Rio Grande.

Organizations continue aid work from afar, sourcing supplies paid for with donations in Mexico. Skeleton crews of volunteers over the weekend delivered goods for distribution to asylum seekers in charge of a system of free tent stores set up to assist families but are maintaining distance from the camp itself.

Photo Credit: Resource Center Matamoros

Flooding will be an issue as storm season continues. With hurricane season approaching on June 1, advocates have repeatedly raised concern that the encampment of roughly 2,000 people fleeing violent conditions and economic disparity will flood swiftly in severe weather. Sam Bishop, Project Coordinator at Global Response Management (GRM) in Matamoros, said staff is developing an emergency plan in the event of a true flood. Notably, the damage and flooding caused by Saturday’s storm was the result of a small cell that lasted only an hour. “We can’t just line the whole river with sandbags. That’s not practical. We have plans to get our own stuff out of there and respond once the flooding goes down and we can help people try to rebuild,” he said.

In the meantime, volunteers are responding to needs as they arise. Matamoros has the most cases out of the 890 confirmed positives in the state of Tamaulipas, where officials have reported 55 deaths. GRM was recently able to finish crossing its field hospital and a trailer full of equipment including cloth masks. Those have been distributed among residents, though it’s optional whether or not individuals use them. “Like everywhere, compliance isn’t perfect,” said Bishop.

Photo Credit: Resource Center Matamoros

GRM does not have any suspected COVID-19 cases at the moment. All seventeen patients who displayed symptoms and tested negative have recovered, Bishop said. The NGO has completed 72 antibody tests using their own supply and is working with the health department to give patients PCR tests — which screen for antigens — if necessary. According to GRM, the health department has completed seven tests. All tests have come back negative.

The number of people living in the camp appears to have gone down and advocates in touch with residents say morale is sinking as asylum seekers face a barrage of limitations. Most recently, Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM) cordoned off the South entrance to the camp and is temperature checking everyone who enters.

This weekend, INM informed 300 families living underneath spanning canopies set up by Mexico’s federal disaster response agency that they were deconstructing the shelter. Residents moved, setting up tents in a line along the riverbank. Andrea Rudnik, Volunteer Coordinator for Team Brownsville, said of the situation, “It’s just one more disruption in their lives. We’re dealing with COVID. We’re dealing with a storm. We’re dealing with disruptions of where they’re living and what they’re doing. Those are things that would impact all of us, especially if we were living outside.”

Photo Credit: Resource Center Matamoros

Uncertainty is also on the rise as asylum seekers processed under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program) are served with continuations. Individuals in the program are considered to be in “detained” status, though most live homeless in Mexico with no U.S. oversight and risk their cases being dismissed in absentia across the river if they don’t show at hearings.

Delays have been repeatedly extended due to the virus and as of this week stretch through June 22. “Individuals with a hearing date prior to June 22nd should present themselves at the port of entry identified on their tear sheet one month later than the date indicated on their most recently noticed date,” read guidance published on the Executive Office of Immigration Review’s website.

Beginning May 10, the agency specified it had temporarily suspended in-person document service until June 8 but did not provide an alternative to successfully serve documents to the asylum seekers, many of whom don’t have physical addresses in the Mexican border cities where they reside.

Photo Credit: Resource Center Matamoros

According to aid workers, some asylum-seeking families are opting to begin the asylum process in Mexico. Buses packed with deportees and self-deporting asylum seekers leaving to Chiapas appear to have stopped showing up. Volunteers spoke of rumors indicating the program may have moved to another city and that the operation was intended for Matamoros only temporarily. Rudnik and others have heard that some Mexican nationals living in the camp previously able to gain entry are opting to leave because there’s no clear end in sight to the Trump administration’s shutdown of both the U.S./Mexico border and the processing of asylum claims at U.S. ports of entry.

Team Brownsville estimated a reduction of 200 tents — a result of both the storm and the shutdown of the U.S. asylum system for everyone, not only those 65,000 approximated to have been returned to Mexico to await hearings under MPP since the program’s start. Rudnik and other volunteers are working to provide assistance and to boost morale on a case-by-case basis from across the river. “We have no good answers for them. We have no really positive things to tell them in the way of encouraging them to stay where they are,” she said.

Rudnik encouraged people to contribute to the aid work with monetary donations but also emphasized that protecting the right to asylum in the United States means engaging in politics and electing leaders who support human-centered policies. 

Photo Credit: Resource Center Matamoros

Over the weekend, a crew of volunteers with Team Brownsville was able to cross 42 tents — roughly the number of dwellings destroyed by the storm — both on foot and in vehicles. Mexican customs, which usually allows volunteers to bring purchased equipment across in small loads, asked to see receipts and would not allow the tents entry in bulk.

Organizers are collaborating and have provided bleach and detergent for clothes and tents to prevent mold and mildew from growing in the heat. Cindy Candia, a founding member of Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, spent Monday in Matamoros purchasing supplies. Together with Team Brownsville, the Tias sourced new tarps, plastic sheeting, rope, shovels to dig new trenches, and 6,000 wooden palettes to place under dwellings. Four to six of those palettes underneath a tent lifts residents out of the mud and keeps homes somewhat drier during rainfall. “If people want to donate — money is very important because we have to purchase in Mexico. It’s vital that we purchase on this side because it’s hard to cross things,” Candia said.

The Matamoros-based Resource Center is sustaining its full-time camp sanitation services and aid work like hospital and doctor visits provided through its medical referral program, as well as the facilitation of Lawyers for Good Government’s remote legal assistance project. The center’s staff of asylum seeker volunteers is getting ready to scatter loads of gravel around the camp’s dirt walkways to help mitigate future flooding and the spread of mud. Executive Director Gaby Zavala said she’s starting to feel the economic impact of fewer volunteers. People avoiding the camp means fewer physical donations and has nearly tripled the organization’s cost of supplies. “I’m struggling with positions,” Zavala said. “Do we hire people or do we have supplies?”

Photo Credit: Resource Center Matamoros

She echoed concerns that the shutdown of the asylum system along the southern border is causing real harm. The pandemic has changed the ball game, allowing the Trump administration to severely manipulate already limited pathways to legal entry. Zavala suspects this hasn’t hindered migration at all, but has rather forced migrants who want to enter the country legally underground. “I guarantee you this is causing people to enter in non-traditional ways and through illegitimate routes. People are determined to get to their families. If you reduce the legitimate ways to get in, you’re increasing the number of people that are going to enter in alternative ways,” she said.

Like other organizers, Zavala described asylum seekers leaving the camp — particularly Mexican nationals previously able to cross whose legal avenues have been shut down. On March 20, officials began immediately returning anyone caught crossing without documents in a process called rapid expulsion. “The word in Spanish is ‘no entrada’,” she said of the situation. “That’s what we’re seeing with these migration trends; they’ll go to where it’s easiest. As word spreads, Matamoros stops being a hot zone for people crossing because they know they can’t.”

Update May 19, 2020: The Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers has been holding virtual classes daily. According to volunteers, founder Felicia Rangel Samponaro and Executive Director Victor Cavazos visited the camp immediately after the storm, made several runs to stores in Brownsville and Matamoros, and delivered tents in addition to those provided by other organizations.