A version of this article was published in The Brownsville Herald on June 20, 2020.
Dark clouds rolled into Brownsville early Friday afternoon bringing lightning, thunder, and pouring rain to downtown and across the river where an estimated 2,500 asylum seekers live in tents along a dirt levee.
The Rio Grande Valley’s hot, humid summer is now underway in the midst of a pandemic. Even though tents dry out in the rain, they grow mold, forcing aid workers to replace them after inclement weather.
Under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program (MPP, Migrant Protection Protocols), families who have spent months awaiting court dates from Matamoros face new, coronavirus-related postponements in their asylum cases. Considered in “detained” status in Mexico despite no support and little communication from the U.S. government, families’ hearings are now being pushed back until July 20. Those families must now wait out hurricane season on the banks of the Rio Grande.
On Friday, an asylum seeker in the camp named Josue, who runs one of several tiendas organized by Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley through which aid workers distribute free supplies, shared a photo of the new documents U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are handing to asylum seekers when they present at the international line to receive new court dates.
Odd guidance implemented by the Executive Office for Immigration Review in its last round of MPP postponements asked asylum seekers to present at a U.S. port of entry one month later than the date listed on the most recent notice to appear in order to obtain a reset hearing date. The small strip of paper Josue photographed was not marked with any official government seal or information. It stated simply, in Spanish, “To receive the date of your next MPP appointment, call the following number: 01800-898-7180.”
“A friend went to the court date today and they only gave her this paper and told her to call this number. She returned to the immigrant camp to get a borrowed phone to call. She has called many times and they don’t answer. This is what they give us immigrants, this is very unfair,” said Josue of the document.
Upon calling on the U.S. side of the bridge, the phone number connected straight to EOIR. According to Josue, it wasn’t working for his friend in Mexico. In Brownsville, an automated voice told callers that “Respondents or their representatives who are affected will be sent notice of their new hearing date at least 10 days before the new hearing date.”
Those living in the camp do not have physical addresses. The EOIR operator spells out a link to the online portal, which it appears asylum seekers can access in English. The link on Friday afternoon was loading to a blank, white screen on multiple browsers and also on a mobile phone.
Asylum seekers are likely to face setbacks based on a series of proposed alterations to U.S. asylum policy that would “streamline” the credible fear process. Under the proposed rules, asylum seekers who have lived unlawfully in the U.S. for more than a year, failed to file taxes, or have a criminal conviction would possess a “significant adverse factor” to gaining refuge in the country.
Another proposal would alter the third-country transit ban to a rule that suggests there’s an “increased likelihood that the alien is misusing the asylum system as a mechanism to enter and remain in the United States” if the individual transited one country before arriving at the border and did not first apply for asylum in that country. The proposal would also effectively eliminate gender-based asylum, leaving those fleeing domestic violence, rape, and LGBTQ-based violence unable to seek refuge in the United States.
Storms are forecasted in Brownsville throughout next week. The levee on which the camp is built will flood in the event of a hurricane. Aid workers, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), are putting the finishing touches on an emergency evacuation plan. In the meantime, a volunteer with an engineering background works with asylum seeker staff at Resource Center Matamoros to mitigate flooding in the camp during inclement weather. RCM staff constructed and distributed wooden pallets primarily to the South end of the camp in recent weeks, lifting one of the tiendas and families’ tents off the ground to prevent flooding. Staff dug drainage ditches, culverts, and is working on preventing soil erosion, distributing gravel, and keeping drinking water clean.
Global Response Management said on Friday that nobody in the camp is in isolation in its field hospital and that nobody is expected to test positive. GRM’s staff, most of which are asylum seekers with medical degrees, tested Mexican officials who had a presence in the camp. The spread of the virus appears to be well-contained for now due to collaborative isolation efforts between aid workers and Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM).
At the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, the organization’s asylum seeker staff is teaching classes remotely via tablets distributed to students. Team Brownsville’s Escuelita de la Banqueta added books to its library, and the organization helped the Resource Center distribute sacks of food early this month in addition to its remotely-organized daily meal services. All organizations listed are accepting donations. More information can be found on each group’s Facebook page.