A protest on the Gateway International Bridge ended early Tuesday morning without incident when Mexican authorities escorted a group of about 100 asylum seekers requesting entry into the United States back to Matamoros, Tamaulipas.
According to a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, vehicular and pedestrian traffic was temporarily halted shortly after 1 a.m. on Tuesday for about three and a half hours. The incident occurred when the group approached CBP personnel stationed at the international line requesting information on immigration processing timelines. “Mexican authorities dispersed the crowd and traffic resumed shortly before 5 a.m. without incident,” wrote the agency.
A witness at the bridge reported that some of the officers were armed despite the fact that the demonstration remained peaceful on the part of the asylum seekers. Asked to describe CBP procedure in response to such a demonstration, the agency stated, “CBP is a law enforcement agency and our highly trained officers will respond in a manner commensurate with the specific threat they may face in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public and their fellow officers. That being said, per our policy, trained officers equipped with pepperball launching systems and long guns also responded to mid-bridge as the intent of the group was not known initially. There were no reports of individual officers drawing their weapons.”
Founders of the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers Felicia Rangel-Samponaro received messages from staff just before 2 a.m. on Tuesday regarding the protest. Staff explained that Mexican nationals seeking asylum had decided to protest the U.S. government’s refusal to let them cross and had asked asylum seekers of other nationalities to participate, but those asked reportedly declined. This week, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf announced in a statement that the border would remain closed to nonessential travel until July 21. The decision was an extension of the March 20 CDC order that also shut down the U.S. asylum system, postponing ongoing hearings and authorizing the immediate expulsion of anyone who crosses the border without documents.
Rangel Samponaro and co-founder Victor Cavazos opted to go to the bridge to ensure officials handled the situation peacefully. They were the last to arrive before Mexican officials closed off the entryway, barring pedestrians and vehicles from getting anywhere near the checkpoint. For three hours, the group waited peacefully on the bridge, even trying to sleep. Rangel-Samponaro and Cavazos took shifts watching the situation unfold. They opted to stay until everyone was escorted off the bridge safely. “People trying to cross had turned their cars off, they were standing outside their cars, walking up to the gate where Border Patrol was, asking what was going on,” Rangel-Samponaro said.
Those inconvenienced by the protest against the shutdown of the U.S. asylum system tried to disrupt the action. Three women driving vehicles bearing Texas plates allegedly wove through traffic, parking next to the demonstration. One of the women allegedly berated a group of children. “They turned on their car alarms and let them go off for 30 to 45 minutes. They went up to the guards demanding to be let into the U.S., because they’re American,” she said. “After, they set off their car alarms and honked their horns. One of them called some children over to the car window. She told them that if they’re so brave, they need to jump into the river and swim for it.”
Rangel-Samporano watched CBP allow two of those women entry into the United States after Mexican military escorted the asylum seekers off the bridge and into Matamoros. On the Mexican side, video showed the roads leading up to the checkpoint totally empty, with armed military holding back a line of cars and pedestrians at the gate near Garcia’s. U.S. and Mexican authorities reportedly shut down all traffic at the bridge, including a crowd of asylum seekers who at 4:30 needed to present at court in Brownsville to avoid having their cases dismissed. Rangel-Samponaro witnessed Mexican military, armed with rifles, barring pedestrians and vehicles from moving past the gate in front of the restaurant.
Walking back, Rangel-Samonaro and Cavazos ran into a Cuban doctor working in the camp, who with his girlfriend was trying to approach the bridge to get to court. They wanted photographs of the incident to use as proof in case a judge attempted to dismiss their cases in absentia. Mexican officials reopened the bridge to traffic shortly thereafter, but the director said there was real fear among those seeking asylum that court dates had been missed. “I saw hundreds of people running to that bridge. Running. Because they were late to court and if you’re late, you get deported back to your home country,” she said.