Reynosa - one camp closes, another one opens.
Solidarity Engineering works in Reynosa, Mexico to provide water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure in camps and shelters throughout the city.
Jodi Goodwin, ESQ
Jodi Goodwin practices immigration law on the border in Harlingen, Texas. Jodi has published decisions from the Fifth and the Eighth Circuits as well as the Board of Immigration Appeals. She has many accolades including Texas Super Lawyer and Best Lawyers in America and Texas Lawyer’s Top Notch Immigration Lawyer. She was awarded the Arthur C. Helton Award for Advancing Human Rights, the Michael Maggio Pro Bono Award, the Frank J. Scurlock Award and St. Mary’s University Distinguished Law Graduate Award. Jodi is past-Chair of the Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and has served as a Director for the Cameron County Bar Association. She also chaired the Cameron and Willacy County Subcommittee of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee for the Texas Supreme Court from 1998 to 2015. She was an Advisory Member of the ABA’s Commission on Immigration and is a member of IMMLAW, the national consortium of immigration lawyers. She is currently focusing her pro bono efforts providing legal services to those refugees in Brownsville/Matamoros for asylum representation.
Tucker is the Project Coordinator for Global Response Management's (GRM) Reynosa project. Before working in Reynosa, he was the Logistician for GRM's clinic in the Matamoros refugee camp. In Matamoros, Tucker and the team he worked with devised a multi-person sink that has now been adopted by UNHCR, implemented SPHERE standards for portapottie, sink, and shower distribution, and created a sanitation program to combat the spread of COVID-19 in camp.
Felicia is a co-founder and director of the Sidewalk School - an education based NGO that was founded in response to the Matamoros refugee camp in 2019. lThe Sidewalk School provides quality education, medical care, COVID-19 testing, employment, housing, and food assistance to those who would go without as they experience displacement on the Mexico border. The Sidewalk School has been in 9 cities across Mexico to serve Children Asylum Seekers as they await their U.S trials or their turn to file for U.S. asylum. To do this, we work alongside the Asylum Seeking community. In doing so, we employ experienced professionals who are currently facing displacement in the refugee camps and shelters to create lesson plans, teach classes, and provide support to students who are in need.
Erin Hughes, PE
Erin is a licensed Professional Engineer as well as one of the founding members and Principal Engineer of Solidarity Engineering. Erin started working at the US/Mexico border in response to the Matamoros camp opening and lead projects there ranging from stormwater management to playground construction. Erin now leads the organization in it's efforts to provide equitable water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) access to populations affected by climate change and/or displacement around the world. Erin's expertise is in stormwater initiatives, construction and project management, and is one of the producers of this podcast.
Website: Senda de Vida
Pastor Hector is the founder and Director of Senda de Vida- the biggest shelter for asylum seekers in Reynosa, Mexico. He and his wife Mary Lou have been running the shelter since 2000 and have provides shelter, food, clothes, and more for thousands of asylum seekers. At the time of the production of this podcast, Senda de Vida was home to 1,000 asylum seekers after it had more than doubled it's size in response to the growing numbers in Reynosa, Mexico.
Asylum seeker interviews
This episode contains interviews that share the perspectives of four different asylum seekers who are currently living in Reynosa, Mexico waiting to apply for asylum. Due to their active cases as well as safety concerns the asylum seekers will remain anonymous. They come from all over the world including: Cuba, Honduras, Syria, and Lebannon.
Matamoros refugee camp February 2021 // Matamoros refugee camp May 2021 // Reynosa refugee camp September 2021
Drone imagery by Christa Cook. All photos show Mexico, the Rio Grande River, and the US on the side.
Content warning: Today’s episode includes conversations about violence and sometimes uses harsh language. It may not be suitable for all listeners. The following intro includes a message sent from a cartel member during a kidnapping of an asylum seeker and may be triggering for some listeners. You can fast forward 3 minutes to skip this part of the show if desired. All identifying information of those involved has been beeped out for safety purposes.
Spanish: ¿Patrón, qué tal? ¿Cómo estás? Mira jefecito me dieron tu número, que en este parte de *** que usted dice, *** que no le ha pagado todavía. Entonces por favor patrón, ya no es mucho, porque solo me queda debiendo con *** quetzales. Ese patroncito porque la señora aquí lo tengo en Reynosa, Tamaulipas. ¿Usted sabe, patronas? Que aquí en Reynosa, hasta en la mano la mafia, la señora. Necesito que pague usted ese dinero, porque patrón, la verdad, mañana no sólo no están dando chance a antes a mediodía para hacer los depósitos. Si usted no responde patrono o los familiares a esta señora no responde, aquí patrón, usted sabe que no se juegue la mafia. Aquí patrón, no se vayan a repetir porque la pobre señora aquí está sufriendo. Entonces, por favor que te deposite ese dinero para que lo sueltan a la señora. Ahora, si no patrón, porque la señora en la tarde les va a mandar foto, cómo va a quedar la señora. Por juegos patrón si usted tiene trato con ***, marque a este *** que le hagan a hacer los depósitos. O usted patrón, les voy a mandar un número de cuenta Banrural de Guatemala para que pongan depósito más rápido que se pueda, gracias.
English: Boss, what's up, how are you? Look, boss, they gave me your number, on behalf of *** that, you know, *** has not been paid yet. So please boss, it's not much, because it’s only *** quetzals to ***. Because boss, the lady is here in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. You know, boss? That here in Reynosa, which is in hands of the mafia, is the lady. I need you to pay that money, because boss, the truth is, tomorrow they are not going to give you another chance to if the deposit is not done before noon. If you do not respond boss, or the relatives of this lady do not respond boss, you know, the mafia is not playing. Here boss, we aren’t going to repeat ourselves because the poor lady here is suffering. So, please deposit that money so the lady can be released. If you don't boss, in the afternoon, we will send you a photo of the lady, and how the lady is going to look. Boss if you have dealings with ***, message *** in order to make the deposit. Or for you boss, I’m going to send you the account number in Guatemala so you can make that deposit as quickly as possible, thank you.
Chloe Rastatter: Hi, and welcome to Dignity Displaced, a podcast by Solidarity Engineering. I’m one of your hosts Chloe Rastatter and I work with Solidarity Engineering, a small grassroots organization that’s been working at the US/Mexico border for the past year and a half. Today’s episode is about something that’s been in the news a lot since the Biden administration took over- the humanitarian crisis at our own Southern border. The purpose of today’s episode is to get an overarching view as to how the border has, or hasn’t changed, with the change of administration.
Although the crisis is border wide, this episode focuses largely on one city, Reynosa, Mexico, which is one of the most dangerous places on the border and is unfortunately one of the central points of the crisis. In Reynosa, everything from local government to police are controlled by the cartel, making the asylum seekers living there extremely susceptible to things like rape, kidnapping, extorsion, and murder. So today you’ll hear from a variety of actors who have lived it or worked it including a lawyer, multiple humanitarian aid workers, and multiple asylum seekers who are currently stuck in Reynosa risking their lives for the chance to even apply for asylum in the US, about what exactly has been happening at the border in the 10 months since Biden took office.
Since October of 2020, nearly 1.5 million people have come to the US/Mexico border. A large portion of these people came to the Rio Grande Valley, which is the most eastern region of the US/Mexico border and is near the Gulf of Mexico- it happens to be where this story is focused on.
The Rio Grande Valley and one of the Mexican cities that resides within it, Matamoros, received a lot of attention during the Trump administration due to the formation of a de-facto refugee camp. After a 2020 presidential debate this place became notoriously known as the place where asylum seekers who were fleeing for their lives were forced to live in, as President Biden phrased it, “squalor” on the other side of the border
Biden campaigned heavily on a humane border, and this was a promise that was heard all around the world- from voters to humanitarian aid workers, to people contemplating if they should risk everything to make the dangerous journey up to the US/Mexico border. He left little room for ambiguity about how he felt towards the Trump era immigration policies.
To make the point clear, here’s exactly what Biden’s campaign website says on its immigration page: “It is a moral failing and a national shame when a father and his baby daughter drown seeking our shores. When children are locked away in overcrowded detention centers and the government seeks to keep them there indefinitely. When our government argues in court against giving those children toothbrushes and soap. When President Trump uses family separation as a weapon against desperate mothers, fathers, and children seeking safety, and a better life. When he threatens massive raids that would break up families who have been in this country for years and targets people at sensitive locations like hospitals and schools. When children die in custody due to lack of adequate care. Trump has waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants. It’s wrong, and it stops when Joe Biden is elected president.”
Unfortunately, Biden left a lot of room for ambiguity as to how exactly this “unrelenting assault” would stop. Now, here we are as a country, 10 months after he has taken office. The Matamoros camp has been closed, although the barbed wired fence that use to be the only protection for thousands of asylum seekers from gang violence, still stands, and since Biden’s inauguration there have been about 1 million asylum seekers expelled back into Mexico or rapidly deported without due process under Trump-era policies that Biden still has not addressed.
Humanitarian aid workers in the Valley who were once hopeful for meaningful change are now scrambling to meet the basic survival needs for thousands, and asylum seekers who are fleeing extreme violence are living in more dangerous conditions than they were under Trump.
Now, it’s needless to say that a lot has happened at the border since Biden took office in January, but the events haven’t exactly panned out as many have hoped. So what exactly has or hasn’t changed at the border under the new administration? Stay tuned.
ACT 1: The closing of one camp, the opening of another
Chloe Rastatter: Historically under U.S. law people who left their countries fleeing persecution could arrive to the US without a valid visa and apply for asylum on the spot, regardless of how they entered- whether that be through crossing the river or going through a formal point of entry. They would undergo what is known as a credible fear interview that’s conducted by immigration officials and if they passed it, meaning the officers decided, using their discretion, that the person had a believable fear that there’s any risk they’d be harmed, persecuted, or tortured if they were to return to their home country, they’d be paroled into the US, into safety, where they would wait out the duration of their asylum case- which can take years.
The right to seek asylum is not only in U.S. laws- it is an internationally recognized human right. But this system which the US built in order to avoid sending people back to places they could be seriously harmed in, started to become dismantled under Trump resulting in the formation of the Matamoros refugee camp- the place where today’s story really starts.
In order to get an idea of how we got where we are today, where hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers are stuck waiting in dangerous border towns, risking their lives just to wait their turn to even apply for asylum or being deported back to the very places their fleeing from, I talked to Jodi Goodwin, a lawyer who has been working in the Valley throughout many administration changes.
Jodi told me, as far as recent policy goes, this mass stagnation of asylum seekers at our border really started in 2018 with Trump’s zero tolerance and family separation policy- which made it so all people who entered the country without prior permission from the US government, including asylum seekers, were prosecuted. Asylum seekers were detained and anyone under the age of 18 was separated from their family and put under the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
After family separation came metering, which is a term that describes to the US government’s limitation on the number of people that they process at each port of entry each day. In the light of family separation, people started waiting at these points of entry, but more people came than were let in and who was let in was determined by these lists, which were often controlled by organized crime groups- which meant that many asylum seekers had to pay money to organized crime groups to get on these lists to have a chance to apply for asylum. This is how the first camp in Matamoros started, and where we really start today. Here’s Jodi.
Jodi Goodwin: So after family separation, zero tolerance, that was in mid to late May of 2018, almost immediately the creation of lists and metering lists, became you know sort of the practice of the day at every southwest border crossing so the border it sort of became a monster in it of itself after zero tolerance and family separation and the reason was people assumed that if you went to the bridge, they wouldn't take your kids away, so instead of crossing through the river, people you know were signing up to, to wait and then, as those lists grew and grew and grew, it resulted in the situation where we, we saw in the summer where the camps started, at least in Matamoros where the camps started and there was a trickle of people you know being processed each, each day- a small trickle so that meant that there were, you know, far more coming, you know, coming to sign up on the, the metering list than there were actually entering the US. So and that you know, stayed its course sort of the trickle effect until about July 19th of 2019, which is the day that MPP was implemented in, in the Rio Grande Valley,
Chloe Rastatter: MPP, which was formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols and informally known as the Remain in Mexico Policy, was an Executive order put out by the Trump administration in 2019 which required asylum seekers, for the first time in US history, to wait out the duration of their proceedings in Mexico, rather than in the United States, in safety. This program got a lot of push back as it resulted in the documented exploitation, rape, murder, and kidnapping of asylum seekers who were waiting in Mexico, and it was a centralized point during Biden’s campaign.
Jodi Goodwin: So July 19th, 2019 was a was a, uh, a watershed day in terms of the humanitarian crisis in Matamoros at least, mind you, different rollout dates you know affected different parts of the border. So July 19th was the first day that people were sent back to Matamoros under the MPP program. And although there had been, you know, sort of a makeshift encampment in, in Matamoros prior to that because of the trickling effect of metering there was always somewhere between maybe 80-120 people sleeping on the street, you know, waiting in in tents or what have you to come to be processed in.
So what happened on July 19th is through the combined numbers of people who had presented themselves at the bridge and people who had crossed the river, Border Patrol sent back 120 people per day, every day and for a really long time over a year. And what ended up happening you know, sort of was this geometric increase on a daily basis of people who didn't have anywhere to go and no, you know nowhere to, to seek shelter or protection, and that led to the increase in the number of people living on the streets in Mexico, not just in Matamoros but in in in all cities in Mexico- all border cities, I mean. And you know ultimately, it led to you know, the de-facto refugee camp that was in Matamoros from July 2019 through February 2021.
Chloe Rastatter: So this camp received a ton of attention not only because of the dangers it put asylum seekers at as it forced thousands to wait in extremely violent places, places like Matamoros which the Department of Homeland Security puts in the same category of danger as Syria, but also because of the living conditions it resulted in caused people to live in extremely unsanitary conditions. With a recognized refugee camp, the UN is there to facilitate basic survival services such as shelter, water, bathrooms, security, food etc. However, the UN didn’t have a presence in this camp because they have to be invited by the country in which the camp is located- in this case Mexico. But Mexico didn’t invite the UN and nor did they really take responsibility for the asylum seekers now living in this camp, so almost all services in the camp were provided by small humanitarian aid organizations- many of which were out of Brownsville, Texas. It was small organizations providing everything from food, to tents, to medical, for thousands of people affected by these policies.
And the controversial policies by the Trump administration did not end with MPP. In March of 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration enacted a policy known as Title 42. This “public health measure” resulted in the border being closed to “non-essential travel” and included asylum in this definition. So, since March of 2020, asylum seekers have been expelled back into Mexico without even receiving a credible fear interview. They’re basically told “sorry, the border is closed until further notice.”
And so this is what Biden walked into. 1- MPP forcing approximately 65,000 asylum seekers who had approached the border before COVID to be waiting in Mexico while their cases went through the courts. 2- Title 42 which turned hundreds of thousands more asylum seekers away with no next steps provided, and 3- the knowledge that migration was expected to increase in the spring of 2021 due to political instability, climate change, and the pandemic exacerbating existing problems in countries where the majority of asylum seekers had fled from in recent years.
Jodi Goodwin: In between, you know, March 2020 and then when the Biden administration took over, there were no immigration courts, nobody was being processed for asylum, everybody was being either sent back to Mexico or sent back to their home country without hearings without, you know any opportunity to seek protections. Then comes the Biden administration and you know, one of the first things that the Biden administration did was terminate the MPP program and that led to the wind down of the MPP program, which also led to people that were waiting in the MPP program you know, either with, you know with cases that were currently pending or people that hadn't had court at all, were paroled into the United States and I mean, I think you know hindsight is now 2020, but I think the clear reason you know why that was initially done was to close the camp in in Matamoros specifically and I think that was a very targeted diplomatic move which kind of backfired but we'll get to that in a minute.
So you know when, when things you know initially were starting to, to wind down in in terms of the camp, you know I went back to work quite a bit in Mexico and trying to, you know, talk with all of the individuals in the camp in in terms of you know what their rights, what their obligations were, what kind of choices they would need to make and and because not everybody was necessarily eligible to, you know, go through the wind down process. So there was a lot of you know, sort of liaison and I guess we'll call it between the US government, UNHCR, the residents of the camp and, and I guess it's kind of important to note that you know these outside actors, you know that came in to be able to do the wind down through UNHCR and HIAS and you know, and the US government representatives, they were, they were untrustworthy people in the eyes of the migrants. And, you know, it was really important for them to see the people who they had been seeing for the last year and a half.
Chloe Rastatter: And with that, the camp was systematically closed and bulldozed. Almost everything was destroyed within days. Shortly after MPP was terminated, organizations who had been working in the camp for almost a year and a half were suddenly denied access to the camp and UNHCR, the refugee office of the UN, took over. Almost all asylum seekers crossed, but as they crossed, their tents were taken down by Mexican immigration. All of the work and money that local organizations had invested into the camp, was suddenly gone. MPP was terminated, meaning that tens of thousands of people were able to cross. But Title 42 is still active, meaning asylum seekers who approach the border since March of 2020, were still out of luck, and the number of asylum seekers stuck under Title 42, far surpassed that of people stuck under MPP, and the number of new asylum seekers presenting themselves at the border was already increasing at the time of the camp being bulldozed.
With the camp closure, came a media circus, and when I say media circus, I mean a media circus. By day news agencies reported how Biden was making good on his campaign promise to end MPP as the first step to a more humane border. But what they didn’t report on was the internal conversations between groups about how the closure of the camp likely meant trouble- where would all of the asylum seekers who were on their way up to the border go? This problem was undeniably clear even during the days of the camp closing, in fact, people were trying to jump over the barbed wire fence into the camp at night as it was closing, because they had nowhere else to go. All people who entered the camp during this period were removed, and as asylum seekers who were under MPP crossed, their tents were completely torn down, to really ensure that no new families could convene there. The camp went from an informal, but alive tent city, to being completely deserted in a guarded stretch of land. The fence that was once built to keep organized crime members out and asylum seekers inside now was now the precise thing that kept asylum seekers on the streets, and more vulnerable to violence.
Jodi Goodwin: So, so the camp winds down almost everybody in the camp get, gets across. And then from there that took up basically February, March there was still some slower processing of the MPP wind down through you know, April/May, and at the same time, you know there was this, you know, increased pressure for some sort of end to Title 42, because although it's, you know, a public health provision that's being used to limit people's ability to seek protection. I mean, I think that, I mean, I'm not a public health person, but I think that we can all pretty much agree that it really does nothing to protect the public in terms of, of health.
So what the Biden administration was able to do was to create a mechanism where people who were in a vulnerable population could seek an exemption to Title 42. And that was sort of a two-prong approach because one of them, one of the exemption processes was, you know, sort of administratively created by the administration but then there was also, you know, sort of a push on the litigation side because several organizations had filed a lawsuit against the administration for the way that Title 42 was implemented against vulnerable populations. So there were two processes that were going on at the same time. But the effect of each of those processes was the same is that people could come into the United States, be processed, seek protection and you know, not be sent back to Mexico to, to be put into harm's way. And the other practical thing I think that you know, sort of shifted after February of 2021, is the focus on where individuals were expelled. Previously, most of the expulsions for the Rio Grande Valley had been done in Matamoros, and I think, and this is me guessing, but I think along the same lines you know of the political or diplomatic pull to close the camp, there was also some pressure to not send people back to Matamoros like Matamoros was, you know effectively saying hey you already used us enough, but what happened is worse conditions and larger numbers ended up in an encampment, you know, in Reynosa.
Chloe Rastatter: And so within a matter of weeks of the closure of the established Matamoros camp, came the creation of a brand-new camp, in a way smaller location, in a more dangerous city, 50 miles away in Reynosa, Mexico. Now, aid workers who put in an immense amount of work into the Matamoros camp were forced to start over, in a place that was way harder to work in, and with little indication of exactly what the plan was. You know, it makes you wonder how much of the camp closure was a publicity stunt? Was that all it was? Likely, we’ll never really know, but regardless, now, in Fall of 2021, we’re looking at a future that eerily resembles 2019 as MPP, less than 6 months after it was terminated and everything in the camp was lost, is going to be reinstated.
Jodi Goodwin: So you know initially the Biden administration issued a memo terminating MPP and then of course there was, you know, lawsuits that were filed after that, notably the state of Texas filed a lawsuit basically challenging the authority of the administration to, to terminate the program, and there is a decision in an injunction that was written by a Texas District Court judge that basically says that the, the Biden administration did not have the authority to terminate MPP in the manner that they did. And it you know, although it in it in enjoins the administration from ending the program, it also required the administration to put the program back in place and that they had to make good faith efforts to put the program back in place.
But at least as of right now, we don’t know what that’s gonna look like and certainly I mean as advocates you know here on the ground, we are pushing the administration to use the blueprint that the judge set out in his decision and re-terminate the program, so that, so that we don't we don't have you know, have another MPP which, by the way, was a disaster, you know, on you know multiple levels.
Chloe Rastatter: Talking to other aid workers in the Valley, you get this sense of chaos felt from all angles due to the exploding need. I certainty feel it in my day to day. Almost every month since Biden has taken office, more asylum seekers have approached the border than the previous month- and although some are crossing under exemptions- many are not. And these exemption programs are being winded down, so more and more people are getting stuck
Jodi Goodwin: June, July and August was full on Title 42 exemptions. Like my phone was paralyzed because thousands of people were calling me from all cities along the border wanting me to, you know, screen their case for vulnerability to try to get exemptions, like literally, like my office has three phone lines, we're small office- there's five people here. We only have 3 phone lines like all day long we could not even make a phone call on our office phone because people in the camp would literally call, the same person, would call 100/150 times a day, just hoping that they could get in, you know? And it was three months of craziness. But that stopped, so, so now I’m trying to catch up.
ACT 2: It’s your country, your problem?
Chloe Rastatter: Since the closure of the camp, humanitarian aid workers have been caught in a wave of uncertainty as everything has changed, while simultaneously many things are the same as they were under Trump. Advocates are getting increasingly frustrated, and in mid-October a group that regularly meets with the administration staged a walk out in protest of their handling of MPP’s reinstatement.
In this act, you’ll hear from a number of aid workers who now work in Reynosa, Mexico as we try to answer one simple question: how have their jobs changed with the change of administration?
First, we’ll hear from Brendon Tucker, the Project Manager of Global Response Management, a medical NGO that has clinics in Matamoros and Reynosa. Tucker went from doing logistics for GRM in the Matamoros camp, to opening multiple clinics in Reynosa following the closure of Matamoros. Here’s Tucker.
Brendon Tucker: My job has gotten harder because it's gotten worse. MPP technically ended. They let people from the camp in. They let other people that were in under MPP in. And if you weren't under MPP then they made you stay in Mexico. The Biden administration, saw the camp, wanted it, everybody to cross, wanted it to be great. Most people got across, some didn't. They shut the doors to the camp, they bulldozed it. Thousands of hours of manpower went into building that camp to make it a livable safe-ish place for people to wait, to seek their right of asylum in the States. It provided water, we had clean drinking water. We had showers. We had clothes washing stations. We had medical. We had legal help for asylum in Mexico and in the US. There were free stores for donations, there were kitchens, there were two different schools set up. There was 88 sinks all over the place and we had tons of COVID precautions put into place. It was open air, there was space. People took turns doing security. It wasn't perfect, but we were beating Speer guidelines by like six months. Except for spacing on tents. And because of the optics of it, Biden became president. They quote quote ended MPP. Title 42 Just kept everybody that wasn't under MPP, stuck there. We're essentially back at metering where we were in 2018 when we had 15 people on the bridge. So now we've got 5000 in Reynosa.
And people are less outraged because the language is different, right? It's palatable. They're pretending to try. They're blaming these judges that are blocking ending MPP and it's gotten worse, every shelter in Matamoros is over capacity, right? Every shelter in Reynosa is over capacity. They're literally doubling the sizes of shelters just to not have enough room because of Title 42 and now ultimately MPP all over again, and they're pretending like it’s a health, public health measure. Title 42 is saying that “Well, we can't let anyone in because of COVID,” I can't get my mind around it. It's a hopeless death spiral that has real people involved and real people are dying, going missing, staying sick, crossing, and never getting found again and getting disappeared. So the change in administration just makes the people that aren't here feel better about it. And nothing’s changed.
Chloe Rastatter: Next, we’ll hear from Erin Hughes one of the co-founders of Solidarity Engineering and the Principal Engineer of the organization. Solidarity was founded in response to the Matamoros camp and after its closure, Solidarity moved its headquarters 50 miles away to McAllen/Reynosa area to set up water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure at the new camp in Reynosa as well as in surrounding shelters.
Erin Hughes: My name is Erin Hughes, I’m the Principal Engineer for Solidarity Engineering. When the Matamoros camp closed, there was a lot of uncertainty as far as you know, was this going to be a permanent thing where you know, asylum seekers going to be quickly processed and be able to come into the into the United States, or not? And so, when more and more displaced people and you know refugees were coming up and they were not being processed quickly it was super frustrating to see now like now, this camp that had established infrastructure that NGO's had put thousands of dollars into. That camp had been bulldozed, closed and then bulldozed, and so all of these new asylum seekers coming up thousands of them didn't have those resources that we had spent months, years putting together.
It was like whiplash having the camp in Matamoros close, and now thousands of asylum seekers didn't have an established camp to go to so now they're back on the streets it felt like we were starting back at square one and just in a different city. So now we had to kind of shift our efforts and move to a new camp just as big, you know thousands of people that were just an hour West of Matamoros and start over essentially. A lot of the NGO's were really hesitant to get involved in Reynosa. And they, they kind of thought we all, kind of thought that it, it might be more transient, might be more temporary. And I think everyone was also like exhausted from everything that we had done in Matamoros, and we were all kind of hopeful that this problem was now going to be over, and we could move our efforts into a different cause or something somewhere else, or and then to learn that Reynosa was, that the camp in Reynosa was happening and growing, and it took months for some for some organizations to get involved.
Reynosa’s more dangerous than Matamoros, which is crazy to say, because Matamoros is super dangerous, but the whole state of Tamaulipas is rated Level 4, by like the US government. So folks, you know when, when folks hear about us going into Reynosa, even people from the other NGO's when they heard about that camp forming, I think you know the danger aspect definitely played a part in people’s hesitation.
I feel like every, everything that we're doing in Reynosa has this high level of uncertainty. Any infrastructure that we put into the plaza encampment, it's not an official camp like the Matamoros camp was, so at any time that camp could dissolve, the authorities could come in and take down all of the infrastructure that we put in even though the biggest shelter out there at Senda de Vida was threatened by the local authorities to be shut down and, and bulldozed. So every aspect of Reynosa has this lingering feeling of uncertainty which is, which just feels uncomfortable.
It was such a rollercoaster of emotions. Biden, wins and you have this extreme high and then you know the camp closes and like that has its own kind of emotional baggage with it. And then the new camp is forming in Reynosa, and you're realizing slowly you know your, your hopefulness is, is just being replaced by disappointment as you're realizing slowly that Title 42 is kind of taking over the role of MPP and you know this, this idea that this crisis was going to go away, and you know all of these refugees were going to be granted entry to apply for their asylum. That's not actually going to be happening, so that's super disappointing.
I feel bamboozled by the Biden administration. They campaigned on the idea that you know they were going to do immigration reform, they were going to do asylum reform, and they came in and it really doesn't feel like it's any different. It really doesn't feel like it's any different it, it's just as frustrating. You know these people, they need to reach safety and there's no safety in Reynosa. And it's just a constant, it's constant fear and it's constant struggle and violence and you know, as NGO workers we get a small window into what these people are feeling and going through, and I can't even imagine being in their shoes. It's just it feels, it's so heavy. I'm just very, super disappointed in the Biden administration's handling of asylum and immigration.
I definitely think that myself, and a lot of the NGO's down here are feeling super burnt out and tired of the same old thing because there's only so much that we can do on the ground. Change needs to happen at the policy level. Otherwise, we're going to continue putting a band aid on this problem and you know, we really do need the Biden administration or our, just our government in general to change their, their policies and accept these refugees into our country and give them a fair shot at asylum because it's getting, it’s the same thing over and over every day. You know that burnout is real.
Biden needs to take responsibility for the promises that he made during his campaign, and he's not, he's pussyfooting around and actively just making things harder than they need to be.
Chloe Rastatter: Now here’s Pastor Hector. He’s a Mexican Pastor who has been running a shelter, Senda de Vida in Reynosa for years. In response to the growing crisis, this summer Pastor Hector expanded his shelter, doubling its size to try to get people out of the dangerous camp in the plaza. He is also the person you can hear preaching in the opening of this act. Here’s Pastor Hector.
Hector Silva: My name is Hector Silva director of Senda de Vida, you know it's a lot of change, it’s a lot of hope for the families. But the families was here when Trump admin, there was so much crying. I can see little girls thinking about the president. Even in the school, the girls was coming and they wanna write something, and they was making this picture of Trump you know, there was like I'm talking about migrant’s kids. So now, I see the children's playing and, and they say Pastor, we thanks God that they see many people they went to the United States and they, even the little girls or boys they got hope that sooner or later they gunna be reunited with this other family. So it’s a lot different, yes.
Chloe Rastatter: Finally, here’s Felieica Rangel-Samponaro one of the directors of the Sidewalk School which is an education-based organization that was founded in response to the Matamoros camp. After the Matamoros camp closed, the Sidewalk School shifted their focus to Reynosa where they had to get their hands into a lot of different things. Here’s Felicia:
Felicia Rangel-Samponaro: So my name is Felicia Rangel-Samponaro. I'm one of the directors of the Sidewalk School. Our work for the Sidewalk School changed dramatically. Most people in Reynosa have no idea we’re a school and that's because we do so many other things in that one city alone.
So, under Trump's administration, we could really concentrate on education. And that's how we were able to expand to so many cities at one time, I think at our most we had seven cities going. But that was under Trump’s administration and sadly that was because of MPP, because people were not moving, so it kept the schools stable- believe it or not, and that's how we were able to expand so far, and so quickly. As you can imagine, usually NGOs don't expand like that so quickly, but MPP helped in that way, to bring education to more children, so under Biden's administration, he took away MPP, but Title 42 expelled asylum seekers into border cities because of COVID the pandemic, that's continuing to go on.
But Reynosa is a very different city than Matamoros, the danger is a lot higher, and the assaults and kidnappings happen constantly in that city. So, a lot of the American NGO's that were in Matamoros didn't want to cross back into Mexico to go to Reynosa, which is a 45-minute drive from Matamoros.
We were there for the very beginning of the Reynosa encampment, just like we were there for the very beginning of the Matamoros encampment. But because we were the only American NGO there for a time period, we had to get into everything- medical, the building of the encampment, and then we also were also doing pre-screenings for the American lawyers through WISHA. We were the and we still are the face of the American lawyers, so we were doing pre-screenings this whole time and then we were also crossing hundreds and hundreds of COVID tests every single week. So, we just got into a lot of different things out of necessity. So, when I say people don't know we're a school, they don't know that because they see us as doing all these other things.
And sometime down the line, if we continue to see you, eventually you'll figure out we’re the Sidewalk School. Currently we have three schools in Reynosa. We're trying to put a fourth one up in the plaza, and that's because MPP is being reinstated. Which once again gives our school stability, and that's how our school grows in these border cities.
The administration is different, but the exact same thing is happening, which is the expulsion of asylum seekers. It's just under, it's just called something else. Which is Title 42, but now it's about to go back to what it was under Trump, which is MPP. So that's how work is, has changed.
ACT 3: Sorry, border’s closed, that’s your problem.
Chloe Rastatter: The policies that have and haven’t changed have affected hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers as now they’re forced to wait, in limbo with no next steps at our border.
Reynosa is one of the most dangerous places in Mexico, and with little to no legal processes or documentation happening, accurate data on how many asylum seekers have been subject to violent crimes here doesn’t exist. But the one thing almost everyone can agree on is it’s happening constantly.
On top of the stress of living in a place where kidnapping and murder is rampant, the asylum seekers at our border are left with a lot of questions and very few answers. Coming up is a conversation I had casually the other day with two asylum seekers who just recently arrived at the border hoping to apply for asylum, as they’re fleeing for their lives, only to find that they were completely turned away at our border.
The background noise is a little loud, as this conversation was in a refugee camp, but this is an example of the types of conversations that I feel like I have constantly. Whose policies are at fault? Biden? Trump? Are there other places you can go apply for asylum legally? How can they get a lawyer? When will they be able to cross? They went to the border, and they were turned away? What next? The answers always the same: sorry, I’m not a lawyer I just work on the water systems, but as far as I know the border is closed because of COVID. One of the worst parts of these policies is the limbo it puts people in, no timeline is given, no progress is made, no goal is within reach- all while they’re living in tents with the threat of violence constantly looming.
1: No way from Texas?
Chloe Rastatter: I don't think so. Well, I don't know.
2: Texas is the more hard now. Yeah, let's say. Because there is a lot of.
1: You know that the more the military here. Yeah, the military here is from Trump not from Biden you know and Trump didn't like. Trump is more strong about.
2: No, but before when was Trump a lot of people cross.
2: Yes, from here.
1: One friend said for me, his brother was there with his family.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, so I mean under Trump, some people crossed.
2: He says no, they say Trump was more, harder and I don't know. But some people say for me, when was Trump her brothers or family, they can they pass from here. I don't know.
Chloe Rastatter: So, Trump was, he was the one who started the policies that have closed the border now.
1: Yes, he make the border and start.
2: Why this is here, a lot of people coming?
Chloe Rastatter: Why did a lot of people come?
1: First of all, for COVID their countries, the economic in their countries is bad. And all the war, all the war in the Middle East, also in Syria, the war in Syria, in Afghanistan, because the American left, the Taliban now are there and all people are leaving, and Lebanon the problem in Lebanon, in Venezuela, in Cuba. And Haiti there was a problem, they kill the president and there is a problem.
2: I think I seen the news, Joe Biden make 600 persons go in and after that people come.
Chloe Rastatter: Well, what you're talking about is when Biden became president, there was a camp in Matamoros which is an hour from here that were people who were waiting under Trump and then Biden closed that camp, let everybody cross, and a bunch of news came. And then people think that the border was going to be open, but the border is closed to asylum too, did you know that?
1: No, they say yes
Chloe Rastatter: He said it was open?
1: Yes, I think so
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, yeah, I mean I hate to be the bearer of bad news
2: What do you do here exactly
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, so I’m an engineer...
Chloe Rastatter: There's a lot of confusion and misinformation in these camps. A lot of people have family who were just recently able to cross and apply for asylum, so why can’t they? When will the process change? These camps are full of people who are there because it’s really their only option- and there are people from all over the world who are being affected by the closed borders. At the border you’ll find Haitians, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Afghans, Syrians, and more, and they’re all coming for really different reasons. Hear for yourself with the following interviews from a Cuban and a Honduran about what they have to say about the border, and why they're here.
Rolando: The truth is that I want to be in the United States. Yes. I mean, it's a great country, and I want to work legally. After doing everything legally, you can. In America, you can do what you want, that's really what you can't do in Cuba.
In Cuba there is a lot of discrimination. Currently there is a lot of unjust incarceration. And now, on November 20th, many want to march peacefully, and they are already preparing, according to the news. But the Armed Forces and the police will be in the streets and will be there to control everything.
In the United States, in Miami, I have practically all my uncles. I’ll stay with them, with my cousins too; they are there legally. My mother passed away in March of this year. I am alone and it is one of those things that I want to be with my family. I want to be in the United States, I don't really have anyone in Cuba.
The truth is that for the people who do not receive a remittance, it is very hard, it is very complicated. And that really is what was triggering the problems in Cuba lately. It is not known widely what we are doing for COVID as well. COVID has not been well managed. There are vaccines there, but the vaccination campaign has not gotten along very well. I don’t know what will happen in Cuba.
It is true that there are many problems because of that and with migration generally. There are many problems in Central America. I have learned from what others have told me. The other people here from Honduras, Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras especially, have experienced many problems with the gangs.
I have simply come here, wanting to enter legally and use legal entry.
Mario: It was not our plan to come. I had my job, I had job security, we had our house, our children were studying, and we attended church regularly, that is, we always went to Church.
Things happened in our country that forced us to run away. We are stuck now [In Reynosa] and it is the only place with options and hope to continue making progress so that our lives are not lost.
At the beginning of our trip, we had previously understood that it was difficult [to enter the United States] because of the policies that the former president Trump had. We understood and we looked at the news, because of the construction of the wall, the closure of the border, we hoped that it would be different, but I saw them, and it was not.
Now, everything that happened to us has happened, I can show you that it changed our lives. Apart from the fact that we suffered from the floods from Eta & Iota, despite that, we had no hope of getting here. But when there are threats to take my life and those of my children, that's why we left the country.
While I was leaving and while I was in route, there were many friends who decided to undertake the trip, that decided that they wanted to come, that is. There were many neighbors of mine that hoped that with President Biden we would be able to enter and that we would be able to prosper. It is true then that there was a change in the country’s perspective [with the change of administration], absolutely.
Chloe Rastatter: Thank you for listening to Dignity Displaced a podcast by Solidarity Engineering. The past month, our organization, Solidarity Engineering, has continued working in Reynosa, Mexico to provide access to water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure to the asylum seekers living in refugee camps and shelters throughout the city.
Over the past few months, as you heard, an informal refugee camp has formed in the Plaza de la República. The plaza now is home to around 2,500 asylum seekers living in tents in an area half the size of a standard soccer field and access to safe drinking water and properly managed hygiene and sanitation services are a constant struggle.
In the plaza we have continued our support for empowering individuals by providing materials and logistical support for a self-organized hygiene team composed of asylum seeker that address sanitation issues within the plaza. To date we have provided 56,100 liters of clean drinking water, 6,100 rolls of toilet paper, 5 thousand ounces of hand sanitizer, 2,700 menstrual pads, 4,500 masks, and 4,500 pairs of disposable gloves and more. We have built on the success of this initiative and expanded the hygiene team concept to Pastor Hector’s shelter in Senda de Vida.
Outside of the plaza, we have continued to combat insufficient access to water through the installation and modification of a mobile AquaBlock system at Senda de Vida and in collaboration with Team Brownsville we’ve started a water optimization project to more thoroughly address the lack of water in the shelter as well as started construction on clothes washing stations and fixing the showers.
Knowing that migration causes a massive disruption to children’s access to education, we’ve also been working on developing an off-network classroom using Raspberry Pi single-board computers so kids will have consistent access to education materials regardless of their location.
Our team is also currently on an assessment trip in Sierra Leone, which you can hear more about on our project update next episode.
To support this podcast and all of our other projects please subscribe to our Patreon, Solidarity Engineering! In addition to podcast content, you’ll get updates about what's going on at our project locations, bonus interviews, and more. If you want to find out more about the podcast, our work or see drone imagery about how the camps have changed overtime, go to our website at solidarityengineering.org or follow us on social media @solidarityengineering.
Also, if you got something out of this podcast- subscribe wherever you get your podcast and send it someone so they can listen to it too!
This episode was edited and produced by Chloe Rastatter, Christa Cook, and Erin Hughes. Translations were completed by Wesley Shugart-Schmidt. Voiceovers were by Shay Subramanian and Carlo del Donno. Special thanks to Siobhan Merrill for helping with pull this episode together. Catch us next month!
Felicia Rangel-Samponaro: The NGO’s and churches out here doing the work every day, the lawyer organizations fight for you guys all the time, I’m very proud to be associated with all of them. We will continue fighting for all of you because this isn't right, no one should be forced to live like this. Seeking asylum in the US is legal, that is legal process, so don’t give up, we have not given up. And as long as you see American NGO’s, Mexican NGO’s, churches out here, that is hope working for you. We are showing you we will continue every day. Thank you everyone, thank you.
Chloe Rastatter: Words by Felicia Rangel-Samponaro on October 21st, 2021, to a crowd of asylum seekers who are currently living in the Plaza.