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Mexican Official Tries To Move Asylum-Seekers Stuck In Tent Camps

Nov 9, 2019

In Matamoros, Mexico, more than 1,500 asylum-seekers are living in squalid conditions in a tent encampment and Mexican officials want them to move.

Officials recently took a page from the Trump administration and threatened to separate asylum-seekers from their children.

A Mexican child welfare official, holding a clipboard, addressed a crowd of asylum-seekers last week in a sprawling tent encampment near the Gateway International Bridge that connects Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas.

In a video taken by an asylum-seeker, an official tells them the encampment is no place for children and that he has the authority to take custody of their kids if they don't move to a new government run shelter, but the parents object.

An asylum-seeker in the crowd asks the official how would he like it if his child was forcibly taken away from him, and tells the official what he's threatening to do is considered kidnapping.

The child welfare agency in Matamoros did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with NPR. In written statements to the media, the agency said not a single child was taken. The agency said the social workers who went to the encampment just wanted to offer the families space at a new shelter.

Erin Thorn Vela, with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said she hopes Mexican officials do keep families together.

One of the asylum-seekers tents located near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.
Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio

"I was really surprised that this tactic would be taken of essentially a new type of family separation on the Mexican side," Thorn Vela said.

She points out that the Trump administration got a lot of blowback over its family separation policy, which aims at discouraging migrant families from illegally crossing into the U.S.

"I would think that they would see how this is really not a good idea and it's not going to end in a good result to threaten people," Thorn Vela said.

Many migrants have been forced to wait in Mexico — sometimes for months — for their hearings in U.S. immigration court under the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy.

Migrants say they prefer to live in the encampment where they feel protected by American aid groups and have access to legal help.

They were largely ignored by the U.S. and Mexican governments, that is, until last Friday when Mexican officials decided they wanted to clear the encampment and move the migrants.

Some of the asylum-seekers live in tents and others sleep under bushes or on the streets. Many bathe in the Rio Grande.

Matamoros Mayor Mario Lopez said he's concerned about public health — and the migrants' well-being.

An asylum-seeker washes a child in the Rio Grande near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in September. They were sent back under the "Remain in Mexico" program.
Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio

"I want to convey confidence that we're treating them well," Lopez said. "And that we have our doors open to migrants and help them so they can get to their destination, which is the United States."

Lopez said the government would not forcibly move asylum-seekers to the shelter, but panic has still spread.

Migrants said some of the child welfare officials went tent to tent looking for children. One Honduran mother said she refused to let them take her son.

"I told them I couldn't, that I wouldn't let my kid go, and they told me I didn't know the laws here in Mexico," said the woman.

She said an official handed her a notice to appear at a child welfare office, but she said had no intention of going. She asked that we not use her name because she fears retribution.

Like most migrants camped out at the bridge, she said she has no plans of going to the shelter, which is a converted gymnasium that can house 300.

NPR was able to go inside the shelter, which is mostly housing new arrivals, and is only about one-third full.

Asylum-seekers pass their time in an encampment near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in September. Most of them have been sent back under the "Remain in Mexico" program.
Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio

Another Honduran mother, who decided to go to the new shelter, said she was happy to come to Matamoros with her son.

She said they receive three meals a day, there are restrooms, an on-site doctor and that they're able to sleep in a bed.

Back at the encampment, advocates including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Texas Civil Rights Project, say they will continue to monitor the situation to make sure the human rights of migrants are respected.

Copyright 2019 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thousands of asylum-seekers are stuck in Mexican border towns up and down the U.S.-Mexico border. And in Matamoros, Mexico, more than 1,500 asylum-seekers are living in squalid conditions in a tent encampment. Mexican officials want them to move. Some migrants say child welfare officials have threatened to take custody of their children, separating them from their families. Texas Public Radio's Reynaldo Leanos Jr. reports from Matamoros.

REYNALDO LEANOS JR, BYLINE: A Mexican child welfare official holding a clipboard addressed a crowd of asylum-seekers last week. They're in a sprawling tent encampment near the international bridge that connects Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

LEANOS: In this video taken by a migrant, the official tells them the encampment is no place for children and that he has the authority to take custody of their kids if they don't move. The parents object.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) How would you like it if we took a child by force from your home?

LEANOS: The child welfare agency in Matamoros did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with NPR. In written statements to the media, the agency says not a single child was taken. The agency says the social workers who went to the encampment just wanted to offer the families space at a new shelter.

Erin Thorn Vela is with the Texas Civil Rights Project. She hopes Mexican officials do keep families together.

ERIN THORN VELA: I was really surprised that this tactic would be taken of, like, essentially a new type of family separation on the Mexican side.

LEANOS: She points out that the Trump administration got a lot of blowback over its family separation policy aimed at discouraging migrant families from illegally crossing into the U.S.

VELA: I would think that they would see how this is really not a good idea and it's not going to end in a good result to threaten people.

LEANOS: Many migrants have been forced to wait in Mexico, sometimes for months, for their hearings in U.S. immigration court under the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy. Migrants say they prefer to live in the encampment where they feel protected by American aid groups and have access to legal help. And they have been largely ignored by the U.S. and Mexican governments. That is, until last Friday, when Mexican officials decided they wanted to clear the encampments and move the migrants. Some of them are living in tents. Others sleep under bushes or on the streets. Many bathe in the Rio Grande.

Matamoros' Mayor Mario Lopez says he's concerned about public health and the migrants' well-being.

MARIO LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) I want to convey confidence that we're treating them well and that we have our doors open to migrants and help them so they can get to their destination, which is the United States.

LEANOS: Lopez says the government would not forcibly move asylum-seekers to the shelter. Still, panic has been spreading. Migrants say some of the child welfare officials went tent to tent looking for children. One Honduran mother said she refused to let them take her son.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) I told them I couldn't, that I wouldn't let my kid go. And they told me I didn't know the laws here in Mexico.

LEANOS: She says an official handed her a notice to appear at a child welfare office, but she had no intentions of going. She asked that we not use her name because she fears retribution. Like most migrants camped out at the bridge, she says she has no plans of going to the shelter, a converted gymnasium that can house 300.

I was able to go inside the shelter, which is only about a third full. I spoke to another Honduran mother who says she was happy to come here with her son.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

LEANOS: She says they get three meals a day. There are restrooms, and they sleep in a bed.

Back at the encampment, advocates, including Amnesty International, say they're monitoring the situation to make sure the human rights of migrants are respected.

For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leanos Jr. in Matamoros, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.