MATAMOROS, MEXICO (Border Report) — Julian Castro on Monday viewed first-hand a tent encampment where 1,000 migrants are living on the streets and in a muddy embankment at the base of the Gateway International Bridge across from Brownsville, Texas.
After an hourlong tour, the Democratic presidential candidate declared the Trump administration policy that is making migrants wait in Mexico to claim asylum “is a disaster” and has resulted “in people living in squalor.”
Castro, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, is the first presidential candidate to visit the tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, where migrants are sent via the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), his campaign said. It is believed that Castro is the first presidential candidate in the 2020 race to visit any such tent encampment along the Southwest border, although his campaign staff could not verify that.
“I came here today to see what’s happening on the Mexican of the border because of President Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, or Remain in Mexico policy. What I saw today is this president has helped to create a humanitarian crisis,” Castro said. “Many are sick. Many don’t have enough to eat. They said they can’t get potable water oftentimes. All that they want is to make their asylum claims with due process and remain in the United States. This policy is a disaster not only because it’s creating a greater humanitarian crisis, but it’s a disaster because it flies in the face of the tradition of the United States allowing people seeking asylum to make that claim and to remain in the safety of the United States, instead of having to be in places like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, and other places along the border.”
"Many are sick. Many don’t have enough to eat. They said they can’t get potable water oftentimes. All that they want is to make their asylum claims with due process and remain in the United States.”
– JULIAN CASTRO, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
This past year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection began implementing MPP along the Southwest border, beginning in San Diego, California, then El Paso.
The program was started in South Texas on July 17. After that date, most all asylum-seekers from the counties of Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy are being driven to the base of the Gateway International Bridge by U.S. authorities, and then are being forced to walk over the bridge where they are told to wait in Mexico until their asylum court hearings.
As a result, a filthy tent encampment has sprung up at the base of the bridge, where Castro on Monday said there are now 1,000 men, women and children living — most of whom are from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The numbers at the tent encampment had hovered around 400 people throughout the summer, but recently the numbers have spiked.
Efren Olivares, racial and economic director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, was in Matamoros and helped to connect Castro with several families that the former U.S. secretary then tried to present to U.S. authorities and requested they be allowed to stay in the United States as they await asylum hearings.
All told, Castro selected 13 people, including children, a deaf woman and her family, and several members of the LGBTQ community, who Olivares said were persecuted because of their beliefs.
Olivares said under the MPP charter, this program is not to be applied to those with disabilities or who are persecuted because of their beliefs or practices.
“We are very thankful that Secretary Castro is here to witness the situation of these refugees at the refugee camp in Matamoros,” Olivares told Border Report. “Even though these people are not on American soil, they are here because of American policies. … The conditions are inhumane, they’re deplorable, there’s no hygiene and these are asylum seekers just asking for the opportunity to get refuge and get action under U.S. and international law and the Trump administration is denying them that right.”
"The conditions are inhumane, they’re deplorable, there’s no hygiene and these are asylum seekers just asking for the opportunity to get refuge and get action under U.S. and international law.”
– EFREN OLIVARES, TEXAS CIVIL RIGHTS PROJECT
Castro took the 13 migrants to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection supervisor at the Gateway port. They were allowed to walk with Castro over the middle of the bridge to the port of entry office. The supervisor was reviewing their case and Castro left them in the office.
Castro and Olivares both said it could take several hours for rulings on their individual situations.
“You know how it is: 'It is wait and see,'” said Karla Vargas, a lawyer with Texas Civil Rights Project.
Meanwhile, those not selected by Castro remained living in an atmosphere filled with sick and crying children, adults wearing clothes that have holes and are see-through from so many hours in the sun.
Those who live there say that children are snatched from tents at night and women are forced to work as prostitutes overnight and then returned in the morning.
Migrants say the palm trees that provide a bit of shade during the day are teeming with cockroaches that descend upon them at night and turn the streets black with their bodies. Others say tiny fleas bite at their skin and get into their eyelashes and prevent them from sleeping.
Food and water are scarce and the asylum-seekers are dependent upon the generosity of volunteers who come daily bringing meals and some supplies.
Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer, visits the encampment often and was on hand Monday to meet Castro. She walked with him over the bridge as he attempted to present the 13 migrants. On the walk up the hill, Goodwin briefed Castro on the legal words and points and ways he should petition for these individuals.
At one point, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers began running toward the Mexican side of the bridge as Castro and a contingency of media and the 13 migrants began to cross back into U.S. soil.
Below them was the Rio Grande, where some boys were bathing and swimming, just feet from the carcass of a dead horse, which migrants said floating down the river 11 days ago and is further polluting what little area they have to bathe.
On the banks of the Rio Grande are four white crosses that mark four migrant drownings.
Carolina Caranza, 21, of Honduras, has been living in a tent here with her 2-year-old daughter, Emmy, since early August. Their asylum hearing isn’t until Oct. 21.
On Monday, Caranza lifted Emmy high to see Castro, whom Caranza told Border Report in Spanish she didn’t recognize. But seeing the swarm of media that accompanied him, Caranza said she was hopeful this would bring them help.
“It’s good for him to come and to see us as a group because we don’t think people know what we’re going through here,” Caranza said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.
Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.