Every day at 6:30am, a small group of volunteers in Brownsville, Texas, pulls wagons loaded with breakfast, clothes, baby wipes and chalk for children to play with across the bridge to Mexico, where dozens of migrants wait to hear their number called by US immigration officials so they can cross the border and apply for asylum.

The plaza in Matamoros where the migrants have set up tents is not so much a place of shelter as it is an industrial parking lot. It’s a large patch of concrete with no toilet facilities, closed off by concrete traffic barriers and offering little shade from the hot sun. Many of the migrants have been waiting there for two months.

Asylum seekers set up tents near the foot of the international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. (Courtesy of Team Brownsville)

Residents working in the Brownsville school district began collecting supplies and crossing the border to bring them to asylum seekers last July. The group, Team Brownsville, also greets migrants at the local bus station in Brownsville, where they are dropped off after being released from detention.

“Not letting people pass freely over the bridge is unacceptable”

Andrea Rudnik, a co-founder of Team Brownsville, said locals felt compelled to step in after seeing migrants waiting outside in the summer heat, which can reach temperatures of around 38 degrees Celsius.

It’s really oppressive to have to sit out there unsheltered, with no water, no food and no supplies. We started by bringing yoga mats to sit on because the cement gets very hot, and then seeing what the needs were.

Volunteers bring yoga mats and umbrellas to asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. (Courtesy of Team Brownsville)

We make pasta, rice, mashed potatoes, vegetables, burgers. We bring lots of water and powdered milk for babies, and sometimes homemade toys like rag dolls. Around five or six of us cross the bridge every day, sometimes there are more if volunteers come in from other states.

We hear that there are 2,000 people waiting in Matamoros to be called. The minimum amount of wait time is two months. We feed the people who are waiting outside, we’re not seeing the ones who are staying in shelters farther from the border. People at the top of the list have to stay in the area near the bridge, but many more gather there because they’re very fearful of missing their turn to be called.


A meal with rice and fried chicken in Matamoros, Mexico. (Courtesy of Team Brownsville)

There is no running water, so people use the river, which is a short walk from where we are, as bathing facilities. We’ve recently contracted with a company that brings in portable toilets for people to use.

This policy of metering and not letting people pass freely over the bridge is unacceptable. People have traveled through Mexico and don’t know that they’re going to another few months when they get to Matamoros, and desperation kicks in when they find out that this is not going be an easy walk across the bridge.

After they are called, asylum seekers are detained at border patrol processing centers, where they are often held in overcrowded, fenced areas in cold buildings, given thin mylar blankets and have little access to sanitation and adequate food. They are registered and later released with a notice for an asylum appointment with US immigration officials.

“A question of humane treatment of people in custody”

Migrants are dropped off by authorities at the bus station, where they are met by teams of volunteers who help them with their bus tickets, purchased by their sponsors, typically a friend or relative who will host them in the US. Volunteers also provide maps and sometimes a backpack with a blanket and pillow. Since March, there has been an increase in the number of families being dropped off, usually single parents with young children, Rudnik said.

Volunteers greet asylum seekers at the bus station in Brownsville, Texas.  (Courtesy of Team Brownsville)

Woodson Martin, a Team Brownsville board member who regularly flies in from California to volunteer, called the conditions in which asylum seekers are being held “inhumane".
 
We have to separate the question of immigration policy from the question of humane treatment of people in custody. It is completely unacceptable for us to deliberately torture people who come to our country seeking safety, no matter how many of them come or why they come. Blocking access from seeking asylum, locking children with or without their parents in ice box cells, and holding people in places where they’re unable to wash their hands before they eat are inhumane practices.

The group said it hears back from some asylum seekers who have arrived at relatives’ homes. “People sometimes reach out and say the asylum process is not going well, but we don’t have any legal power, so we can only guide them toward groups that can help them,” Rudnik said.

Volunteers said the majority of the asylum seekers come from Central America, but there are also some from Venezuela, Cameroon, and Guinea.

In June, a viral photo of a drowned father and daughter from El Salvador who had attempted to cross the Rio Grande near Matamoros further drew attention to the risks that migrants face along the Mexican border.

This story was written by Jenny Che.