MATAMOROS, MEXICO — Carmen Amaya and her husband, Pablo Chavez, lean against the chain-link fence that surrounds the migrant tent camp, speaking to each other in hushed tones. It’s February 2021, and they’ve come to the edge of the multi-acre lot in Matamoros, Mexico, to talk about their future, out of earshot of the four kids with whom they share a single tarp shelter. Amaya looks past the fence, toward a garbage-littered bank that slopes down into the Rio Grande. The blue-green water flows easily onward, providing white noise that quiets the clamor of the camp. “Un año y dos meses,” Amaya says through a face mask. One year and two months. That’s how long the family has lived in this makeshift community, a former city park now filled with corridors of temporary homes, where hundreds — sometimes more than 3,000 — asylum-seekers have waited for a chance to enter the United States. Directly north, the Gateway International Bridge stretches over the river, carried by enormous white pillars, and touches down in Brownsville, Texas, in sight but out of reach.
One by one, the couple’s children join them at the fence meant to protect the migrants from criminals who might take advantage of them and visitors who could spread the coronavirus. Five-year-old Genesis jumps around in a pink unicorn shirt that is stained from playing in the dirt. Seven-year-old Eli Alexander — hair short on the sides, long on top — says hello, then runs off to toss a Frisbee amid colorful clotheslines and towering trees. Sisters Paula, 12, and Lindsey Nicole, 14 — lanky limbs, bashful demeanors — stay close to one another. They’re the reason Amaya and Chavez made the decision to flee their home in San Salvador, El Salvador.
The family could survive on less than $200 a month — “We lived by God’s mercy,” Chavez says — but life in a “red zone,” ruled by gang members who looked for budding teenagers to take as brides, was too dangerous. Paula and Lindsey Nicole gaze at the ground while their parents describe the harsh realities. A 16-year-old neighbor who refused to comply was chopped up, her organs removed, and thrown in the river, Chavez says.
In 2019, the family made their way to the U.S. border to apply for asylum, only to be turned back under former President Donald Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols. Better known as “Remain in Mexico,” the policy was enacted as a response to an influx of migrants that year. With asylum-seekers prevented from living in the U.S. while pursuing their cases, close to 70,000 were required to wait in border cities, crossing to the U.S. only to attend hearing appointments in nonpermanent plastic-walled courtrooms before being sent back across border bridges. Less than half of 1% of the asylum cases were approved. When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, even the court hearings stopped, leaving the 25,000 remaining migrants in limbo, including more than 800 in the Gulf city of Matamoros.
Rules at the border face a massive overhaul under President Joe Biden, who has already made moves to reverse numerous Trump-era policies meant to discourage illegal immigration. The new president has canceled the declaration of a national emergency at the border, halted funding for the wall and rolled back “Remain in Mexico.” Those still in the program will now be able to live in the United States while they await future court dates. “Securing our borders does not require us to ignore the humanity of those who seek to cross them,” reads a Biden executive order on the asylum process.
“It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Amaya says in Spanish, shaking her head in solace as she ponders a new beginning in the United States.
But even as Mexican border cities experience relief, U.S. detention facilities — where those apprehended at the border are kept and processed — are being overwhelmed with a surge of new migrants, especially families and unaccompanied children, lured north by the perception of Biden’s open borders. In February alone, border agents encountered over 100,000 migrants. That’s more than three times the rate at the same time a year ago and higher than in any February in more than a decade. The New York Times reported that the number of children in border detention facilities has tripled as of Monday, totaling more than 3,250, and many kids are being detained longer than the three days allowed by law. With the number of migrant children in custody increasing — and in response to COVID-19-related capacity issues — the Biden administration has opened new facilities to hold minors. Conservative pundits like Lora Ries, senior research fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, are critical of Biden’s promise of a more humane system, saying another border crisis is already at hand.
This is all happening even as Title 42 of the U.S. code remains in effect, granting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the authority to deny entry to people because of the pandemic. But with word of successful crossings, the warnings to stay put and “await further instructions” are easily ignored by those desperately fleeing Central American countries plagued by corruption, gang violence and damage from multiple hurricanes.
And so for now, the border is a world of contradictions, the migrants caught in the tangle of mixed messages.
* * *
Joel Fernández Cabrera waves from a yellow hammock inside the Matamoros migrant tent camp. “Can you help me with something?” he calls in Spanish. The 52-year-old balances a cigarette between two fingers as he approaches the chain-link fence. “Please tell me what this says,” he asks with a Cuban accent, carefully passing his phone between the top of the fence and the barbed wire that crowns it.
It’s Feb. 23, and a news page pulled up on the screen reads in English, “Migrants at Matamoros camp to be allowed into U.S. on Wednesday, Brownsville mayor says.” The translator with me relays the message back in Spanish. Cabrera steps back from the fence and opens his palms toward the sky, turning his sunburnt neck and chest upward. Tears pool in his bloodshot eyes. A lawyer back home, Cabrera left Cuba because he disagreed with the one-party communist government, which has been known to jail public activists and critics. Like Amaya and Chavez, he’s lived in the camp for more than a year.
Through floods, frost and falling trees during storms, the migrants have waited for an announcement like this. Most recently, when frigid temperatures struck the area, leaving icicles on tarps and freezing the water supply, families huddled together in their tents, wrapped in blankets sent by caring Texans. Hardly anyone dared leave the camp for fear they would lose their spot in line, after hearing word that crossings would begin soon, says Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of Catholic Charities, which has provided basic necessities like food and clothing to camp residents since 2019.
“I have been holding onto God’s hand throughout this journey,” says Cabrera. “He is here with me now.”
Not even the most conservative opponents question why people like Cabrera, Amaya and Chavez are so desperate to flee the countries they live in. The question is what should the U.S. government’s role be in helping these people, especially at a time when 10 million Americans are unemployed, due largely to the pandemic. Part of Biden’s immigration plan is to address the forces that drive migration by increasing assistance to Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras — “conditioned on their ability to reduce the endemic corruption, violence and poverty.” But such changes take time.
While his impact on larger migration trends is yet to be seen, Biden is a celebrated figure for people in the Matamoros camp. One man has a “Vote Biden-Harris” sign proudly pinned to a tree outside his shanty. Amaya recalls how on the day the election results were called in November, people danced and played music in celebration. Multiple fiestas were held simultaneously within the fence, and one of the more raucous groups carried around an effigy of Trump and burned it at the riverbank. “It was like a piñata,” Amaya says laughing.
Only the next four years will determine whether Biden will live up to the praise — whether the new administration can make sense of a broken system and bring order to a process that’s never been orderly, or if a continued crisis will usher in a 2024 president who once again campaigns on hard-line policies.
* * *
Three days after reading the news on his phone, Cabrera takes a COVID test and then crosses the bridge he so often gazed at from inside the tent camp, past the overgrown brush, over slow-moving water, and beyond the border wall. Led by Mexican and then American border officials, he’s taken with 26 of his neighbors to a U.S. immigration building and then to a bus stop in Brownsville, trailed by news cameras documenting the long-anticipated event. While he waits for a friend who will pick him up and drive him to Houston, where he’ll catch a flight to Miami — a cousin owns a restaurant there — Cabrera poses for a photo at the bus station, pointing at the terminal sign like it’s a tourist destination, a smile discernable beneath his blue mask. “I’ve waited so long for this blessing,” he tells me in a voice message that same day. “I know that God has heard my prayers.”
Three days later, on March 1, Amaya, Chavez and their four children follow the same steps, only they catch a flight to Richmond, Virginia, where Chavez’s niece will take them in, and they’ll finally get to spend a night with heating and a roof overhead. The parents will look for work. The kids will enter the American school system, putting to test the English they learned from volunteers in Matamoros.
Within a couple weeks, the migrant tent camp is empty. Cleaning crews enter the once-guarded gates to dismantle the shelters and pack the relics of a year and a half of life into garbage trucks. Ahead, there is hope for Amaya and Chavez, and the end to a grueling 15-month journey. Behind them lies El Salvador, where violence, kidnappings and widespread poverty persist. At the U.S.-Mexico border, thousands still vie for the chance at a new life. And in Matamoros, there’s a vacant park that the family once called home.