Reporting

Weekly Witness: Unaccompanied Kids and Third Countries

tent city, matamoros, mexico
Walking through the Matamoros tent city on the US-Mexico border. Image: Janice Rosenberg

Witnesses report two disturbing new trends: parents who send children over the border unaccompanied to escape the “Remain in Mexico” tent camps, and asylum-seekers deported to unsafe third countries.

Marisol Cortez

In our Weekly Witness series, we share some of the most significant messages posted by volunteers to the public Facebook group Witness: Tornillo. Target: MPP These volunteers from around the country have staked themselves outside the tent cities and detention facilities of the Trump Administration’s child internment policies to provide firsthand, on-the-ground witness accounts of conditions experienced by asylum seekers in Matamoros, México, on account of the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” aka Remain in Mexico.

Under MPP, asylum-seekers are forced to wait on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico international border during their immigration review hearings, rather than being released into communities within the U.S. In Matamoros, Tamaulipas—currently under State Department travel advisory due to cartel violence—migrants have crowded into a tent city of 2,500 just beyond the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge, across the river from Trump’s “tent courts.”

As these witnesses document in detail below, this policy of deliberate concentration and secrecy has effectively gutted the asylum process, setting up in its place a rigged, expedited hearing system that effectively denies migrants legal representation and rubber-stamps denial of asylum. Since January 2019, over 57,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico, with only 11 granted asylum.

For an introduction to this series, see “Witnesses Begin Documenting ‘Remain in Mexico.'”

For more on MPP, read The New York Times’In Court Without a Lawyer: The Consequences of Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ Plan.

Some posts have been edited for clarity and length.

Image: Alessandra Mondolfi

Rie Del, January 18

Crossing back into the US from Matamoros today, I saw three children crossing the bridge alone. The older boy, about seven, was standing in the middle, holding the hands of the two young boys (four or five years old) while Border Patrol officers looked through their documents.

I am nauseous and crying, watching these children crossing alone into a new country.

Camp conditions are dangerous for children, so parents will send their children to cross alone, in hopes of getting them to safety in the U.S. In clinic this week, I have taken care of mothers suffering from emotional trauma after they sent their kids across, hoping a detention center in the U.S. would be safer than a refugee camp where they are constantly under threat of kidnapping and at the mercy of infectious diseases.

This is what we are doing. Forcing families to make the choice between staying together in danger or sending their children alone to safety. We could end this now.

Here is a photo taken about 20 feet from where the children were being processed by border patrol. The CBP sign says, “CBP welcomes your comments” and shows a picture of the Statue of Liberty. Comment line is 800-CBP-5511.

“CBP Welcomes Your Comments.” Sign posted about 20 feet from where the children are processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents. Image: Rie Del

Joshua Rubin, January 19

Image: Joshua Rubin

It is a bit chilly this morning, the sun has not risen, but I can see enough to make out the overcast. The palm trees fronds undulate and wave. The wind is off the Gulf.

The camp of refugees dodged a bullet yesterday as the line of heavy rain ahead of the cold front passed a little to the north.

Three children crossed the bridge alone yesterday, their families wrenched apart by the special torture devised by those criminal partners, the US, Mexico, and the drug cartels.

This is the new face of family separation.

Note: To date, at least 350 children have now crossed unaccompanied from the tent camps in Matamoros.


Ann Schaetzel, January 19

Image: Ann Schaetzel

The tent courts are designed to keep “aliens” out. We know this but it’s impossible not to hope, not to feel the pull of rationality, to argue in your head for fairness and open-mindedness and a search for the truth. it is naïve to expect justice, but somehow we do—I can’t imagine how the defendants feel.

I spent two mornings sitting in on initial hearings, in which people hear a judge (beamed in from Harlingen, TX with a Spanish speaking translator by his side) (1) repeat the charges against each person (already listed on their Notice to Appear) and (2) schedule their next hearing.

The two hearings differed radically from one another in information given, information requested and in tone and style.

The first judge was austere, inscrutable, seemingly by-the-book. First he read a long initial explanation of the “legal” process that seemed designed to show he WAS by-the-book.

He then called each person up to a table with a mic and ran through the four or five charges against them. These tended to be the same charges for each: (1) Not a citizen of the U.S., (2) Native of some other country (Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, Guatemala, Venezuela), 3) Arrived at a crossing on particular date, 4) Not admitted or paroled after being inspected, 5) Not in possession of a valid immigration visa or ID. The final 5th charge is the one that makes a person ‘removable.’

This judge mentioned asylum only once and only after a person raised his hand with a question: “I have 100 pages of evidence, what do I do with it?”

The judge musingly said, you might want to consider applying for asylum. Part of his standard questioning was to ask if she/he planned to “hire” an attorney—every answer was of course no. He didn’t ask if they wanted to apply for asylum, didn’t offer lists of pro bono legal assistance, didn’t offer forms to petition for asylum. In fact, he offered no real guidance, except to ask a woman not to ‘manipulate’ her purse on the desk because it made mic noise on his end. It was wham-bam, thank you ma’am kind of court.

The other judge was jokey and lively, if condescending. He had the clerk pass out lists of pro bono assistance, and he seemed to enjoy the court and his role as an opportunity to preside and talk. He asked all the whole group (20+) who wanted to apply for asylum (all did). He asked the clerk to hand out forms for applying for asylum. He asked each where they wanted to be deported. He asked each how they had traveled to Mexico, by which means and by which route. He asked if anyone was afraid to remain in Mexico. One woman said she was, and he told her she would have a DHS refoulement hearing in the afternoon. He encouraged people to ask questions (“the only bad question is the one you don’t ask.”)

A defendant from Nicaragua interrupted the court to ask the judge why the only two people who came to court with lawyers were given court dates two months earlier than all the rest. (The judge said he wanted to give the unrepresented people time to prepare.) The Nicaraguan said he had submitted all 100 pages of paperwork and evidence to the court and he was ready for the final hearing. (The judge found only 50 pages … there was back and forth with the clerk.) The Nicaraguan said he had first come to this court eight months earlier. If he had to wait for the April date the judge proposed, he would have been waiting in Matamoros for one year. The judge seemed to reconsider, asking if he’d ever been granted asylum in the U.S. He said yes … When? 10+ years ago. Judge asked why, if he’d won asylum, he’d gone back to Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan said: “There was a new president.”


Thomas Cartwright, January 19

Today Alessandra Mondolfi and Fran Schindler dined with me at a restaurant inside the Matamoros, México encampment. We were served a lovely meal of chicken, pork, rice, slaw, tomatoes and plantains. The residents of the camp that built and own this restaurant served us with joy and grace. We were grateful for their kindness and laughs and especially for their resourcefulness in the face of adversity.


Amy Cohen, January 19

All manner of volunteers come to Matamoros. Most are helpful and thoughtful and humble.

But there is fox amongst the chickens. It seems that one woman has taken it upon herself to tell all of the parents there that they must send their children on their own across the bridge to the United States.

She tells the parents not to worry, that their children will be taken somewhere safe and released to sponsors in no more than 9 days. These are lies.

She takes the children from their parents and, like the Pied Piper, leads them across the bridge, telling border patrol that they have no parents, that they’ve come on their own.

Let us be clear: the conditions in Matamoros, and nearly all of the towns and cities where migrants are now being forced to wait, are appalling and often dangerous. Rape, kidnappings, torture, murder … all are well-documented and nearly commonplace in some communities. And so, consideration of sending a child unaccompanied across the border where, as a minor, they cannot be turned away, seems a viable option and at times the right one.

But this is a very complex choice. These parents may never be let into this country and so may go for many years without seeing those children. The average length of stay for children in detention is nearer to 45 days than 9, and for many it’s much, much longer. Even with biological parents living in the United States, able and willing to take their children, it can be many months before they’re released. And separations from the anchor of a parent are traumatic, even when carried out in the name of love.

At [our organization,] Every Last One, we know this because this is what we do, every day. Expediting the release of detained children, uniting them with loving families is our job and we know how extraordinarily arduous this can be in the current government climate.

For those children with no viable sponsor – or none that the government is willing to accept—these children can languish for months, even years in detention, growing increasingly depressed, isolated, cut off from the experience of love and nurturance, from all they need to grow, experiencing daily and unmitigated the trauma of having been separated from home and family.

So this is a delicate decision and anyone who presumes to know the answer for any given parent is a charlatan. Such people should be kept away from those that face the terrible choices that these parents do. Parents frightened and suffering and, in their desperation, sometimes willing to swallow the snake oil of the nearest seducer.

So what has Every Last One done?? At the request of the Resource Center and their partners we have produced a flyer for parents to be distributed all over the camp. We are letting parents know never to make such a decision about their child without getting all the information from those who are demonstrably informed. Every Last One gives parents access to factual information. We hope that this will serve as something of an immunization against the charlatans.


Janice Rosenberg, January 19

From the outside, the camp in Matamoros almost looks bucolic. The camp is clean. Everyone has access to potable water and two hot meals a day. Children run around laughing and playing, tossing an empty plastic bottle in the air. Smoke rises from cooking fires, and one encampment has a string of solar lights hanging from the trees.

But these are not families on a weekend camping trip. There are no picnic tables or chairs, no fire pits for roasting marshmallows. These families have been sleeping on the bare ground for as long as 8 months now, ever since MPP was enforced at this crossing. They’ve left everything they know behind, fleeing unimaginable horrors. And they continue to live in terror.

I was standing in front of the mobile clinic today when the young man on the right came staggering up, sobbing uncontrollably. He had just gotten word that his sister in Honduras had been murdered by the cartel. His 21 year old sister.

He himself had been shot three times and still carries fragments of the bullets in his body. And the cartel is hunting him down.

These are the people who are being sent back across the border to almost certain death.

Everyone in the camp has a story.

I spoke with another man later in the afternoon. He approached Victor and me as we were hanging posters. The man told us that everyone in the camp lives in fear. He showed us photos of a woman who had been beaten last week, her face bloodied and her eyes swollen shut. He showed us a photo of a man who had been murdered in the camp, his body lying on the ground covered in flies. He told us about a woman who was almost kidnapped with her 4 year old daughter over by the showers, just three days ago. And he told us about his friend, a kind, humble man who used to share meals with his family, who was kidnapped and never heard from again. This man documents all of this. But he never speaks of it, because he knows the cartel will come after him next. And then who would care for his sister, his wife, his children? …

I can’t wrap my mind around these stories. I feel the weight of them pressing in on me as I try to sleep at night. So I get out of bed and I write.


Charlene Frank, January 20

Sunday Across The Border

Today Alessandra Mondolfi and Thomas Cartwright and I accompanied Barbara on her first trip across the bridge to Matamoros. … As a photographer Barbara took lots of photos and easily struck up conversations with people, most of whom needed to tell their story. They wanted someone to listen and to understand that they are people, good hardworking and honest people. The common link in all their stories is their fear at night when the predators from outside the camp come in. There are no lights and nothing to protect them except their flimsy tents.

All the people we spoke to told us a story of a man who was around the camp and befriended people. A woman who had spoken to him often asked him to watch her toddler so she could go to the bathroom quickly. When she returned her child and the man were gone. She started screaming and all the men in the camp ran in different directions to cover each area. Finally they heard the baby screaming for his mama. They found him alone on the ground. The kidnapper must have realized that he would not escape with a screaming child and so many people frantically searching. Their life is hell, but they still have community. Sadly, the kidnapping is not anecdotal.

We also met a man from Honduras whose child had been kidnapped in Honduras. He had a job, which many don’t, so they took his child for ransom. Someone he knew warned him not to go to the police or his four-year-old child would be hurt or killed. He finally got his child back and walked to the United States for asylum protection. Instead he is in this prison camp where he watches his son every minute, as all the parents do. Predators wait outside the camp for anyone to let down their guard, or even to sleep.

His face shows no hope. A good man without hope.

If you can, please come here. Witnesses to this miscarriage of justice are desperately needed.


Marina Vasquez, January 21

Image: Marina Vasquez

Another full day awaits me after another restless night–so much need here in the encampment. I have families to meet with and support. Children to listen to and love. A pressing and urgent situation here that must be dealt with. Connecting families who have just gotten to their destinations with like-minded compassionate “helpers” across the country. And standing ground with my fellow witnesses just across the bridge when I can get away to help there. And having to dash back to Austin to work. And then come back. People ask me which organization I am with. I volunteer with many—but my time here is “sola”—with the legacy my parents left me of being “buena y generosa,” kind and generous! I walk among the children y familias with my parents’ guidance and their love for children–all children. I honor my parents by helping to take care of others. Soy hija orgullosa de padres mexicanos! Honró a mi Mamita y mi Daddy ayudando al prójimo. Please help me help others!


Image: Joshua Rubin

Joshua Rubin, January 22

How do we begin?

Mexico and the US are joined in an effort to prevent poor and frightened people from migrating to safety. Both are inventing punishments and new cruelties.

To stop the poor people’s marches north, Mexico is detaining some, loading others on buses and planes headed back to the south. Those who slip through and make it to the border of the US, that fateful river, are forced back into a purgatory of sorts on the Mexico side. Or maybe we should call that river a moat. Whatever we call it, it is stocked with the demons of the drug war, the cartels that hold the border cities in a crushing stranglehold. And the U.S. is running flights now, too. Go back, you are not welcome, is the message, backed up with weapons of war.

And we cannot forget all the Mexicanos waiting at the bridges, the endless drug war fueled by our own thirst for narcotics driving people north from the interior, running for their lives. Mexico and the US “meter” them, letting only a few a day come to the bridge to plead their desperation. Cartels sell places in line.

It is raining this morning. The banks will turn to mud.

How do we begin?


Image: Denice Reese

Denice Reece, January 22

One advantage of volunteering repeatedly at the border is seeing the evolving situation there which pushes me to try to make sense of it. Since my first volunteering time in El Paso, things have changed dramatically in terms of the number and mix of immigrants. Whereas during Christmas 2018, the majority of migrants at the shelter where I worked were Guatemalans and a few Hondurans, this past summer there were growing number of Brazilians and Cubans. At both of those times there were some Hondurans and Salvadorans, but almost no Mexicans.

The big change this Christmas was that the vast majority of people arriving to our shelter were either Brazilians or Mexicans. The Mexicans were mainly from the states of Guerrero and Michoacán, with a few from Oaxaca and Chiapas. It makes me wonder about the patterns of Mexican migration in other border cities. Are there more migrants from eastern Mexican states at Brownsville/Matamoros, for example?

I wish I understood better how the U.S. national political decisions as well as the geopolitical realities in the migrants’ countries of origin result in this changing situation. I am seeing regular news stories about the impact of the Migrant Protection Protocols/Remain in Mexico policy and about the transport of migrants to Guatemala (including Mexicans, Hondurans and Salvadorans who have no connection to Guatemala) to await their asylum hearings. And I read and hear about court proceedings held via video link where momentous decisions are being made, decisions that may place migrants in extremely dangerous situations, potentially life-endangering situations.

Some migrants face life-endangering situations in border cities and in their country of origin and, as one of my friends noted, “some are deciding where they will die, at the border or back in their home country.” While some migrants are in greater danger than others, this is neither hyperbole nor exaggeration for some.

One family told me that they had been extorted by gang members in their country, being forced to pay protection money for their little street stand. At some point, when the amount being asked was beyond their ability to pay, they were threatened with violence, and they fled to the U.S. to seek asylum. Being denied asylum, they returned to their city, and the gang members approached them and threatened them, saying that when they left, the family had denied the gang the ability to make money off their tiny business. Fearing violence, they packed up that night again to make another attempt at asylum.

I have also heard the story of a mom leaving a shelter in Juárez to buy milk for her children, and not coming back. It is presumed she was abducted or is dead. That story came from her unaccompanied child who is now in the U.S. I encourage you to read about the dangers for migrants in border cities and in their home countries, as well as the controversial policy of sending asylum seeking migrants to wait in either Guatemala or Mexico.

While this post is not as uplifting as some I have and will post, many of you have trusted me to give my on-the-ground, first-hand accounts and observations. The Andromeda galaxy is still out there and glorious, I trust.


Joshua Rubin, January 23

Brownsville-South Padre International Airport is a major hub in the operation to carry refugees away to Guatemala, we have learned. We went out there yesterday evening, tipped off that there were buses full of of likely deportees preparing to board two planes, one Swift Air, the other World Atlantic, charter flight companies.

And there the planes were. And there the buses were. Perhaps we missed some of them boarding. Another bus, still quite full of people, drove away. One plane, we later learned, was headed to Louisiana, possibly changing plans at the last moment.

Word is that Guatemala’s Supreme Court has banned the deportation scheme, so we might have caught them having to change course.

We are witnesses.


Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, January 23

I can’t bring myself to write about what happened to Ray Rod yesterday so I am using a post my friend Blair Cushing posted 3 hours ago. But first let me say I know where he is. I have put money into his account so he will be able to make phone calls and get on the internet when he wakes up this morning. So you will be hearing from Ray soon. Here is Blair Cushing’s post:

This is my boo, Ray Rod. He’s back in an immigrant detention center after WINNING his asylum case today.

Yes, that’s correct. New rule I just started hearing about earlier this week: even if you do all the things right and are among the infinitesimally small 1% of cases that get approved, and even if the government waives the right to appeal, you are now rewarded with going back to detention for an indeterminate period.

My boo did everything right. People in the U.S. want to say some BS things like “wait in line,” and “there is a process they just have to follow” even though the odds are so thoroughly stacked against them as to make it damn near impossible from the outset.

Well, Ray did it ALL. He waited in Mexico, obtained legal representation with an attorney, testified for hours on end with the sole intent of trying to trip him up, had far more court dates than necessary (because multiple times he never even saw the judge) and still WON. All the while, he was working in Matamoros to take care of others less fortunate at the camp by coordinating services at GRM’s free clinic and teaching kids at the Sidewalk School.

Ray is highly educated, fluent in three languages and eminently employable. Ray will contribute so much more to the United States than we will ever give to him in return. This guy isn’t looking for hand outs – though he has made friends with many wealthy Americans who would gladly support him financially forever if that’s what it took because we love him sooo much (myself included).

Ray is capable and determined and has made it through every damn barrier put in his way. But every time he does, the rules change and our current administration moves the goal posts. Because it’s not about “following the rules” at all. It’s about racist fucking make-it-up-as-you-go policies stopping at no end to keep people out. There is no rhyme or reason to any of this. Only hate. 😪

For more on this case, see this account in Border Report.


Debbie Nathan, January 23

An ICE flight just left the El Paso airport for Guatemala. We now have data: Since the new year, 99 Hondurans and Salvadorans have been deported from our airport to Guatemala, a dangerous country they are not from. (That count doesn’t even include today’s flight.)

Shamefully, El Paso is a major deporter. In all, 230 or so people have suffered this fate nationwide, and here we are, taking a huge part in the violation.

El Paso Anti-Deportation Squad. That’s our new name and we will soon have a Facebook page. Our city owns the airport. We are working to get these flights out of El Paso. We hope you will join us.


Janice Rosenberg, January 24

Here’s an update on the Honduran woman with the two sick children who was deported Tuesday to Guatemala City. They’ve been located by Every.Last.One and are being given support there:

On December 30, 2019, a young mother and her two small daughters (ages 1 and 6) entered the United States after fleeing death threats in Honduras. A gang was demanding protection money which they could not pay. Their threats were not idle, as this gang had already killed neighbors of theirs, including children. They could not go to the police. Too often, reporting to the police put people at greater risk.

Desperate to save her children’s lives, the mother made a choice that any parent in her shoes would make. They would seek the safety of asylum in the United States.

The children arrived at the border in good health, eager to reunite with their father who was waiting for them in the US. But 5 days into life in the freezing, deprivational confinement of border patrol cages, the 1 year old got sick. In those 5 days, cold burritos had been thrown at them for breakfast and lunch, a slice of meat and bread for dinner.

The children were given no milk.

Fluorescent lights, shining perpetually, combined with the discomfort of the cold floor and their empty bellies to deprive them of sleep.

Border guards yelled at the mother, taunting her daily, promising that she and her girls would be sent back to their deaths in Honduras or else to Guatemala, where they’d never been and knew no one. When the mother fell to her knees begging for kindness and mercy, she was laughed at by the guards, told to get up and shut up.

The 1 year old baby, now not only sick but also traumatized by the harsh environment and her mother’s distress, was given very little treatment.

Her health deteriorated. Her older sister also fell ill. Both were hospitalized.

The 1 year old was diagnosed with two infections and dehydration. She’d developed a cough that badly shook her small body. She had difficulty breathing. She required IV fluids and a respiratory monitor.

Despite the condition of these children, the government moved to have them quickly removed to Guatemala as part of America’s new program to outsource it’s harsh rejection of all asylum seekers . These small children and their mother, fleeing death threats in their own country, would now be forced into another country, one strange to them and equally affected by widespread violence, especially toward vulnerable populations.

Any due process for this family was entirely dispensed with. Border patrol refused to allow the mother to meet with her attorney. The government refused to release papers critical to her case, such as the removal order. They were denied their request to have an independent pediatrician examine the children.

The morning just before the removal order was to go into effect, both children were discharged from the hospital. The 1 year old’s IV was removed and despite the severity of her illness and the lack of any recuperative rest, an RN signed an order allowing her to travel in the infection-ridden environment of an airplane to a strange land with no supports.

There would be no sleep for this family, as the processing for those being removed would begin at 1:00am. The depleted 1 year old baby, her mother, and her 6 year old sister would be forced onto a plane for removal , still wearing the clothes they’d arrived in 2 weeks earlier. They have no one in Guatemala. They will arrive in a strange land with nothing.


Charlene Frank, January 24

Heavily armed Mexican marines in the camp making a show of their strength because T [Trump] has pressured the Mexican government to do this. To terrify helpless/hopeless people.

Mexican marines patrolling the tent city. Image: Charlene Frank

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, January 25

I need help. The Sidewalk School has been fortunate enough to employ six Amazing Teachers and now four of these teachers need your help! I just recently learned within the last two weeks that four of the school’s teachers do NOT have lawyers. And this is where the witnesses who have converged on Brownsville come into play. All of you, whether you know it or not, have saved lives. Because of the witnesses spreading awareness about the atrocities occurring in Matamoros, I was able to meet two lawyers. These two lawyers have offered to take my teachers’ asylum cases for free, but with one caveat…they need stand-in lawyers who live in the Rio Grande Valley. These two lawyers live up north, so attending all of the hearings is not possible, though doing the gruntwork is.

So this is where ALL of you come in again. Does anyone know of a lawyer or lawyers willing to attend hearings in Brownsville, TX to help The Sidewalk School’s teachers? Like I said, the work wouldn’t fall solely on the lawyer who lives here in the Valley, but it would be shared. Also, this lawyer or lawyers would have to work for free. My teachers and I don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on lawyers. So if anyone could help it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Joshua Rubin, January 25

The forces gathered against those of us who choose to oppose the extraordinary persecution of our country’s immigration policy are overwhelming. On every front we are faced with not just the policies themselves. There is MPP and metering which force people to exist in a purgatory of neglect and danger in the border cities of Mexico. There is violent confrontation by military force at and near Mexico’s southern border at the behest of our president. There are the new “expedited” asylum procedures which loads humanity onto a plane bound for the middle of nowhere in Central American countries.

And where we are, witnessing, there is social unrest in Matamoros, across the river, where voices of resentment are raised against the people encamped on the banks, voices growing loud enough to strike terror into the hearts of the refugees, and into our own.

Those voices blame the refugees for the subjection of their city to the chaos of policies that have given the refugees little choice but to make camp with their families and rely on what relief can be brought across the border to them by various private groups. But these voices have not correctly identified their enemies.

The US is guilty. The United States has turned Mexican cities like Matamoros into holding cells for people they unfairly made into prisoners. For the US, this heightens the disincentive for poor people to come into the country for help. And it doesn’t have to pay for the care of its prisoners, or even acknowledge its responsibility for keeping them alive. For the US, it is out of sight.

We could not do this without the Mexican government allowing us to use their cities as our holding cells. Mexico must acknowledge its role in this scheme. Mexico can say no.

People of Matamoros, this scheme is unfair to you. But do not blame the poor of the earth. Blame those responsible. Your demonstration starts at the US consulate. It is the right place to start.

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