Borderlands Reporting

Weekly Witness: Border Protests & Expedited Removals

As tensions around Matamoros camps rise, witnesses observe ominous signs that ‘Remain in Mexico’ may soon be supplanted by dangerous new policies of shipping asylum-seekers by plane to unfamiliar 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 at the Border (formerly 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 Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP) policies, read “Expedited Removal Policies Are Being Implemented in South Texas” in Border Report.

Some posts have been edited for clarity and length.


Karla Rader Barber, January 26

Day 15: on some days there is good news. Yesterday we greeted a man who has been granted asylum and is now free to continue his legal battle in the United States. Join us!

Janice Rosenberg, January 26

Today locals in Matamoros held a protest against the asylum seekers’ presence in their town. Pastor Abraham Barberi, who regularly provides humanitarian assistance in the camp, spoke in support of the asylum seekers. Apparently the crowd attending the event was much smaller than anticipated.

Note: For in-depth coverage of this protest, including video report back by witness Joshua Rubin, see this analysis by Border Report.

Joshua Rubin, January 27

Although it made one DHS agent pretty angry, three of us were there to watch as five buses, likely full of deportees, got onto a SwiftAir jet at Brownsville Airport, and, again likely, were transported to somewhere in Central America. This is the promised ramp up of the PACR (Prompt Asylum Claim Review) program, designed to send asylum seekers as far away as possible without giving them time or the means to make their case.

We are watching to see if this is the beginning of the end for MPP, or just supplementary cruelty to handle the new caravans, or poor people’s marches, as I like to think of them, coming up from the ravaged countries south of Mexico.

The DHS asked us why we were looking at “our” planes, although his sidekick corrected him quickly, revising that to government hired planes, I suppose to hide some direct connection to Homeland Security. He demanded ID, but seemed to think better of it after I asked him what the problem was.

So, 250-300 people, women, men, children. Two of us seemed to make out a little girl in a pink dress.

Debbie Nathan, January 28

According to reporter Jeff Abbott, who works in Guatemala City, the largest number of Hondurans and Salvadorans ever, 48, were deported today by plane to Guatemala. All of the 48 came on one flight. It originated in Brownsville.

Janet Kinney, January 28

Today Peg, another ‘witness’ and I attended some tent court hearings. These tent courts, where asylum hearings are held, were erected last year at a cost of 25 million dollars of taxpayer money.

Being able to attend these hearings is a new phenomenon, as a result of a recent court case that was filed and won, so our presence is now permitted.

We were told to be at the entrance gate before 7:30 am. We arrived at 7; after being screened through (no cell phones allowed) our passports were taken and we were given temporary badges to wear. A subcontractor AHTNA, provided all the court security. We have to say we were very well treated by the security guards, but did wonder if this was only because of the court case. Were the asylum seekers treated as well?

We were moved at various points to two different waiting areas and told court would begin at 8:30 am and they would assign us to a particular court to observe.

The judges are teleconferenced in from surrounding Texas court houses so there is no direct personalized contact with the persons seeking asylum.

As we waited and the time approached 9 am, we learned that one of the judges called in sick and then that another judge was delayed by another court case. We finally got assigned to a 3rd court.

At 9:39 am court was convened. On the video screen only two persons were visible – the judge and a translator. Off screen was the U.S. government prosecutor who you never saw. Just an anonymous voice!

There were 11 cases on the docket; each lasted between 5-7 minutes. Court was adjourned for the morning at 10:49 am!

This was each of their second hearings, whose sole purpose was to ascertain that their application and any supporting documents they wanted to submit were complete. Typically there are three hearings; the final one is the merit hearing—these we are not allowed to observe. A spare few had attorneys, and none were present today. Only one was on speaker phone. The need for pro bono attorneys is huge!

We observed that the judge never made eye contact and appeared to be looking at a computer screen (out of view). Repetitive questions were asked of all.

Their next court dates were scheduled anywhere between two weeks and 2.5 months from now—depending on how prepared they were to proceed.

Interestingly, when the government prosecutor was asked what documents she was submitting, it was ALWAYS the official Human Rights report of the country asylum-seekers were fleeing. We questioned ourselves—how objective could this report be? Perhaps if those that have attorneys could obtain some of the ‘shadow’ reports that NGOs and other human rights groups publish, the FULL stories would be told! Cases we heard today were those of individuals and families from Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, and El Salvador.

Since we couldn’t have our cell phones, we have no inside pictures. These are of the entrance way from the street where we entered; the asylum seekers go through a separate doorway from the border bridge.

Joshua Rubin, January 29

By the Waters of Babylon

Yesterday, encouraged by Mexican authorities and agreed to by the relief workers that are a lifeline to the refugees forced to remain in Mexico as they pursue their vanishingly slim hope of asylum, the pocket of tents nearest the bridge and the people in them moved over to the other side of the levee, behind the fence topped with concertina wire.

They are now nearer some washing facilities, nearer where the food hauled across from our side is uncarted and served, and the tents they are in are a bit newer. Still some people were reluctant, feeling safer under the eyes of officials on the bridge, having become attached to their long-held campsite.

Where they are now they will not be as easily seen by the citizens of Matamoros, some of whom have grown increasingly impatient, some lately expressing anger at the refugees, some using language that has frightened many.

So, strung out along the banks of the river, the encampment seems neatly bounded on both ends, with little room to expand, if expansion will be needed. It is mysterious. Will people continue to languish on the banks? Will the fast track asylum review and removal process, loaded planes of refugees headed for Guatemala an Honduras, take its place?

Meanwhile we weep.

Janet Kinney, January 29

Susan and I witnessed a heightened military presence on our Tuesday afternoon walkthrough at the camp. Despite this presence, all was very peaceful among the people.

Joshua Rubin, January 30

We have changed the name of our group to Witness at the Border. It fits with our broader target of injustice along the southern boundary of our country, the line that protects our unequal share of the wealth of the world. Our witnessing will shine a light on all the desperate and cruel practices our country deploys. We dedicate ourselves to looking at and reporting about those things that they hide from our eyes, pursuing the subversive act of seeing, and the righteous act of testifying.

Charlene Frank, January 31

Roller coaster emotions in the past three or four days. First Barbara and I helped a 17-year-old Mexican-American boy get to his cousin in Knoxville, TN. He was the only person in his family born in the U.S., and his parents told him to go alone because it was so dangerous where they live and they wanted him to have a safe life. He was terrified. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he was incredibly shy. We got him a U.S. phone, used our ID so he could rent a hotel room for the night (he only had a birth certificate), gave him money for a taxi and then realized he can’t get on a plane without a picture ID. We called Gaby, she called the airline, and as usual, she got us the answer we needed. A minor can fly with only a birth certificate. He is now safe with cousins in Tennessee.

Then came a wonderful family of eight, also from a dangerous part of Mexico. Barbara and I were very close to two of the six children, and to mama as well. Mama had a small coffee bar, making coffee over a fire in an clay stove her husband made. She also sold tortillas by the kilo or half kilo. The people there had nothing, but they were incredibly enterprising. When I asked the mama if they were leaving the next day, we hugged and she held me tightly and sobbed. She was afraid. They all wanted to leave and go to El Norte, but they were afraid. She told me she would never forget me and Barbara for the love we gave her children. She hugged me again, held me tightly, and sobbed some more. Then her son who loved to pretend he was a Kung Fu expert hugged me and cried. I told them “nunca te olvidaremos” (we will never forget you). That made them cry more and hug me tighter. When I walked away, they walked with me with arm through mine, saying nothing. The next day, I saw 12 missed calls on my phone. It was their daughter on the way to Oklahoma. Although I was speaking Spanish all day there, I’m not able to carry on a Spanish phone conversation, so Barbara took the call from her and explained the cost of calling a U.S. number from Mexico. So she will be texting me. Oh my heart.

Karla Rader Barber, January 31

Early this morning at Brownsville airport shackled hand and foot and frisked like criminals. Loaded as cargo bound for Honduras.



Click HERE to contribute to wish lists for supplies needed by asylum-seekers.

Click HERE to Support Witness at the Border.

Click HERE to learn more about an upcoming call for witnesses over Valentine’s Day weekend.

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