Immigration up close and personal in the Rio Grande Valley – Tias and Abuelas respond

by: Susan Law
Posted: March 20, 2021

Angry Tias and Abuelas Emerges

It was June of 2018, and the grapevine was going wild. Friends, neighbors, social media were all telling us there was a problem on the Reynosa-Hidalgo international bridge (just south of McAllen, Texas).  Several local Rio Grande Valley women rushed to the bridge to see what was happening and how they could help. What they discovered was families camped out on the international bridge in temperatures over 100 degrees, without food, water, or protection from the sun. They were attempting to apply for asylum in the United States, but not being allowed inside the air-conditioned building. If they left, they risked losing their place in line. They had been there for more than a week. Gangs awaited them on the Mexican side of the bridge. We all rushed food and water to them and began connecting with one another.  Thus began a grassroots group which called itself Angry Tias and Abuelas (Tias).

Many of us who live along the U.S.-Mexican border are, like most other Americans, busy with jobs and the details of everyday life. Many are unaware of what is going on just a few miles away from our doorstep. And often, even when we do become aware, it’s difficult to know what to do about things that seem out of our control. By coming together as a group, the Tias— none of whom knew all of the volunteers in the group before its formation–learned and were able to add some humanity to the situation. This is an attempt to pass on what was learned.

During the extremely anti-immigrant, Trump years, the asylum process was in effect shut down in many different ways.   In 2018, parents seeking asylum were charged with crimes for crossing the border and were forcibly separated from their children—over 500 families have still not yet been reunited. Private detention facilities were and still are making millions by detaining people in cruel and dangerous conditions, sometimes for years. Yet the asylum seekers’ only “crime” was to request asylum in our country.  Massive numbers of asylum seekers have been deported to countries where many have then been killed; and in 2020, thousands were forced to stay in Mexico under a misnamed policy called “Migrant Protection Protocol” (MPP), otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico,” where they await their opportunity to present their cases. The judges listen remotely to their testimonies.  For the most part, the asylum seekers waiting under MPP have not had an opportunity to find or hire a lawyer. The asylum application hearings are swift:  judges simply deny their requests, case closed. And yet the families face death or worse if they return to their homelands. Worse yet, while they wait in Mexico, well over half suffer beatings, armed assaults, rapes and kidnappings with their children.

Before MPP took effect in 2019, however, hundreds of people fleeing violence in their home countries came daily through the Rio Grande Valley. These families, for the most part, crossed the river (because the bridge was closed to them), were processed by the immigration authorities, then dropped off primarily at the McAllen bus station, where Catholic Charities staff and volunteers would meet them and take them to its Humanitarian Respite Center. At the respite center, families received help in arranging bus tickets, were fed and given clothing, in addition to a safe place to sleep before their travel. They then stayed safely with family members while they obtained legal assistance and their cases proceeded in their courts.

In July 2018, the Tias found a way to help in that process. Working from the McAllen bus station, volunteers sat with the travelers to explain their bus tickets and the immigration paperwork they carried with them and gave them a FAQ (frequently asked questions) sheet about the immigration process as well as information about pro bono legal help throughout the country. Most also received a brief cultural orientation which included such information as not having to pay to use the toilet and how vending machines worked. Among the items the Tias kept on hand was a supply of shoelaces and belts, both of which items had been taken from them in detention and not returned.

MPP takes effect in September 2019

In September 2019, when MPP took effect in the Rio Grande Valley, the work the Tias and its volunteers had been doing at the McAllen bus station suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Asylum seekers were no longer allowed to continue to their destinations in the United States where they would await a hearing in immigration court. As a result, the focus shifted to Mexico, primarily Matamoros, where asylum seekers were starting to gather in order to be close to their designated court, which was a newly-erected giant tent right across the river in Brownsville, Texas.

A group of educators, most of whom had volunteered with the Tias at the McAllen, Texas bus station the summer of 2018 while they were on summer break, had afterwards formed their own group, Team Brownsville (TB), to respond to the needs of the asylum applicants they had found waiting in Matamoros for a chance to cross the border into the United States. Starting out by delivering food and supplies, TB quickly became the primary source of support for what eventually became a refugee camp along the southern banks of the Rio Grande. They supplied tents, blankets, food, supplies, pretty much everything. When MPP put a halt to their work in McAllen, the Tias also made visits to the people in the Matamoros camp and in Reynosa to learn what their needs were, to answer questions, to provide moral support, to work with Team Brownsville and the other NGOs to make sure necessities were provided.

While many Americans assume that immigrants are coming to the U.S. for economic reasons, most of the people that volunteers have met in both Matamoros and Reynosa are fleeing for their lives.  Upheaval in Central America and many other countries, including Haiti, Uganda, and Cameroon, have caused thousands to seek protection for their children and for themselves in the U.S.  And under U.S. law, they have a right to apply for asylum by showing a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. This is the law, but the Trump administration found ways to get around it.

In April 2018 the Trump administration started using metering, a procedure which had been used in the past only intermittently but under Trump was used consistently as policy. Because anyone who crosses into the U.S. has the right to apply for asylum, the U.S. started stationing officials at the middle of the bridges, turning asylum seekers away and telling them to sign up on a waitlist in Mexico. Those lists were kept by different people at different ports of entry. They were often very long lists and it could take months before a name was called. Since 2019, for example, the list was kept by the shelter director in Reynosa. If the U.S. immigration official told the director they could see two people that day, he would send the next two people on the list.

In January 2019, MPP first went into effect along parts of the border, reaching the Rio Grande Valley by September of that year.  Then in March 2020, the administration closed the border to asylum seekers under Title 42 of the United States Code under the guise of stopping the spread of the Covid pandemic. As a result, for example, there are now over two thousand people on the wait list being kept by the shelter director in Reynosa.

Additionally, in June 2018. then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions adopted a policy that, “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by nongovernmental actors will not qualify for asylum.” Much of the violence offered by asylum seekers has been at the hands of gangs, which have often taken over the local governments. This policy put a further obstacle to those seeking protection.

Mexico received funds from U.S. to assist asylum seekers – their services were negligible

People fleeing horrible violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala formed the majority of those living in the Matamoros camp. In other countries receiving large numbers of refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) usually provides assistance but must be invited by the country to which the people have fled. That did not happen in Mexico. Additionally, part of the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico regarding MPP was that Mexico received funds from the U.S. to provide services to those sent to wait there. In Matamoros—and in most of the other border towns—these services were either non-existent or negligible.

In Mexico, these asylum seekers have been easy targets for the cartels. At least half of those waiting to come to the U.S. have been victims of kidnappings, rape, and extortion. Even in the tent camp in Matamoros, where a community was formed and elected leaders from each country worked for the betterment of that community, the cartel inflicted its terror. Added to this were the storm in May 2020 that destroyed many tents and possessions and flooded part of the camp, the disastrous freeze this February, snakes and other vermin, lack of access to sanitary facilities—the list goes on. Desperation is the only factor that could explain the motivation to live in such circumstances for up to two years.

In January 2020, one of the groups that came to see firsthand the disastrous results of MPP in Matamoros included Dr. Jill Biden, who walked through the camp, spoke with people living there, and helped serve meals.  It is assumed that this visit made a strong impression and may have had a part in her husband’s campaign promise to end MPP.

While one of President Biden’s early executive orders was in fact to end MPP, that applied only to new arrivals, not to the thousands in Mexico already in MPP awaiting their court dates. This process has now begun: On February 25 the first of the migrants from the Matamoros camp were allowed to cross the border, and the camp itself closed on March 6. Nine former camp residents are in a shelter in Matamoros as of this writing, awaiting word on the status of their cases. Crossings are also happening of those in MPP in El Paso and San Ysidro, CA, and are expected to commence soon in other border cities as well.

Those who are crossing the border under the MPP program have sponsors in various parts of the country, and their cases will be transferred to the immigration courts which have jurisdiction. These asylum seekers will have a much better opportunity to find lawyers to represent them, since very few lawyers were able or willing to go to Mexico to meet with clients, and thus they will have a better chance at obtaining asylum. According to the National Immigration Forum, in FY 2017, 90% of asylum applicants who did not have a lawyer were unsuccessful in their asylum cases. That rate was even worse under MPP with judges who were remote and often hostile or inattentive.

Meanwhile, new asylum seekers are arriving to the border in hopes of more humane treatment than what was afforded under Trump.  But up until now, the Biden administration has kept mostly intact the executive order Trump invoked using Title 42 of the U.S. Code to keep out immigrants due to the Covid pandemic. As a result, many families are sending their children across the border unaccompanied by a parent, since unaccompanied children are not supposed to be sent back to Mexico.

In Reynosa, families are still being expelled from the U.S. under Title 42 and left at the international bridge, which in Reynosa is especially dangerous. There have recently been many kidnappings. One dark evening the week of March 8, the Reynosa police told those gathered that they had to leave the area or their kids would be taken under claims of endangerment.  Volunteers accompanied the people, rushing to some of the nearby hotels. The next day Mexican immigration asked the others who wanted to go home; most agreed and were taken to the Senda de Vida shelter, tested for Covid and quarantined. Some really wanted to go home, some assented simply out of fear of losing their kids or being kidnapped at the bridge. They were scheduled to later talk to a human rights officer.  The U.S. Department of State assesses the dangers in Tamaulipas as level 4, the same as Iraq and Afghanistan, mentioning specifically crime and kidnapping. It is imperative that expulsions to Tamaulipas be stopped immediately.

The United States has an obligation to follow its own laws and to allow those with asylum claims to present them in a fair and just manner. Because traffic continues between the two countries for business, tourism and family reasons, it appears that the Title 42 provision is simply an excuse to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the border.  There is no other way to request asylum.  Governor Abbott’s foolish claims to the contrary, “hundreds of illegal immigrants” infected with Covid are not being released to Texas. They are being tested upon arrival. Ironically, this statement goes hand in hand with Abbott’s refusal to receive FEMA aid to test migrants. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is damaging to our country and needs to stop.




Gallery: Tias and Abuelas
Susan Law concentrated her efforts at McAllen from June 2018 through July 2019, when between 200 to 900 asylum seekers per day were released at the McAllen bus station by ICE or border patrol. These were the refugees who had been processed by immigration officials and were approved to move on to their sponsors across the country.

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