Since the beginning of this past May, visitors crossing the international bridges between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas would have noticed something different—and alarming.
Dozens of people, including women and children, could be seen standing or sitting in the blazing sun, some of them for four or five days.
US Customs and Border Patrol had put three agents at the International Boundary Line, midway across the bridge, and were preventing anyone who would be seeking asylum from entering the United States to make that claim.
And so, although the refugees had the legal right to apply for asylum under both international law (the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol) and under national law (the United States’ 1980 Refugee Act) the United States had decided to make it difficult or impossible for the refugee to access that right.
Mid-May I had asked a woman from Honduras who had been on the bridge for several days what the agents were telling her when she tried to enter. She told me, “They said that the United States was not taking asylum cases, now that Trump was president.” She also told me that she didn’t believe the agents, because, a couple of days before, a pregnant woman from El Salvador had been let through the checkpoint. “And I don’t really have much of a choice but to wait. There is no way I can go back home, I will get killed. And I am afraid to cross the river (with a smuggler); I hear that they always rape women. So I will trust in God and wait.”
Later that same week I spoke to a couple of fellows from the African nation of Cameroon. They told me that one of the Mexican immigration agents had told them that the “United States was not letting in black people. They are racists.” But the same agent told him that for $100 each they could put on a special “non-racist” list.
The Mexican agents have organized a good business–it is rare to see any more than ten to twelve people waiting in line to get on the bridge, although there are reportedly hundreds of people trying to figure out how to get on the famous list.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary for Homeland Security, has denied that the refugees were being refused the right at apply for asylum, saying essentially, that the customs and border agents were “busy.”
The refugees busily waited in the open air, on the bridges, throughout the summer and into this fall. There are no restroom facilities and there are no water fountains on these bridges—the bridges are meant for crossing over. They are not waiting rooms.
There are, however, a lot of good people on both sides of the international boundary line. Since May, and daily, these kind souls have been offering all sorts of help to those standing in the lines of misery that the Americans had created.
There is a entire Mexican team of volunteers who literally risk their lives, twice daily, to offer help to the people passing through their city (the smuggling cartels consider the asylum seekers as good business and do not appreciate anyone helping them get out of Mexico). There is a young Texan who cooks meals, twice a day, for the fifteen to twenty people who might be on line. There are a couple of guys from Brownsville who daily cross to Matamoros, dragging a small wagon with supplies—water, snacks, tarps to keep the sun off of the people. There are several women from Brownsville who have become experts at easing the wait. They can tell the refugees which bridge (there are two) has American officers that might make the wait shorter, whether or not the shelter in Matamoros is full or not, or how to get medical care.
One of the women in this last group frequently posts her observations on Facebook, closing, always, with a defiant, “This is America.”
Editor’s Note: The above guest column first appeared in Michael Seifert’s blog. It appears in the Rio Grande Guardian with the author’s permission. Seifert is pictured above.