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The Anguish of Watching the Election From the Purgatory of a Border Camp

Asylum-seekers stranded in Matamoros, Mexico, have a plea for voters in November: Elect Joe Biden and “get us out of this hell.”

Clothes dry at a camp for asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico
John Moore/Getty Images

It’s been nearly a year now that Luis Adrian Martinez Reyes has lived in a tent with his wife (who is pregnant), child, and godchild in the migrant camp for asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico, on the banks of the Rio Grande, which marks the U.S.-Mexico border. Camp residents are mostly like him: young parents with children. They cook on small clay stoves with wood provided by aid groups that also deliver three meals a day, along with supplies including masks, sanitizer, and baby items. People use portable toilets, wash their hands in small sinks, and bathe in the muddy river. It’s a life of waiting, the view of the opposite riverbank a constant reminder that the United States is out of reach.

I met Reyes in the camp in March, before the border closed, and we’ve stayed in touch on WhatsApp. He fled Honduras, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, in 2019, after surviving a shooting that left him with a long red scar running vertically along his torso. He paid smugglers to take him and his family across the Rio Grande on an inflatable boat no larger than a mattress, but Border Patrol caught and detained them briefly before deporting them to Matamoros in December. There, they waited in Mexico under a Trump administration policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. It’s also called, perhaps more descriptively, the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Since Vice President Mike Pence ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to close U.S. borders amid the Covid-19 crisis, against the objection of agency officials, Reyes and others in the camp have waited for months as their asylum hearings have been pushed back again and again. His court appearance is now scheduled for December 7.

According to immigration lawyers who visited the camp, the number of people living there has shrunk from about 2,500 before the border closed to about 1,000, as people give up on asylum and return home, or find work and settle in Mexico. Those going home are returning to the violence, political persecution, and economic hardships they fled in the first place. They’re returning out of desperation. Others, like Reyes, choose to stay, hoping the border will reopen. “Right now, many dead migrants are appearing in the river,” Reyes said in Spanish. In one case, a Guatemalan man drowned while trying to help a pregnant woman who was crossing the river to reach the U.S.

They left dangerous situations in their home countries to seek safety in the U.S., and now they don’t know if or when they will have their asylum cases heard. Under the MPP, which will see its second anniversary in January, the U.S. has issued deportation orders for nearly 33,000 people, and another 23,000 cases are pending.

Immigration is not a major election issue in 2020 the way it was in 2016. While the spotlight has moved on for some voters, the outcome in November will have a profound impact on the lives of people living in the Matamoros camp—Biden and Trump have dramatically different plans for immigration: Trump would continue MPP, while Biden has pledged to take immediate action to end the policy. If Biden wins, immigration lawyers say he could quickly restore the border to the pre-Trump status quo using memos, executive orders, and settlement agreements.

Reyes said there’s no joy in the camp. He described the upcoming election as “the best hope” he has. “Here we are all asking God for Biden to win.”

The Department of Homeland Security first implemented MPP in January 2019. Before MPP, migrants arriving at the southern border could apply for asylum as soon as they stepped onto U.S. soil; under MPP, migrants entering the U.S. from Mexico without proper documents are returned to Mexico to wait for the duration of their cases. If the courts deem their claims invalid—applicants must prove they have a legitimate fear of persecution in their home country, but judges can reject cases for any reason, including insufficient evidence or, for example, because fear of gang violence is rarely recognized by the U.S. as a reason for asylum—they are deported. (Asylum-seekers from Honduras whom the U.S. has deported have later been killed by the gangs they fled.)

This process has been complicated by deterrence policies that predated Trump, including border surveillance, the ever-expanding wall, detention of migrants as they waited for their cases to be decided, and mass deportations under the Obama administration. But, prior to this administration, migrants weren’t ordered to remain in Mexico or faced with family separation at the gleeful, intentional scale enacted under Trump. In July 2019, DHS and the Justice Department blocked migrants from Central and South America by declaring them ineligible if they had not first applied for asylum in countries they had traveled through.

DHS said Mexico would protect migrants. In reality, asylum-seekers in Matamoros faced threats, including kidnappings of family members for ransom, a tropical storm that flooded and nearly displaced the camp, and now Covid-19, which hard-working doctors and nurses of Global Response Management, many of them asylum-seekers too, have so far kept at bay by providing flu shots, rapidly testing those with symptoms, and organizing information sessions to teach residents about the coronavirus.

Before the border closure, the court hearings under MPP were bizarre. In Brownsville, Texas, across the narrow river from Matamoros, officials built a makeshift court of tents and trailers in a parking lot. Asylum-seekers in the camp could see the tents across the water. On the date of their hearing, they lined up on the international bridge and walked quietly into the trailer courtrooms. In March, I sat in on one of these proceedings.

“I want to present my case because I was assaulted on February 22 in Mexico,” a Cuban man explained to a judge who appeared on a screen via video link. Wearing a blue sweatshirt, he sat with 10 other asylum-seekers. None had lawyers present. The judge cycled through each case in minutes.

He told the judge he feared for his life. “During that assault, I lost my passport. What do I do without my passport?” he asked. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know what you can do,” the judge replied, adding that immigration officials could assess his asylum case after the hearing. The numbers show it’s unlikely he was granted asylum: Nearly 67,000 people have been placed in MPP, but only 570 were granted relief—a rate of under 1 percent.

In late February, a court decision sparked hope in the camp, but it was short-lived. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down MPP, asylum-seekers lined up patiently on bridges over the Rio Grande, hoping to be let in, and immigration lawyers raced to the border to show copies of the decision to border officials. Officials ignored them, saying they were being directed from above. A little more than a week later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled MPP could continue. The next day, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. (The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it will review the policy.)

Charlene D’Cruz was one of the lawyers on the bridge arguing with border officials as asylum-seekers lined up, waiting for relief that never came. As we sat in her Matamoros office before the pandemic, she said border officials broke the law during that brief window of the temporary injunction. “Technically, if there was no MPP and someone presented, they were supposed to accept someone who is saying, we are here, we fear returning to our country,” she told me. “That is the law. Because it’s based on international law. If someone presents at your border, you can’t tell them to stay on the other side.”

Instead, they were left to wait. Dairon Elisondo Rojas, a Cuban doctor who is seeking asylum, treats patients in the camp. “Every day, people lose their hopes more, but they have to keep waiting for everything to return to normal,” he said.

If Trump remains president, it’s unlikely MPP hearings will resume until well into 2021 or even 2022, according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council. For hearings to resume, the Trump administration has said all southern U.S. border states must be in level three of their reopening plans, and Mexican border states, which use a stoplight system, must be in the “yellow” phase of reopening. The Department of State and CDC global advisories on Covid, currently at their highest level of four, must be reduced to level two. Without an effective vaccine deployed worldwide, it’s unlikely the border will reopen anytime soon under this plan, Reichlin-Melnick concluded, leaving people stranded in Mexico indefinitely with nowhere to go.

The election could change that. “Programs like MPP were created by a policy memo,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “They are not regulations. They are not laws passed by Congress. They’re not even executive orders. On day one, a new administration could end those programs immediately.” It’s as simple as signing a memo or executive order declaring the policy is no longer operable.

Still, D’Cruz cautions that a Biden win won’t mean a happy ending for everyone. She wants to know how he will retroactively undo the nearly 67,000 cases of people who should have been admitted to the U.S. but were placed in MPP, including the tens of thousands of people who were deported.

“What about the thousands who are waiting for their hearings? What’s gonna happen? Are we still gonna have kangaroo courts on the border? We already know that there’s no due process, so in my opinion, he doesn’t have a plan yet, and I understand that may sound like nitpicky detail, but it’s huge.”

Trump wasn’t the first to punish people arriving at the southern border. For decades the U.S. has jailed or deported those convicted of “illegal entry” and “illegal re-entry,” though asylum is a legal process. The Obama administration opened new detention centers and sped up deportation proceedings, removing more than two million people. There are other issues with American asylum, too—it rarely protects those fleeing gang violence and does nothing for climate refugees.

“The fundamental struggle of any new administration will be to not just fix the problems but actively reform the system in a way that promotes justice,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “And it’s much easier to return things to the status quo than it is to proactively make reforms to ensure that this never happens again.”

In mid-October, an aid group at the camp opened a school, moving the former “sidewalk school” into a large tent. Inside are tables, chairs, bright posters, and stuffed animals. Reyes’s five-year-old is one of its students, though he said she doesn’t like getting up early. It’s a rare bright spot in the camp, but a small one. And hardly enough. “I can’t take it anymore in this place,” Reyes said. He still asks God for Biden to win. And American voters: “Get us out of this hell.”