On a visit this past week to Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico I was confronted by a tale of two tent cities.
In easy view from the border crossing is a massive tent city that houses migrants. It is constructed of camping tents and tarps. Somewhere between 2,000 and 2,800 people (depending who you ask) are in the tent city. They are forced to wait in Mexico until the United States decides if they will be given political asylum.
The tents sit on hardened dirt. I can only imagine the muddy mess it is when it rains. Anyone can walk into the tent city. There is no permanent security. We heard rejoicing over a new bank of port-a-potties; the first time the Mexican government had provided any sanitation. The other port-a-potties were donated. Neither the Mexican government nor UN agencies run the tent city. With the help of volunteers, many from the US, the refugees have had to figure things out for themselves.
Just across the river (and border) from the tent city is a tent court. This is where political US asylum claims are processed. It is also a tent city and covers the area of a few city blocks. Behind a strictly guarded perimeter, there are courtrooms, waiting areas, air conditioning, and childcare provided by licensed teachers. No mud here. This place is shockingly clean. The port-a-potties here are cleaned every 90 minutes.
Inside the courtroom the scene is reminiscent of the “Hunger Games.” A judge appears remotely on a massive screen before rows of asylum seekers. Even if the judge has a kind demeanor and is a clear communicator, it’s impossible to miss the underlying tension. What happens here is about survival.
Three quarters of those in the camp are non-Mexicans who have applied for asylum in the United States. Once the application process starts, they are immediately returned to Mexico to await a decision – hence the camp in Matamoros. The US calls this the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” There is no evidence that “protection” has anything to do with what is going on here. Even people who were previously kidnapped in Mexico, and those who have been granted asylum, but are pending appeal from the US government have been forced to return and wait.. These so-called “protection” protocols are being challenged in US courts, but the practice remains in place pending a final decision.
The other quarter of the population is Mexican. They wait for the opportunity to apply for asylum under “metering.” This is an informal system where numbers are handed out – like at the deli counter. Mexicans can wait for months, often with their children, in the tent city just to ask for asylum.
The US needs to stop this farce. We have a legal and moral obligation to provide protection to legitimate asylum seekers. Instead, we make them suffer hoping that they will abandon their requests. The Mexican government needs to take some responsibility here, too. “The US made me do it” is not a policy. These asylum seekers are on Mexican territory. Step up.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson