DALLAS — About a thousand asylum-seekers in a tent camp in Matamoros near the Rio Grande spent a frigid and anxious Monday night in below-freezing temperatures as a winter storm spread across Texas and northern Mexico.
“We are frozen here,” texted a Honduran man at the camp named Rolando who asked that his full name not be used because of the nature of his persecution claim in U.S. immigration courts. “There is so much cold in the camp of migrants.”
The tattered camp remains one of the most visible symbols of the draconian immigration policies of the former Trump administration. All are enrolled in the so-called Remain-in-Mexico policy, officially known as the Migration Protection Protocols or MPP, where the are forced to wait across the border for immigration hearings. In the past, those lawfully seeking refuge were allowed to wait for a review of their cases in the U.S.
The low temperatures froze water at the camp and the camp has been plagued with electricity outages. A light snow fell on the sprawling camp of tarps and tents and makeshift outdoor grills, where immigrants burn wood to cook and keep warm.
“The people are so cold,” said Estuardo Cifuentes, an asylum-seeker who lives outside the camp due to its danger. “There are some heaters but without electricity they are of no use.”
Campfires were going out Sunday night because of the weather, he said.
Power outages have hammered Texas and many northern Mexican states such as Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located, according to Mexico’s national electricity grid operator.
President Joe Biden has ended the MPP program, and the asylum-seekers are days away from being processed into the U.S. White House senior officials said there are about 25,000 cases left in a program that once enrolled about 71,000.
Monday, the on-site medical crew of the nonprofit Global Response Management prepared for another night of freezing temperatures that are forecast to dip to 25 degrees—about the same frigid conditions as Sunday night. The medical crew began tent checks and placed out containers of hot tea and hot chocolate, particularly important because the water filtration system was frozen. Gas-fired heaters were also set up that don’t require electricity.
“It is just one thing after another: No breaks, no breaks,” said Andrea Leiner, a nurse practitioner and director of strategic planning with Global Response.
“There is a real concern for frostbite, hyperthermia. With people anticipating that Friday is going to open to MPP crossings, people don’t want to move to a shelter with a roof. They are afraid they will lose their spot in the MPP line.”
But early Monday afternoon, there were no cases reported yet of weather-related problems from the medical crew that includes Cuban and Nicaraguan doctors and nurses, who are also asylum-seekers, Leiner said.
Migrants have been living in the camp since the summer of 2019. At one point the camp swelled to about 3,000 and many more found apartments in Matamoros, a border city of about 520,000 people.
Camp-dwellers and asylum-seekers living in low-rent apartments have been subject to kidnappings, assaults and extortion.
Cifuentes and others are pushing for processing of asylum-seekers to begin sooner than the tentative Friday start date, but a digital registration site with the U.S. government must be working first. The Guatemalan immigrant works with Rainbow Bridge, an aid group dedicated to protecting the LGBTQ asylum-seekers.
He said he was encouraged to learn from international aid workers that LGBTQ asylum-seekers would be given preference because of their vulnerability to abuse. There are about four dozen LGBTQ asylum-seekers with pending cases in the Matamoros area, he said.
Cifuentes said he is trying to reassure all asylum-seekers that the organizing process has already begun.
“We have to wait,” he said by phone Monday. “We are trying to do it as efficiently as possible.”
Nonprofits in Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley have steadily taken in fresh supplies and food to the camp. Among the items have been tarps for tents, coats and blankets.
Sunday, the nonprofit organizations Team Brownsville, Angry Tias and Abuelas and others walked across the Gateway International Bridge to take in supplies, said Andrea Rudnik, a Team Brownsville organizer. Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, visits the camp regularly and is now in charge of coordinating key portions of the relief effort on the Texas side of the border.
Both groups continue to take donations from the public.
In the interim, one immigrant tweeted out in Spanish against the freezing temperatures with a photo of ice crystals: “Nature once again makes the waiting more difficult. May God keep them safe.”