Julián Castro, a Democratic presidential candidate, visited asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico, on Monday.
The former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and San Antonio mayor toured the migrant community across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, to highlight the people affected by the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy, formerly known as the Migrant Protection Protocols.
Thousands of asylum seekers are waiting along the southern border in Mexico until their immigration court dates in the U.S. — sometimes in squalid conditions — for months at a time. Some men and women there hoped his visit would help them escape the life-threatening conditions.
Dani Marrero Hi with the Texas Civil Rights Project had invited Castro to visit with some LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. She hoped Castro would help to escort them, along with a deaf woman and her three relatives, across the international bridge, and then convince border officials to admit them into the U.S. to wait for their immigration court dates in safety.
“These families and these individuals can’t spend one more night or day here, and we need this to work,” Marrero Hi said. The Remain in Mexico policy is supposed to allow certain “vulnerable” populations to circumvent the program. She said the vulnerable gay and lesbian asylum seekers have waited in Mexico for months.
A Cuban migrant, also named Dani, said she planned to tell Castro how difficult it can be to stay in Mexico instead of the U.S.
“We don’t have anywhere to bathe, so we have to bathe in the river," she said. “I’ve saved two 4 year old girls from the river. Then me and some other Cubans rescued five little girls who were drowning. There was also a body found in the river.”
As she waited for Castro to arrive, she was optimistic. The day before, a trans woman from their group was allowed into the U.S. and granted permission to stay while her case made its way through the courts.
“I started crying because thankfully one of us are finally in,” she recalled.
Mari, an asylum seeker also from Cuba, said if she was allowed into the U.S., she would probably go to Ohio and become an activist while she waited for her court hearing.
“We can’t just think of ourselves, she said. "We also have to think of those who are still here.”
Castro finally arrived, and anxiousness and excitement rippled through the group. Before the candidate's arrival, some had called relatives to let them know they might be in the U.S. very soon. Others gave Merrero Hi their contact information in case they were stuck in immigration detention.
Castro moved through the assembled crowd and spoke to some individuals. He walked with them down to the riverbank. White crosses dotted the banks, honoring people who drowned in the river. Castro placed white flowers in front of them.
As he strolled past the multicolored tents, hundreds of migrants followed him. Castro greeted and spoke with the migrants in the tents. Most seemed happy to see him but their stories were tragic.
“The kids are sick. Everyday they get more sick,” one migrant explained to him.
After the tour, Castro returned to Brownsville and spoke to the press. He called on the Trump administration to end the Remain in Mexico program.
“You also have kids that are sick because they can’t drink clean water," he said, "and a couple of the children who looked emaciated because they have not had a good diet, enough to eat. People are living in squalor.”
He also asked fellow Americans to take note of the situation.
“I hope that in this country people who say they’re Jesus loving, God loving ... that they pay more attention to God loving, Jesus loving people on this side of the border with brown skin that are desperate, that are being treated cruelly by this president because he clearly doesn’t care about them,” Castro said.
Castro vowed that if he was president, he would immediately issue an executive order ending the Remain in Mexico policy.
He also met with Marreo Hi, who had invited him to visit with a group of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, and with Jodi Goodwin, a local immigration attorney. They walked up the international bridge towards the U.S. with the group of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and the deaf woman and her relatives.
Castro asked Customs and Border Protection officers if 12 asylum seekers could be removed from the Remain in Mexico program and allowed to cross into the U.S. After some deliberations, the group was allowed into the U.S.
Officers told the group an immigration official would decide if they could wait in the U.S. or be sent back to Mexico. The mood was optimistic. Progress seemed to have been made.
But it didn't last long. A few hours later, the asylum seekers were returned to Mexico.
Dani, the Cuban migrant, was devastated. “I thought this would end and that we would have an opportunity to be free but I realized that wasn’t the case.”
She called the Migrant Protection Protocols a scam and said she didn't feel protected at all.