Update: This story has been updated to reflect the location of the shelter. It is at a gymnasium at Alberca Chavez.
There are more than 1,500 migrants living in squalid conditions on the streets in Matamoros, Mexico. They’re forced to wait there for their day in U.S. immigration court under the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy.
Matamoros officials plan to open up a shelter as early as this week to house asylum seekers. However, many of those asylum seekers and U.S. aid workers believe they’re better off in their current encampment than in the city-run shelter.
Andrea Rutnick was in Matamoros on Friday. She’s with a local organization named Team Brownsville and with her is a group of volunteers from around the country who have trekked across the international bridge that connects to Brownsville.
They’ve brought over enchilada casseroles with black beans, iceberg lettuce and chocolate chip cookies, as hundreds of people line up in front of them ready to be served.
“We are feeding dinner in the evening, we come every night to feed dinner. Men, women and children are lined up to eat,” said Rudnick. “Right now we have a whole group from Alabama, Colorado and Mississippi.”
Team Brownsville has fed asylum seekers for more than a year. For some migrants, this is the only meal they have throughout the day. Rudnick grew concerned when she heard that the Matamoros government would be opening a shelter for asylum seekers several miles away from the small plaza near the international bridge where they bring food to them.
“My hope is that the Mexican government will feed people at the shelter because we’re really not able to transport food to wherever the shelter might be,” said Rudnick. “Our main focus is here, feeding the people in the plaza, so we will continue to do that and will continue to bring supplies. As long as there are people here we will continue doing it.”
Rudnick and other aid workers said they’re not able to travel away from the International Bridge because they’re concerned for their safety. Matamoros is in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which the U.S. State Department has classified as a level 4 threat because of frequent kidnappings, extortion and murders.
The new shelter is located at a gymnasium at Alberca Chavez, about a 30 minute walk from the Gateway International Bridge.
Migrants also worry they will be forced to move to the shelter.
Gracie, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, said that’s just one of the problems.
“The majority of people don’t want to leave,” said Gracie. “They say they’d prefer to stay here because, I don’t know if it’s true, but people say a woman was kidnapped over there.”
Gracie arrived in Matamoros in August with her 3-year-old son. She said she doesn’t want to go to the shelter because she’s not sure the Mexican government will provide transportation back to the International Bridge for her immigration hearing, or her free legal consultation with U.S. volunteer attorneys.
Another asylum seeker in the encampment said the shelter sounds like a good idea.
Dina is from El Salvador and said she’ll probably end up going to the shelter because she recently endured a cold front that came through and shook the tent she was in.
“Imagine, not being able to sleep, the cold temperatures, the strong winds,” said Dina.
Dina said she knows colder weather is coming and would rather wait it out at the shelter.
Matamoros’ mayor, Mario Lopez, said the original plans were to house asylum seekers at a convention center, but those plans fell through. Now the city is looking into a smaller location.
He said the U.S. government isn’t helping them, but he wants people to know the city is doing what it can to help migrants.
“I want to convey confidence that we’re treating them well and that this is a government that is following the policies of the President. And that we have our doors open to migrants and help them so they can get to their destination, which is the United States,” said Lopez.
The Mexican government just started offering basic medical services, food and water for asylum seekers, even though the city has had asylum seekers for more than a year.
The mayor also reiterated that the shelter won’t be mandatory and that they’re coordinating with various entities to ensure migrants get the basic help they need.