A delegation of Chicago-area faith leaders, immigration advocates and state representatives led a protest Wednesday afternoon across the international bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico to Brownsville Texas. The protest was against a new policy that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico — for months, in many instances — while their asylum applications are processed in U.S. immigration court.
The diverse Chicago delegation included Baptist ministers from the West and South Sides of Chicago, Jewish rabbis from the suburbs, pastors from other Christian denominations and two state representatives. They all came together for this trip organized by a queer Mexican woman, Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of PASO West Suburban Action Project.
“This Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or remain in Mexico program, is an illegal program that violates international law and we are here to say no more,” Ruiz-Velasco said.
The group sang and held banners that read, “End MPP” and “Abolish CBP,” a reference to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. During the protest, the delegation walked across the same bridge asylum seekers dream about crossing.
Before the protest, the delegation spent time talking with asylum seekers living in a temporary tent city in Matamoros, Mexico, right next to the international bridge. Hundreds of tents occupy sidewalks and a small plaza in the Mexican border town just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.
Volunteers said there are at least 1,000 asylum seekers and hundreds of their children living there. With little access to water and food, the migrants rely on donations from volunteers — anything from water, food, shoes and baby formula.
The Trump administration launched MPP earlier this year. Before this policy, asylum seekers and their families were allowed to wait for their court hearings inside the U.S. But President Trump said he opposed this practice because migrants would not show up to their court hearings.
Reuters reported that more than 51,000 people have been sent to Mexico since the policy was implemented in January.
Migrants said the number of asylum seekers in Matamoros has nearly tripled in the last couple of months. They said there’s little access to medical services and that kids often get sick. And when migrants get sick, ambulances don’t always show up right away.
On Wednesday afternoon, a 42-year-old woman collapsed as she waited in line to receive a pair of shoes from volunteers. An unforgiving sun, the 90-degree weather and a chronic medical condition gave the woman a heat stroke. Despite numerous efforts to get an ambulance, one didn’t arrive until almost half an hour later.
Later, the woman told WBEZ that emergency medical providers didn’t give her anything and released her back to the camp.
There are hundreds of children of all ages, some are just a few months old. They run around without access to school and some even without shoes.
“The first most striking thing to me, and, I think, to all of us, was the children … so many children here,” said Rabbi Max Weiss of Oak Park Temple B'nai Abraham Zion. “I cannot imagine what they face at home that brought them to the borders of a country with locked doors.”
Illinois state Rep. Lisa Hernandez, D-Cicero, said it is important for elected officials to come to the border so they can see for themselves how this policy is affecting migrants.
“It has been an experience that I believe anyone who is an elected position should witness,” Hernandez said. “The families that are here, it’s not just a humanitarian crisis but a refugee crisis.”
Members of the delegation said the stories they heard and the scenes they witnessed will help mobilize Chicagoans to help end this program.
“I’m going back motivated like never before to go back and educate people in my community,” said Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church on Chicago’s West Side and co-chairman of the Leaders Network.
“When you think it’s just about them, it’s about them and us, and we got to come together,” Acree said. “Nobody is safe until all of us are safe. And we can’t allow their human rights to be violated because it’s them now, and it will be us next.”
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Mony Ruiz-Velasco's last name.